What to Do When the Issue is Not the Issue

Maybe you have already seen this during the holiday season. The family comes together for a meal or to exchange Christmas presents. Family members have driven from a variety of locations in order to be together. Then, someone gets extremely upset.

Why is this person upset? She says she is upset because her children were slighted during Christmas. Or, she might say she is upset because of what Uncle Harry said when she told him about her new job. Perhaps you can see her point of view and even emphathize with her displeasure. Yet, her anger and resentment seem for be over the top for the offense that occurred. You are baffled by the sheer intensity of her anger.

The issue is often not the issue.

If you probe beneath her statements or attempt to understand some of the feelings being expressed, you might see that there is more going on than frustration over Christmas or an Uncle’s comment. Sometimes, a person will focus on something external instead of focusing on what is happening in that person’s own soul. I have seen this for many years in the life of the congregations where I have served. A person might complain about something that happened in the life of the church. Maybe I can understand this person’s displeasure. However, the emotion that is being expressed and the level of sadness and anger may be more extreme and intense than the situation seems to warrant.

Then, I learn that this person is dealing with numerous losses in his life. He lost his job after a business deal went sour. He recently discovered that his adult son is a long time drug user. He is having health problems related to stress and anxiety. His parents are in poor health. He has experienced loss after loss in a short period of time.


The issue is often not the issue.   

M. Craig Barnes has written a fine book entitled The Pastor as Minor Poet . In this book, he suggests that the image of “poet” might be helpful to those who preach and minister in a congregational setting.   

I want to suggest still another image: the poet. I present this not as the normative or even preferred image, but simply as another biblical description of the calling of those who have been blessed with a vision that allows them to explore, and express, the truth behind the reality. Poets see the despair and heartache as well as the beauty and miracle that lie just beneath the thin veneer of the ordinary, and they describe this in ways that are recognized not only in the mind, but more profoundly in the soul. (p. 17)

This means is that we must learn to pay attention to God and at the same time pay attention to people in the messiness of the congregation’s life. Ministry not only requires that we drink deeply of the things of God (through prayer, study, reflection, and our day to day walk with God) but that we pay attention to people. This means that we pay attention not only to the words being said, but to what these words might mean.

This is how I learned to think poetically about my work and myself. It allowed me to dig beneath all of the talk about budgets, personnel, the recruiting of Sunday School teachers, and who was mad at whom, as well as the more personal concerns about relationships and work, in order to enter the deeper realm where theology makes sense. Only then could I speak to the soul of the congregation about the real choices that make an eternity of difference. (p. 19)


Do you recall an experience where you looked beneath the issue only to discover that the real issue was something that was not being expressed? Can you share an example?

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9 thoughts on “What to Do When the Issue is Not the Issue

  1. Jim
    First off I am so excited that I may get to see you at the CEA.

    As I think about this – almost every experience of conflict etc is “an issue is not the issue” one. It usually always goes to feelings/hurts/unmet expectations beneath the issue. At least for me!

    A very real example for me this past year is this. I found myself growing overly attached to a facebook relationship this past summer and realized after being concerned about the issue that I was dealing with an insatiable need for emotional intimacy. The facebook friendship was not the problem, the issue was that I uncovered some big unmet needs from a teenage version of myself that missed her Daddy not being there after he died. I have chosen to meet that need through seeking out emotional intimacy and having made that discovery I was able to handle the presenting issue.

    • Arlene,
      You express what I was trying to say so well. You are right, it does go back to feelings/hurts/unmet expectations beneath the issue. (I would like to stop here and attempt to unpack some of this. The words you have used to describe what is beneath the issue are so important.) How wonderful that you were able to uncover this issue related to your Father’s death as it relates to your own thirst for emotional intimacy. So many people live in vicious cycles of defeat through repeating destructive behaviors and yet never getting to some of the issues that are underneath it all.

      I look forward to seeing you at the CEA. This will be my first time there.

  2. Years ago I was playing on our church softball team and was pulled by the coach (a man I dearly loved and respected). For reasons that floored everyone (and I was the preacher at that church), I walked off the field almost in a rage. As we drove home (the game was still being played) I refused to talk, and stayed angry for several days. Finally my wife asked on day, “What happened about this time of year in your life?” Turns out, it was the anniversary of the death of an uncle of mine who was my closest friend on earth. I was born on his 15th birthday, so we had a special bond through the years. I had a good verbal fight with God (God won) and realized all the anger had been stored for several years over God allowing Tom to die. The peace that came from that “fight” with God remains the deepest peace I’ve ever experienced in my life. And I apologized to my coach / friend.

  3. Discovering what is the deeper issue in another person, means to me to put on/ask the Lord for compassion. My favorite quote on compassion is:“Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” Frederick Buechner If I am allowed or invited in to that person’s life, I support and encourage as they walk through examining their surface and deeper issues. I’m learning not only to listen to what they say, but to ‘hear’ what they are not saying.

    I’m not so good at providing that compassion and listening ear for myself when recognizing any deeper issues with which I need to deal. I’ve been very grateful when the Lord sends someone alongside!

  4. An example of “when the issue is not the issue” is found in M. Craig Barnes own words. “This is how I learned to think poetically about my work and myself…in order to enter the deeper realm where theology makes sense. Only then could I speak to the soul of the congregation…” Having read many of his articles in Leadership Journal over many years, and having responded to several quotes out of this very book about hired Pastors learning to be some sort of spiritual lead poet for the congregation, I know he speaks out of an orientation to pastoring that is loaded with patronizing-expert-higher-calling dynamics that are completely foreign to the NT description of low-position servant leadership dynamic. His whole approach to pastoring is not even the real issue that God has designed for him or anyone else who seeks to be a shepherd. He has taken this undershepherd-just-below-the-chief-shepherd approach handed down to us through many generations of institutionalized forms and added even more nuance and poetry to it. If he understood what is plainly written in simple language from God to His people about shepherding, he would not write the way he does.

    I know there are lots of men out there who love to play the part he lays out, and there are lots more folks who like to play the part of the always dumb, wandering, spiritually helpless sheep who just want the (Biblical) cookies put on the lower shelf for them each week. I pray for the household of faith to wake up and smell the roses of God’s design for His bride.

    I can just see someone who loves institutionalized shepherding the way it is gasping with disbelief at the passion of my confrontation here and thinking: “wow, Tim must have some underlying bitterness or hurt from some pastor in his life…this can’t possibly be the real issue in his life…”

    • Tim, thanks for a very fine and thoughtful comment. You make some very good points. I certainly would not be sympathetic to any kind of ministry that invites the patronizing of believers. So, thanks for stressing this. At the same time, I really do think there is something to be said for the image of poet as a way to handle Scripture and look beyond the surface of the words that are spoken. That ability is certainly not limited to seminary trained ministers (though it would certainly be helpful) but might be useful for all in the body of Christ.