Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Leadership, Criticism and Peacemaking

This week my sermon was on Matthew 5:9: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." Here's a thought I made that I'd like to unpack here: how does a leader handle criticism with a peacemaking spirit. Obviously it is more than just leaders who need this skill but I think if leaders can master it in the church, the rest will follow.

Handle criticism peaceably. It’s funny, some of the blog I read talk by younger pastors will talk about the vision of the church. They will say things like, if you are leading you’ll always have someone opposing you. The better posts try to encourage pastor—and I’ve thought to myself ‘I am so thankful for the love I feel here’ [at my church]. But a few of them tend to see criticism as a badge of honor—and so you’ve got to set your heart like flint. “You’re even more in the right because your being criticized. Your vision is from God because there are critics.”
Now some balance this out with careful thought, but it surprises me how rarely the leadership bloggers even raise the question: "Could me critic be right?" In fact, criticism is rarely 100% right or 100% wrong. Criticism is often not an entirely zero sum: to the degree that I am in the right, my critique is in the wrong. In the same way, there is almost never a critic whose motives are entirely evil or ungodly. They may be immature and they may be handling pent up frustrations in manners that are wrong, ineffective or both. Yet, you job is ultimately to work towards making peace and to live at peace with critics as much as it depends on you. So do you handle it, diffuse it, or do you by stubbornly and pridefully holding your ground pour fuel on the fire.

So before any questions of: is this critic right, we should be listen. James 1:19 "This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger;"
It is true: there are always false sheep or immature brethren who are misled or distracted.
However: we need to listen to our critics. We need to seek peace, even when they do not want peace. We do not automatically become more resolute in our ways because of criticism. Some criticism will force us to take a principle stand: “I can’t do this.” But in most criticism there is some motive, some reason, that if you can get to the bottom of it, you can agree with it.
My mentor always told me that usually at the heart of every criticism is some core that if you can agree with it, no matter how misguided their current expression. Granted, there are some in the church who are unwilling to submit to leadership. There is always someone in the pew who thinks they can do things better than this leader or that leader. But most criticism comes from a legitimate concern somewhere at the bottom of it. Your job is to assume the best intentions before jumping to conclusions.

We need to try to root out where there is legitimate concern and identify it. Maybe we do have a principle we cannot compromise, but we can acknowledge we poorly executed our principle. Don't compromise where you can't. But be care: the church is not about "your vision." "Your vision" no matter how God given and passionate you are about it--most time we are taking about faithful application of non-negotiable.

Let me give an example: let's say you decide that it is best for your church to get rid of Sunday school and begin small groups. The unchanging value should be: are we best teaching the Word of God and growing disciples? But a member might accuse you of not "caring about training up the children." You are convinced that your way will accomplish more. But how do you handle their criticism?

Do you assume you are right? You are the leader and God has guided you? You are not Moses and they are not the son of Korah. (1) Maybe you have to better explain how a new model [which is negotiable] can better serve the function. You can affirm that not training children an abandoning them would indeed be wrong. You've found the core where you can identify. (2) Maybe it is not the time for change. You cannot always push ahead with a stubborn 'let the chips fall where they may'. Your job is not only to lead but patiently shepherd too. This why Scripture instructs:
2 Timothy 2:24-25 24 The Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth,
Do we have this sort of attitude with critics or do we wear them like a badge of honor: the more right I am, the more I critics I will have. Criticism always affects the pastor/leader. But just because it tears at us emotionally doesn't mean we have done our best to handle it peaceably or that we have truly tried to listen to our critics heart and find out where they are coming from.
Making peace with a critic entails hearing their concern, identifying where you can. Acknowledging where they may be right. Acknowledge where you may be wrong, or where you may have poorly applied your principles without compromising your principles.

Dan Doriani writes, “Guessing other people’s motives is a prime way to subvert our peace, especially since, by some perverse impulse, we tend to make the most negative, self-damaging guesses. Instead, let us remember that if we have peace with God, we can free ourselves of worry about lesser things.” Sermon on the Mount, 34.
There are times when a leader cannot keep the peace because the actions are outside of his control. So for example, you cannot comprise God's Word or subvert the gospel for the sake of peace. But most times criticisms are about why or how we are doing something. We are not infallible either--we may be operating with the right motives but going about it the wrong way or not making our goals and vision clear. Indeed, we may not be acting as Biblically as we first assumed. Remember Reheboam made the mistake of surrounding himself by 'yes' men and to his detriment ignored the advice of those who disagreed from his position. He could have made easy peace with the people and lead them successful but he stubbornly refused.

Living at peace means we are very careful about jumping to conclusions about a persons motives. Most times critics in the church, no matter how immature we might find them, somewhere down in their heart there is some element of motive that is good. We need to assume the best of motives until we are absolutely certain their are ungodly motives. This means as long as there is reasonable doubt we are obligated to take it. Since I cannot read the heart, rare are the circumstance where I can impugn nothing but ungodly motives.
I’ve been in situations where I’m between two conflicting opinions and some will say something like “They want to do this because”… and then they make some sort of negative statement about motives. You see it in politics if you listen to some commentators the Democrats want to reform health care because they are in league with the Nazis and they are secretly communists. –I would venture that the large majority have good intentions. Some may have some misguided views of trumping up their own power; but it is hardly a conspiracy. They same is true about what most liberal say about the Tea Party movement.

As Christian, we need to stand above this and live peaceably. Living peaceably does not mean we do not exercise our convictions. It does not mean we do not stand our principles. A church doesn’t give up the gospel so we can live at peace with wickedness. But our battles are spiritual and must be fought with love for the truth combined with love for the person.
So when you have a critic is your goal real peacemaking, or do you consider this a test of your metal? We are not to set our heart like flint and assume our validity just because we have a critic. Many of our Biblical heroes in the Bible like David, Nehemiah, Jesus and Paul had their critics and their ungodliness was exposed. Yet inside the church, the presence of a critic against you does not automatically set you in the right as a leader. Even if you are in the right--is your goal to press ahead or to win your brother/sister through making peace?

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