Stephen Covey told the story of being on a subway when a man and his three children got on the same car in which he was riding. The young children were loud, boisterous and generally out of control. They were disturbing everyone else on the subway, and the father did nothing. He just sat there with his head down. Finally, in exasperation, Covey asked the man if he could do something to control his children. The man looked up and apologized. He then said, “We are just coming from the hospital where their mother just died. They don’t know what to do, and I suppose I don’t either.”

Of course, that changed everything. Consternation gave way to compassion. Condemnation gave way to caring.

This cautionary tale serves to remind us that we seldom know what is going in the life of another person. Who among us has not been to a church meeting where someone said something that was out of character or where they seemed distracted or out of sorts? When might that have been us? 

I became aware this week that I felt like I had been enveloped in a cloud of sadness. There is no other way to describe it. Initially, I wasn’t sure why this was so; but looking back over the last two weeks, it is easy to see why it happened. Three close friends are facing serious health challenges. My last living uncle is in the hospital with a serious illness. A dear older friend died this week. Coming to the end of my most recent wonderful tenure as interim pastor became real. My wife is selling her business, which has been a big part of our lives for the last 18 years. A church I have come to love is so divided that they have failed to get enough votes to call a new pastor…for the second time in a row. The wife of a ministerial colleague died. Any one of those by itself might have had some impact, but it is the cumulative effect that weighs us down.

As I have reflected on these dark feelings, I have wondered how many times I became frustrated with someone who seemed distant or distracted without my knowing what was going on in their life. In a recent church meeting, it felt like a certain person was hijacking the meeting by taking us off task repeatedly. Eventually, I came to understand that she had been deeply hurt by the actions of someone else, and she was looking for some much-needed affirmation. The fact is that we do not often know the what is going on in the life of another. So, what do we do in situations like this?

The two things I hope I will do going forward are to practice patience and to make no judgments. Patience does not come easily for me. As my daughter often reminds me, my body language gives me away. Whether it is counting to ten or taking a deep breath or just keeping my mouth shut, I need to allow another person to be who they are and to feel what they may be feeling in the moment. 

The Bible admonishes us to leave judgment to God. But human nature leans the other way. We can find ourselves in a circumstance like Covey did. We often judge a person without knowing their current reality…without knowing the burden they may be carrying…without knowing the harm we might to do them with our words or actions. 

The church is meant to be a safe place for everyone, whether in a Sunday School class or in a church committee meeting. We will help to insure that safety when we practice patience and withhold judgment from those who may seem distracted. Who knows? They may simply be sad.

Mike Queen
A native of West Virginia, Mike Queen, has served churches in North Carolina the last 36 years. Recently retired after twenty-five years as pastor at First Baptist Church in Wilmington, NC, Mike, along with his colleague Jayne Davis, has founded a ministry of encouragement called Hopeful Imagination to work with traditional churches dedicated to finding God’s way in a changing world. Mike and Bobbie, his wife of 45 years, live in Wilmington and they have continued their ministry by serving as interim pastor in other NC churches. He is a consultant for CHC and a co-coordinator for CHC-Carolinas.