When Words Hurt

Most people when they see me probably think I don’t care what other people think. I have to admit, I project that. I have gotten better at letting things bounce off me and not stick, but the truth is I am a sensitive soul and I take things more personally than I should more times than not.

But what can really compound the hurt feelings for me is when I don’t know who is saying it. You see if someone disagrees with me or has a critique I want to engage them. I want to understand where they are coming from so I can better understand their disagreement or critique. I want to share with them why I am who I am or why I believe what I believe.

However, anonymity doesn’t allow for that. Every pastor gets them. You know those notes placed in the offering or slipped in the office mailbox. Those notes that critique. Those notes that say someone is not happy with you or the way you present yourself. Those notes that lack a signature or a name.

Those notes that carry with them a deeply cutting arrow that pierces the skin, the heart, the soul and leaves wounds at every level. When a name is attached you know that person. You have an experience with that person that helps you to understand where they are coming from. You can identify what is being said and possibly why it is being said. When there isn’t a name, it is like a buried land mine that you don’t see and all the sudden explodes leaving you writhing in pain. You didn’t see it coming. You don’t know how to avoid it. You don’t know what to do with that pain.

People always tell me those notes should just go into the trash can and be forgotten, but even in that action the words still hang. The words have already penetrated and hurt. Even seemingly harmless words carry so much damage when done anonymously.

Pastor Justin-
We have nothing against you as a person, but think more dignity should be shown at the 9 am service. Hanging onto a bottle (as a prop) during the sermon is not acceptable, nor is telling jokes during the service. As a pastor you should be properly dressed (shirt and tie)(no blue jeans) and lets put a little formality into going to church. Could you stand for the sermon?

I shouldn’t be so bothered from a note like this, but the words hurt. Mostly because it conveys a sense that person believes I don’t properly revere God at this worship service. It hurts because I can’t engage the person and explain and ask further questions. I can let go of most of these critiques because some of them aren’t even close to the norm (like what I wear which usually is what that person is wishing I wore (shirt, tie, khakis, and suit coat or sweater). What I can’t let go of is this: why can’t the person sign their name? Why can’t they engage in a conversation by owning their feelings? Why am I the one receiving the note when everything that has been leveled as a critique in this note also applies to the other minister? Why me?

In the end two things help me process these moments. (1) The realization that this person is more than likely writing from a place of uncomfortableness with the way church (and the world) has changed and longs to have the comfortable world they once knew back. This is their way of processing. (2) In these moments I have to remind myself that I serve God and that my faithful following of Christ and leading under God’s guidance is what matters. In these moments I have to remember that Christ looks beyond blue jeans, water bottles, humor, and sees my heart and knows where it stands. I have to remember that Christ loves me.

P.S. It kind of sucks to have this as the beginning of Holy Week sitting in your box, but in a way I needed it to really remind me of how much I depend on God’s love and how thankful I am for the way that God came down to show me and others what Agape looks like.


Criticism: Is it Killing the Church?

If there is one thing that the church (and perhaps all of society) is filled with it is this: criticism. Let’s admit it. We are really good at critique. We critique our experience of worship. We critique our leaders. We critique ourselves. We critique.

There is always something we could have done better. There is always something more we could do. There is always something that wasn’t quite good enough.

Well guess what: criticism is killing the church. Yes, I am going to just come out and say it but criticism is a problem for us. (Yes, I get that in righting this post it is a critique of how we critique) Analysis is an important part of life for individuals and equally for institutions. We only change and get better if we are analyzing how we are doing, but I have noticed a trend that often our “de facto” position is one of negative critique rather than starting with positive analysis.

I understand this first hand because of my experience in my first church. I can admit that much of what I wrote about in the above paragraphs aptly describes my own “de facto” analysis of the world around me, but I have begun to see how life draining this can be both personally and to those around me. I can quickly see the possibilities that exist within the church and it was no different in that first appointment. My mistake was using negative critique rather than starting from positive analysis. Want to guess how my first 1.5 years there went? The church was miserable and I was miserable. We got stuck in a rut together because we were full of attitudes of what was wrong. However, thanks to some guidance from my district superintendent I began to celebrate what we were doing well and the attitude within the church began to change and my attitude began to change.

I see this in my children also. My oldest son struggles with reading. When I work with him on his reading my instant reaction is to point out when he says a word wrong. Want to guess what happens? He gets discouraged and thinks he can’t do it and this in turn frustrates me and the cycle continues. The frustrating part for me is that I know he can do it. However, I am part of the problem because of the way I work with him. (Something I am working on from a parenting perspective) He feels the pressure and it causes him to “not want to fail.” This is different than him “wanting to succeed.” It really is like the “half empty glass” or “half full glass” perspectives. About a month ago when I was walking with Micah to school we played a game.  I would point to something and say what it was and have him try to spell it. It was a playful time and my attitude was much different than when I would work with him on homework. Instead of pointing out how he was wrong, I would celebrate when he spelled it correctly (these were some tough words) and when he got it wrong I told him how close he was and how his thinking was right but this word was tricky and then told him how it was spelled. I noticed something different in his attitude as we did this. Instead of being de-motivated and wanting to just be done with it, Micah was motivated and wanted to continue the game. The only difference was I was using positive analysis rather than negative critique.

I really have begun to look around and have started taking note of the way we say things and the way we write things within the church. I am noticing that a significant majority of our writing comes from a “negative critique” stance and I wonder if it isn’t part of what is killing us as a church (both from an inside and outside perspective). Could it be that something so simple as changing our attitudes and the way we interact with one another and lead within the church could be the key to “renewal?”  I am beginning to think so and I am personally working on this myself as a leader within the church and as an individual. (Something that is very difficult and will take serious reflection and practice) I believe we all want the same thing. We all want to see the church be everything that the church can be. We all want to see the world transformed through the church living into its mission of participating in God’s making of disciples.

Perhaps this is part of the “adaptive challenge” facing the church. Perhaps it isn’t about “technical things” like small groups, contemporary music options, and great leaders but rather about our attitudes in leadership and within the church.  What do you think? As you think about this, I would love for you to take note of the things you read and what you hear from leaders and others. As you take note, try to notice the underlying attitude of the communication: is it “positive analysis” or is it “negative critique.”


Leadership Summit Reflections

*image via virtualschooling.files.wordpress.com

The United Methodist Church held a webcast yesterday to discuss our latest commissioned study that resulted in the Call To Action Report. I watched the webcast from my office while interacting with others on twitter via the tag #umclead. The reaction to the report/presentation I think is best summed up this way: the twitterverse wasn’t to sure that the “drivers” and statistical accountability is the answer to our problem.

To be honest I understand many of their sentiments. I don’t believe the presentation was meant to be taken this way, but it really did come off as an institutional survival presentation rather than a call to be a movement. (even though this was explicitly stated by Bishop Palmer within the Q & A portion)

Here is what I think most people heard: Dashboards are the key. Now I know that this isn’t want the report or the presenters are really saying, but that is what many people heard. I have to admit it did seem that we were being told the problem is that we haven’t been accountable to the statistics and if we were we could address the problem and that is where I have a slight pause. The problem is still there. The statistics might help us recognize a problem exists and try to address it, but the “Call to Action” then just ends up telling us what we already knew: there is a problem.

The telling moment came when a question from the Congo was shared: “What is God’s vision for the UMC?” That was the heart of the matter that people were looking for and that was still left unanswered. I think Bishop Palmer and the others hinted at an answer with the assertion to return to being a movement, but there was no direction/vision for how to do that. I was left asking this question over and over in my head: “Is the UMC willing to die for the sake of the Gospel? If not we may have a disconnect?”

If our questions continue to center around the UMC and its survival, I feel we will never return to a movement. I don’t believe movements are about creating an establishment/institution and then making sure it survived. A movement, in my estimation, is willing to do anything, even cease to exist, if it can accomplish its goal. Which brings me to my question again: Are we willing to let go of our own survival as an institution and focus on what God has called us to do? What if we trusted that God would provide and looked instead on what we have been given and how we can best be stewards of those gifts?

What if we stopped asking what was wrong or what is missing and instead focused on what is right and what we already have (which is enough in my estimation)?

My parting thought is this: The UMC needs God but God doesn’t necessarily need the UMC and until we recognize that I think we will continue to struggle and fail to be a movement.