When faced with criticism, is how we respond reflecting the grace of God and the person of Jesus?
The service had gone well, and I felt that welcome feeling of grateful weariness, the warm glow that comes when you sense as a leader that perhaps you've helped people to walk into another day with a few more handfuls of hope. I strolled to the back of the church building to my book table, ready to pack things away. It was then that I saw it. The note was folded exactly in half, and stood crisp and upright on the book table, militarily demanding attention. My name was scrawled in an angry address across the front of it. Something told me that this was not an epistle of warm appreciation. I was right. A familiar dread turned my stomach to lead as I reluctantly unfolded the note, its creases razor sharp.
Jeff Lucas - International author, speaker and broadcaster
The words within were sharper still. I had obviously angered somebody in the congregation, who were certainly not used to the approach that I take to preaching. I love humour – but not all Christians share my desire to smile, and neither do they have to; it's just a shame that some of them become the joyless police, eager to arrest anyone who might possibly be having just a tiny bit more fun than they are, which isn't hard. Would you, my dear and inquisitive reader, like to read the note? Okay.
"Sir, we would see Jesus, not your comedy act and nonsensical gibberish. You can't win soul to Jesus with all that rubbish. You are not a preacher - you are a comedian. You have missed your calling". The terminal diagnosis concerning me was unsigned. This person – or persons – who felt constrained to announce my utter worthlessness had not chosen to reveal their identity.
I folded the note back in half, my heart heavy within my chest. I do know what I'm called to do, and I've been around long enough to know that not everyone is going to like it. The privilege of leadership carries with it the unwelcome moments when we will feel the bitter string of criticism. But the wildly scrawled note had the effect of a missile on my own sense of hope, blowing my joy to smithereens.
It's never enjoyable to be criticised – particularly when it comes wrapped in the cowardly garb of an anonymous letter, an envelope stuffed with verbal barbed wire. These days, if a letter comes unsigned, I won't give it undeserved dignity by reading it. If the person who wrote it does not have the moral backbone to sign it, then why should I trouble myself reading the fruit of their spineless lack of conviction?
D.L. Moody once received an anonymous letter while preaching. The usher placed a note on the pulpit, which Moody opened, to discover the single word "fool!" written thereon. Moody had a brilliant response, and I wish that I were half as quick.
Holding the letter up, Moody said, "I've received some strange letters in my time, and many of them are written by people who write the note and then leave it unsigned. This is the first letter that I've got where the person forgot to write the note and just signed their name...".
Moody closed the note, and waves of laughter rolled across the congregation as they celebrated their leaders wit in the face of such acidity. Apparently, it was a great moment.
But hold on. Are there times when we leaders are criticized, and too quickly rush to conclude that our critics are just fools? Write off the critic too quick, and you could be ignoring an unwelcome gift of God to you.
Blinded by our passion to follow what we perceive is a God-given mandate, we brush off words of caution and correction as being born of a lack of faith
Visionary leaders often find it very difficult to receive even the most constructive criticism. Blinded by our passion to follow what we perceive is a God-given mandate, we brush off words of caution and correction as being born of a lack of faith – or worse, we gleefully suggest that our critics are speaking as unwitting agents of satan..
We then move to the place where anyone who speaks with a dissenting voice themselves becomes the enemy, even though they may actually be expressing the true faithfulness and commitment that only comes from the best of friends.
The problem is further compounded if the criticism comes in the high-pitched messiness of an unhelpful attitude. The critic is angry, upset, maybe even spiteful, and so we conclude from the way that the message is delivered that therefore the message itself must be wrong, which is like ignoring a letter because the envelope is torn.
We get deeper into the fog when we endeavor to use the issue of local church unity as a weapon to silence dissent. We brand anyone who asks a question as awkward, or worse still, an agent of division. I am staggered by the way that Christian leaders sometimes describe those who have left the churches that they lead. "God is just purifying the body", they affirm with smug smile, branding the departing people as dross. The worst example of this in my memory was a leader who wrote off some people that had left the church with the words, "Well, of course, every healthy body needs a bowel movement once in a while" – an arrogant, devastating belittling of people as being little more than effluent. Outrageous.
Let's face it, none of us enjoy criticism, and there are many times when it is unjust, hurtful, a slap in the face for the already weary. Some leaders react as they do to criticism because they are just so punch drunk, so shattered from the years of so called friendly fire that they just can't take anymore. But just as pain is unwelcome, yet is actually the gift of God to us if we have placed our hand on a hot stove – and remember that the absence of pain is the blight of the leper – so criticism may be the signaler that we hate to see, but may just save our lives.
I still encourage you to ignore unsigned letters, as long as you have not created a culture in your church where people are too scared to identify themselves with even the most constructive criticism. But, whoever you are, leader or not - be careful about badging your next critic as a fool too quickly. He or she could turn out to be the most faithful friend you have.
Jeff Lucas is an international speaker, writer and broadcaster. He divides his time between working from his home in the South of England and his job as Teaching Pastor at Timberline Church, Colorado. His bestselling books include There Are No Strong People, Seriously Funny (co-written with Adrian Plass) and Up Close and Personal.
Images courtesy of CWR and Kpwerker (used under Creative Commons)
August 14th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Jeff Lucas