Thick Skin & Good Filters

Since I am a pastor of a church, I guess that I’m a leader. I didn’t set out to be, and I often feel that my leadership “skills” are lacking. No one is writing books, or even blogs, about me. I’m certainly not getting any invites for councils, boards, committees, or speaking engagements.

Part of this is intentional. I enjoy those types of things (well, some of them anyway) and certainly feel that I might have something to offer in the right context. I would particularly enjoy speaking engagements, as I think that I’m pretty good at the podium. Cue music–shameless self-promotion.

Some of this is by my choice, because that’s not my journey. I’ve been called to a wonderful and difficult place to do ministry, as the tasks around our church are so great that it is often overwhelming. I don’t have as much time as I would like to engage beyond the confines of the south end of Augusta Street.

I’ve only been working at it for about 10 months, but it has been a lot of fun in spite of the challenges. (Actually I find that work without challenges is no fun at all).

The problem is that we’re winding down the “honeymoon” and getting into the hard work. Oh, we’re still having fun. But the real test of our renaissance will come over the next few years, when we find out if God has filled us with a spirit to go through the grind.

The “honeymoon” illustration isn’t always a good one for pastors, or other leaders, but it works here. Like a marriage, the issue isn’t how you can get through the engagement or the wedding or the trip to Bermuda or even the first few weeks. The question is:  How can you get through it when you’re past all that and the real work begins?

What often happens to any leader with a “honeymoon” experience–good or bad–is that things get tough when the call comes to start building on those experiences. Maybe you have good things and you need to do better things; or maybe you’ve battled through a tough start. But at some point, you have to turn the corner and start doing the work, day in and day out.

What makes that so hard? Because it means criticism. Even if people led you “slide” a little at the start, they will eventually discover your flaws and start pointing them out. If you are attempting to DO something, no matter how Godly and Spirit-driven it may be, people are eventually going to find fault.

And if you want to keep going forward, you’ll learn to listen.

Let me be clear that criticism is very much justified, at least of me. There are plenty of places to poke holes in my game, no matter how much I don’t really want to hear it. When we find those critics, we are better off to seek value in their criticism instead of getting defensive.

I’m not talking about listening to hate speech or bitterness that some people have to endure. Take a look at the pictures on this blog if you want an idea of the kind of vitriol that is not just criticism:  http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/origami-hate-mail.

(Just a side thought here:  If you think someone is spreading evil and falsehood in their blog, then why do you keep reading their blog or listen to their sermons, much less bother writing them a letter?)

A lot of pastors and other Christian leaders don’t just avoid criticism. They outright ignore it. Don’t care. Will tell you that they don’t care. “I’m the pastor and what I say goes.” Or “I’m cooler and more popular than you so why should I care what you think?” Or “I’m the authority on Christ even if I’m just making this up as I go, so should your mouth!”

If you are following people that won’t hear criticism, then you need to find someone new to follow.

I repeat:

If you are following people that won’t hear criticism, THEN YOU NEED TO FIND SOMEONE NEW TO FOLLOW.

Let’s be honest, none of us like criticism or want criticism. We often get defensive and “buck” back against our critics. Not all criticism is valid, and some of it gets lobbed at the person in the pulpit, or on the book cover, or on the blog title simply because they are the easiest target.

And sometimes people just don’t like you. Hard for us to believe, but there are always going to be people that don’t like you. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that criticisms should be tossed aside like garbage.

How can we possibly get better if we never hear our critics? What is out there to challenge us if we don’t recognize our imperfections or things that we need to improve?

It’s our job as pastors/leaders to have a thick skin and good enough filters to syphon the critics that come our way; reflect (always); respond (if necessary); and react (if possible) to the criticism. The one thing that is not acceptable is to arrogantly dismiss it or just flat-out ignore it.

I suspect that I will hear a lot more of this over the next few years, and may hear more of it from outside my congregation than within (they’re pretty patient and loving at Augusta Heights, characteristics not always found in churches). I KNOW that I am a long way from perfect, and there will never be a day or time when I can’t find something to improve.

While I’m prone to get defensive about it, I need to get over that inclination because criticism is an opportunity to be held accountable and get better.

Look for personal and church leaders who engage criticism rather than running from it. If you find someone who acts as if they are ABOVE criticism, then run from them. We are all accountable to God and to one another, and being a pastor/church leader absolutely does not make you immune from criticism!

If your leaders plan to hold you accountable, then they had better be willing to hear some criticism and be accountable themselves. If they’re too “perfect” to do that, then they really don’t understand Christ that well in the first place.

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