Thursday, October 16, 2008

Have you or your church been criticized?

Churches are targets for criticism. That seems like one of the grandest of ironies. The God-ordained institution that offers the love, grace and peace of Jesus Christ gets shot at on a regular basis. Maybe it's not so ironic, Jesus was criticized too.

The size of your church doesn't matter. Small churches get shot at just as much as mega-churches. The difference is that the criticism of mega-churches ends up in blogs, newspapers and even on TV. The government will critique the church's non-profit status. The secular community will question motives of churches. But the majority of criticism for the local church comes from within. It comes from Christians. Now that is ironic.

In most churches, lives are being changed, people are getting baptized and Jesus is lifted up! And of course, there is always some criticisms. A few of the complaints can be legitimate.

But the curious thing is that very few, if any, visitors who are not Christians have complaints of any kind. They attend and are thankful for a great experience. They are inspired by the music and teaching. They know something is different. Even if they don't know much about God, they have a sense of His presence.

They are blown away if you have a Starbucks for the connoisseurs and free coffee for those who just want something strong and hot. They get giddy when they learn they can take their drink into the service and there are cup-holders in the chairs! They are thrilled to learn that the CD's of the messages are free and that the church provides a world-class environments for their kids ... free!

The majority of criticisms come from Christians. I'll give you a few:
- No enough parking close enough to the door of the church.
- The music is too loud.
- They can't bring their pre-school aged child into the adult worship experience.
- They don't know the songs (because they never listen to Christian radio).
- The lights are too bright or too low.
- They don't like drums in church.
- The worship service is not designed like it was in the "good old days."

As a leader you know that criticism is often an indication that you are doing something right. But let's be honest, it can still wear on you. Don't let the complaints get to you. Hang in there. What you are doing is important. It matters. Your church is not perfect. No church is. And neither are the people who are attending. That's kind of the whole point. The following thoughts will help you navigate the weary world of critiques in the local church.

Absorb criticism with grace.

Each time someone criticizes something I do my best to absorb it with poise, sincerity and grace. It takes less energy to absorb it than it does to fight it. I do my best to give the person the benefit of the doubt and assume they have the church's best interest at heart, even when it's apparent that's not the case.

This can be difficult because criticism never ends, even in the best of churches. People with a strong personality can wear you out and get you on the defense. This is not so much because you are defensive, but its part of a natural human (protective) response system to something that threatens to continually drain you of energy (and sanity!). So as you listen with grace, remind yourself that you are not held hostage to respond to every complaint, nor make everyone happy.
Taking criticism comes with the territory of being a leader. Leaders make changes and do things that disturb or remove people's comfort zones. That will always get a response from people. It will not serve you well if you are thin-skinned about criticism. Don't take it personal. It may feel personal, but try to stay focused on the issue. If it turns personal, that's different, and the topic of another edition of the Pastor's Coach. But for now, just turn the other cheek.

Learn from criticism and take action when you can.

The good news is that as a leader you can learn from complaints. I genuinely give it my best to learn whatever I can from every complaint. First I listen for the obvious. Sometimes someone will see something that is clearly a problem and needs to be fixed - and I just didn't see it. So hey, that's great! I thank them, and set about discovering a solution. Second, I look for patterns. When I get complaints that are subtle and more subjective in nature I give it a little time and see if others bring up the same issue. If I hear the same thing several times I lift the urgency for a solution.

Sometimes a legitimate issue will come up that requires improvement or change. But you don't have the time or resources to get it done right then. Just be honest about that. Tell the person you agree and as soon as time and resources are available you will be on it. Sometimes the person will jump in and offer to help. Great! Sometimes we must all agree there is a problem but the solution must wait. Other times there is an urgency that demands a more immediate response. Your leadership will help people understand the best and wisest timing.

Ignore criticism when you need to.

It's important to discern if it's a productive criticism or if it's an expression from someone with a critical spirit. If it's a critical spirit, especially a chronically critical spirit, just ignore it. Listen to them the first few times, and then let them know that you just don't want to hear it. The most loving thing to do is confront the person for their critical spirit. Be honest. Let them know that they have a pattern of being unhappy, complaining and candidly behaving in a selfish manner. Do not let these people control your life. If you let them control you they will. If they get mad and leave, so be it. It's not that you want them to leave, but you can't allow them to drain the life out of you and thereby hurt your overall ministry efforts.

Teach those who criticize when you have the opportunity.

This can be the trickiest of all four points. But here's my heart behind the thought. If you consistently receive criticism with grace, and you are genuinely receptive to learning from criticism, then you have earned the right to teach, when appropriate, those who offer criticism. These are not often pairs that travel together in the same circumstance, but that is one of the many ways we all have the opportunity to remain humble.

It is not uncommon that a criticism comes from a lack of understanding. For example, we get asked why we don't have a salvation altar call every Sunday. Sometimes the question comes with passion and fervor! As we begin to add clarity and understanding to the issue the person not only eases up some but joins us in our enthusiasm for offering salvation invitations based on a strategic Sunday in each teaching series. When we further talk about how people come to faith in small groups or in one to one scenarios every week, they begin to see things in a different light. Then when they come to a baptism service and see so many people getting baptized the big picture starts to become clear. So turning a criticism to a teaching moment or process, though time consuming, it's worth your time.

The nature of criticism can be extremely draining, but if you receive it with grace, stay focused on the productive criticism, and ignore the rest, criticism can be a good thing and a blessing in disguise.

[Dan Reiland]