Wesley's First Rule for Pastors: Do No Harm

John Wesley had three rules for pastors. The first was "do no harm."

Wesley's First Rule for Pastors: Do No Harm
Doug Reed
Jan 18, 2024

John Wesley had 3 rules for pastors:

  1. Do no harm.
  2. Do good.
  3. Attend upon the ordinances of God.
  4. You’ll notice the first of these is “Do no harm.” A pastor’s call is, so much of the time, a call to resist the urge to do things. When there is strife, do not escalate it. When there is pain, do not intensify it. Even good intentions can hurt people, and discernment is required when pastoring a church.

At the same time, God has granted you as a pastor authority to handle situations that require de-escalation.

As pastoral or lay leaders in your church, have you ever been faced with the challenging situation of a church member or someone from your community showing up for weekend worship services and you could tell immediately that something was not right?  Perhaps they were unusually disheveled or unkempt.  They might be confused or disoriented.  Their speech or physical body movements may have been erratic.  It was clear that they needed help, and they came to your church seeking such help.

What would you do?  After all, you have a service to lead.  Physically take them out of the church?  Tell them they are being disruptive, and they need to leave immediately?  Call your local police authorities?

Unfortunately, this situation plays out increasingly each weekend in churches around the county.  We live in a broken world, and many see their local church as a place of refuge from this brokenness.

Although our immediate response should be one of compassion, it is crucial to recognize that there is no “one size fits all” solution for every situation.   When dealing with escalating emotions it is essential to consider the unique individual, the circumstances, and the broader context of the situation.

De-escalation is a valuable technique to employ when confronted with violent or aggressive behavior.  De-escalation involves transferring your sense of calm and authentic interest in what the person wishes to communicate by employing respectful, clear, and boundary-setting measures. Who is God calling you to be for this person in this moment? The Holy Spirit is empowering you and has given you the authority to take a step back, and to lovingly say “no.”

The following tips, drawn from the Crisis Prevention Institute and the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, can serve as a valuable starting point for the de-escalation process:

  • Brokenness is Biblical. As a pastor, you are going to encounter broken people. Start with: “I hear you, thank you for sharing, can we talk for a moment?”
  • Move to a private area. Consider ushering the individual away from public spaces and into a private setting.
  • Show empathy and avoid judgment. Regardless of whether you agree with the person’s feelings, acknowledge that they are real to the individual.
  • Take a step back. And say “Holy Spirit, be with me in this moment.” Then respond.
  • Maintain a neutral tone and body language. As a person loses control, they become less responsive to your words and more reactive to your non-verbal cues.
  • Avoid over-reaction. While you cannot control a person’s behavior, your responses can influence whether the situation escalates or diffuses.
  • Ignore provocative or loaded questions. If someone challenges your authority, redirect their attention to the issue at hand.  Ignore the challenge not the person.
  • Choose boundaries thoughtfully. Carefully evaluate which rules are negotiable and which ones are not.  By offering flexibility, you might prevent an unnecessary conflict.
  • Embrace silence. Allowing moments of silence provides the person with an opportunity to reflect on the situation and consider how to proceed.  

When we receive church members and others during their most difficult times, they expect us to be compassionate, sympathetic, and loving.  But sometimes being loving means that we do not give them exactly what they’re asking for, especially if this might increase the likelihood of harm for themselves or for others. Jesus’ response to being faced with escalated individuals in Mark’s Gospel looked like this: Jesus first provided healing, saving, and a drawing in the dirt before ever responding when asked about the adulterous woman.

Beacon of Light is developing a comprehensive curriculum to equip churches to meet the mental needs of their communities. This often begins with a de-escalation strategy to help quell mental health crises in our midst. In addition to de-escalation, next spring we will be launching programming to help churches address trauma and suicide. Learn more at www.beaconoflightmh.org.