Hurtful Words and Untamed Tongues

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” So many of us were taught this phrase as children. Then we learned how much words hurt us. In fact, Scripture’s description of the human tongue is much more accurate than the saying about sticks and stones: 

How great a forest is set ablaze by a such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of life, and is itself set on fire by hell.For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restlessevil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lordand Father, and with it we curse people, made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth comes a blessing and a curse. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water (James 3:5–12).

I’ve been thinking and praying about hurtful words and untamed tongues, especially those at synod assemblies, for years. As I often do in the weeks after a synod assembly, I spend time reflecting on how we interact with each other in the weeks leading up to a synod assembly, during a synod assembly, and after a synod assembly. As we look back on our recent assembly and towards our next one, I share my reflections, the reasons I’m sharing them now, and how we might respond to hurtful words and untamed tongues.

Synod Assembly

For several years, untamed tongues and hurtful words have attended our synod assemblies. Untamed tongues speak and whisper hurtful words that are heard and overheard at our in-person assemblies. Hurtful words are expressed in emails before, during, and after assemblies. Hurtful words are inputted into the post-assembly survey. Untamed tongues and hurtful words are most often aimed at the bishop, the bishop’s family, and the staff. But the targets are expanding.

Some among us report that our hurtful words and untamed tongues cause them to experience in-person assemblies as traumatic events. The CDC defines trauma as “a physical, cognitive, and emotional response caused by a traumatic event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced as harmful or life-threatening. Trauma can have lasting effects, particularly if untreated.”[i] This definition of trauma rings true of my experience (and that of my family and much of the staff) of the 2019 Synod Assembly and Bishop Election; in response, the staff was advised to engage a therapist and process our shared experience, which we did. The trauma of in-person assemblies is not limited to the staff, my family, and me. If it were, I would not mention it five years later. But like the targets of our hurtful words and untamed tongues, the trauma is expanding.

Well-intentioned church folk offer the advice many church leaders receive—develop a thick skin, don’t let things bother you, understand that hurtful words and untamed tongues come with public leadership in the church. People downplay the reality by asserting that this is just how insert name behaves, that this is who we are as a synod, that synod assembly always brings out the worst in us, and that naming any of this will negatively impact my ministry. 

My experience of the 2019 Synod Assembly and perceived threats to my call caused me to be afraid and my fear caused me to try even harder to develop a thick skin, not let things bother me, and accept hurtful words and untamed tongues as who we are as a synod. I told myself, since I am often the topic of untamed tongues and the target of hurtful words, to call them out would be self-serving. I know pastors and deacons who tell themselves this same thing about the hurtful words uttered about them in the congregations they serve.

“Well, That Ends Right Now.”

For several reasons, I determined it’s time to name the reality of hurtful words and untamed tongues, especially after reading some comments in this year’s post-assembly survey.[ii]  First, I am inspired by a scene in Aaron Sorkin’s The American President (1995).[iii] At a press conference, President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) says, “I was so busy keeping my job, I forgot to do my job. Well, that ends right now.” I got caught up in keeping my job at the 2019 Synod Assembly. “Well, that ends right now.” As bishop, I made promises in the presence of God and you. I’d rather explain to God why I was slow in addressing hurtful words and untamed tongues than try to explain why I never addressed them at all. 

Second, not doing something because of fear is its own kind of exhaustion. “Well, that ends right now.” First John declares, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (4:18). Fear can be very imposing. God’s love in Jesus Christ is empowering. So, when we ordain people, we charge them, “Be of good courage, for God has called you, and your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” It’s time I muster my courage and do the work to which God has called me. If calling us to live more fully into our identity as Christ’s body in the world by measuring our words and attending to our tongues “costs”[iv] me this call, so be it. And I am confident the staff stands with me on this one.

Third, I have lingering guilt that I have not done a better job of defending my family and my staff against hurtful words and untamed tongues. “Well, that ends right now.” I apologize to Cathy, Chelsey, and to our staff, especially to David, Rosanne, and their families. A word to the wise: Please, don’t ever again cross me by deriding my family and my staff. Paraphrasing President Shepherd, “[They have] done nothing to you…You want a character debate? You better stick with me, ‘cause [they are] way out of your league.”

Fourth, I am exposed by the Holy Spirit. In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit “the Advocate.” The Holy Spirit does not advocate for us. The Holy Spirit does not advocate for the church. The Holy Spirit advocates for Jesus. One way the Holy Spirit advocates for Jesus is by exposing, even laying bare, the way we fall away and fail to follow Jesus and the self-judgment that comes from the Advocate’s exposure. In John’s Gospel, falling away and failing to follow Jesus is sin. Sin takes many forms, including allowing synod assemblies to become traumatic events by not naming hurtful words and untamed tongues. “Well, that ends right now.” During sabbatical, I sought out a confessor who reminded me that forgiveness leads to amendment of life. So I am following Jesus in this regard.

Fifth, on sabbatical, I realized that I am happier and healthier when I don’t have to absorb a daily dose of often offensive, frequently unfounded derision. I am also lighter when I don’t have to wear either a thick skin or emotional armor. I have a hunch this is equally true for you. I wish we could say of thick skin and emotional armor, “Well, that ends right now.” However, I suspect we will need them. Still, rather than passively gearing up to face trauma, we could at least call a halt to hurtful words and untamed tongues.

What Can We Do?

We can ask ourselves if hurtful words and untamed tongues is truly who we are and if this is who we are content to be. If not, perhaps we can take a moment and prayerfully bite our tongues before we speak. Perhaps we can take a moment and prayerfully fold our hands before we hit send. Perhaps we can endeavor to do as Luther directs in his explanation of the Eighth Commandment and put the best construction on our neighbor’s actions rather than the worst.[v]

Perhaps we can each do our own self-examination. Jesus says, “How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matthew 7:3–5). We might consider what logs in our eyes might invite untamed tongues to utter hurtful words about us. I find people eager to talk to you about me are just as eager to talk to me about you. In this social media saturated, post-pandemic world, people seem to have lots to say about everyone. Christians who live in glass churches ought not throw stones. We certainly ought to make certain our own house is in order before we do.

Perhaps we can seek out people who bring out the best in us. If the people we sit with cause us to misbehave, we can try sitting somewhere else. If we see a table misbehaving, we can pull up a chair and gently help them get back on track. If someone with hurtful words and an untamed tongue approaches the table, we can tell them to go away. At the 2019 Synod Assembly, when people went from table to table offering hurtful words about Cathy, Chelsey, and me, Pastor Betsy Kamphuis told them their “vitriol” was inappropriate, that she didn’t want to hear it, and that they needed to go away. Hurtful words need someone to receive them; the best way to tame a tongue is to not listen. I am grateful that some have shared their commitment to call out and quiet hurtful words and untamed tongues at our next assembly.

James is right: “no one can tame the tongue—a restlessevil, full of deadly poison.” So, when our words are hurtful and our tongues untamed, we can apologize, repent, and commit to do better. Only apologize if doing so won’t cause additional harm. Don’t expect forgiveness, restoration, or reconciliation. Sometimes that’s just not possible. But you have done all you can to remedy the situation and you may find peace with God and in your own spirit.

We can take trauma seriously. James compares the tongue to the spark that causes a forest fire. In the church, it certainly can be. Some experience an additional level of trauma when hurtful words are undeniably traced to the untamed tongues of rostered ministers. It may not be fair, but people expect more of bishops, pastors, and deacons. Rostered ministers might experience trauma because they know colleagues experience firsthand the pain of hurtful words; nevertheless, they unleash their own untamed tongues. Pastors and deacons are often traumatized by the hurtful words that come from the untamed tongues of parishioners they work faithfully and hard to love and serve. 

Our church takes this trauma seriously. In the 2021 revision of “Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline,”[vi] the ELCA Church Council includes “hateful speech,” whether in person or on any kind of social media, as conduct inconsistent with the ministerial office and grounds for discipline. Moreover, “Willful and repeated harassment, abuse, bullying, libel, or slander of member(s) of the congregation [including rostered ministers or staff] are grounds for discipline of a member.” James compares the tongue to the spark that causes a forest fire. The church understands that, sometimes, putting out the fire is the only way to keep the forest from burning down.

The theme of our 2025 Synod Assembly is “Live a Life Worthy of Our Calling.” As part of the order for the Opening of a Synod Assembly, we say: “Live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, making every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” These words are from Ephesians 4:1–3. Perhaps we can begin to live into this theme now by measuring our words and taming our tongues, so our in-person synod assemblies can live up to what many in our synod desire—an occasion of joy for all who gather. This is my prayer.

The Rev. Craig Alan Satterlee, Ph.D., Bishop





[iv] Cf. Luke 14:27–33.



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