Sticks and Stones and … Words can Hurt You

How we handle and respond to criticism can be the worst and best indicator of our spirituality.

by Cal LeMon

If you are reading this column, you are a spiritual leader. And leaders, since time clicked off that first second, have always been convenient targets.

Have you heard these zingers? “Why don’t you turn up the heat in this sanctuary?” “We are not growing because your sermons are putting people to sleep.” Or the coup de grace, “With what we are paying you, a phone call would have been nice when I was in the hospital last month.”

Words, critical words, scouring words, painful words wound us, and they do hurt.

I am convinced how we emotionally handle and verbally respond to criticism can be the worst and best indicator of our spirituality.

Wake Up and Smell … the Coffin

Dietrich Bonhoeffer caught my attention early in my ministry with his seminal work, The Cost of Discipleship. His words, accented by his subsequent death at the end of a swinging strand of piano wire in a frigid Third Reich prison, continue to reverberate through my spirit, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”

We think we have “died a thousands deaths” when we announced the wrong date for an annual business meeting or cannot remember the name of a person we just baptized last Sunday. We preach about dying with Christ, but that theology makes no claim on us until we have experienced the cost of standing in and speaking for the Son of God.

Does the message of the Cross have any implications for how we respond to members of our spiritual communities who make the accumulation of wealth the ultimate proof of one’s worth? Does the message of the Cross impact our response to child abuse, even though the abuser may be a prominent parishioner? And, how does the message of the Cross craft our reply to overt racial discrimination in our community and/or congregation?

If we genuinely believe our soteriology (the theology of salvation), we will also continuously be in tension with the spirit of the age.

The biblical models of Moses, Elijah, Miriam, Jeremiah, Stephen, and Dorcas portray gutsy spiritual leaders who openly embraced the liabilities of speaking for divinity while clothed in their humanity.

If our faith requires us to speak for Christ, we must be prepared to become the object of someone’s criticism.

The Diversity of the Disagreeable

Criticism in the church comes in a panorama of pain. Specifically, there are three forms of accusatory statements that people usually direct toward pastoral leadership.

First, they do not focus this criticism on a person; rather, their target is the reputation of the worshipping community.

Spiritual leadership may hear, “The church has a long history of being dysfunctional. I guess we really cannot expect much more than mediocrity in the future.”

The intent of this critical approach is to paint, in wide brush strokes, the impossibility of God, or any other divinity, to change the pathetic course of a congregation’s history. The best anyone can do is “hold on until Jesus comes.”

Second, passive-aggressive behavior is the foundation for these critical comments because they usually conclude with, “Well, I pray for you every day in your new approach to worship. But I can tell you, we would have sung twice as many of the old hymns 7 years ago before you became our pastor.”

Notice, passive-aggressive statements leave innuendo in their wake. These often leave the spiritual leader speechless, confused, and even resentful.

The third approach to dispense criticism is the full frontal attack. It is important to note a third party needs to be present to guarantee the effectiveness of this diatribe.

So, be prepared. Those who use this criticism will broadcast it in a church staff meeting, the annual congregational business session, or even the church foyer, preferably when fellow parishioners are exiting after Sunday morning worship.

Users of this criticism base their attack on the premise that faultfinding is much more impactful if triangulation is present. Triangulation is when the criticizer and the person who is the object of the criticism are in the presence of other people. These other people provide the emotional energy and sociological cover needed by the criticizer to make his or her point.

Skills for the Skewered Servant

It is important to note the following are skills, not communicative tricks. People can easily flag tricks as disingenuous, but skills always translate into genuine care for the other person and the situation.

Therefore, the first skill set addresses the appropriate emotional response to an emotionally laden criticism.

If you heard from someone in your ministry, “I was confused by your sermon today. It seemed to me you were not adequately prepared,” what are you feeling right now? What are your emotions if you are on the receiving end of this evaluation of your sermon? Angry? Frustrated? Resentful? Self-deprecating?

Move past these emotions. Respond with, “Tell me more about what I did or did not provide in that sermon that would lead you to believe I was not prepared?”

There are three interpersonal skills you just used with that response. First, you maintained emotional equilibrium by not duplicating the emotion of the speaker. Second, you asked a question instead of making a declaratory statement. And, third, you asked for specific data to know how to improve in the future.

The second skill set is giving status to the resistance. This skill would sound like this, “You know what? As I think about it, Sunday’s sermon should have provided you with more clarity.”

Notice those words affirm only the issue of clarity, but did not confirm you were not prepared.

When you give status to the resistance the end result is always some form of agreement. But, the agreement must be genuine. If you patronize someone with, “You know what? You are exactly right. I am the worst preacher who probably ever stood behind our pulpit,” you will lose your credibility.

Responding with a quick, one-liner sarcastic comeback is beneath your calling and your professionalism. Even if you are amazing with instantaneous, caustic retorts, do not use them.

The final skill is one you already know.

Let’s go back to the public setting for the comment about your preaching. If you are in the presence of other people or if it is just you and the criticizer, ask for time to frame your response.

You might say, “It sounds like you have strong feelings about my ability to communicate God’s Word. I will need until tomorrow morning to work through my thoughts and feelings right now. I would like to get together with you at 9 a.m. for coffee. Will that time work for you? And, thank you for your honest observation.”

My conclusion to this column is a statement I made in the fourth paragraph: I am convinced how we emotionally handle and verbally respond to criticism can be the worst and best indicator of our spirituality.