I have served my current congregation as a solo pastor for over 10 years. When we began facing the effects of the pandemic in March, I thought I knew the congregation quite well. We’ve been through many ups and downs together over the past decade, and I have worked hard at creating a relationship of trust with them. Yet as the weariness, anxiety, frustration and isolation of the pandemic dragged on, I slowly realized I was getting to know my congregation in a whole new way and vice versa. This is not the congregation I’ve known and cared for over the past 10 years; this is a congregation facing a pandemic, and I’m a pastor inexpertly dealing with a pandemic. As a pastor I have dealt with countless crises over the years, yet I have never dealt with a world-wide crisis that affects every part of our lives, including the ability to gather in our sanctuaries. This is new territory.
After the pandemic hit I began receiving lots of advice about how to improve our shaky foray into online worship services (and how the church down the road was doing it better than us). Soon the advice turned into phone calls and emails full of online worship critiques. Then the criticisms became more personal as people questioned my leadership skills, my perceived lack of connection with members, my preaching ability, and my boundaries. More than once (by separate people on separate occasions) I was told to “put on my big girl pants” and stop being afraid of the virus. Within several months, I faced more criticism than I had in the past 10 years—combined.
I didn’t know how to process the rapid feedback and strong emotions. I internalized some congregation members’ frustrations as a reflection on my inabilities as a pastor and leader. I thought their discontent meant something was wrong (something was wrong—we were in a pandemic). Even though I also received many loving and supportive comments from congregation members, the complaints weighed heavily on me.
In the midst of this upheaval, by the grace of God, I connected with a professional mentor who is well-versed in receiving complaints. In one of our conversations, a light bulb went off in my head and I internalized a new frame for criticism. Frustration from congregation members does not necessarily mean I am doing something wrong; in fact, it may mean I am doing something right. When decisions are made in a group, frustration is a natural part of the process,and decision-making during a pandemic is infuriating because we keep shifting plans according to new information. Most importantly, none of us know how to make decisions during a pandemic. We are learning as we go and learning involves frustration. But we are learning and moving forward, which is an incredible feat in these times.
Here are some practices that help me deal with criticism in real time:
Remember that many people don’t know how to share feedback effectively (see comments about my ability to “put on my big girl pants” above). Not being in a beloved worship space surrounded by people they love, singing comforting hymns, and receiving communion leads some to feel intense grief, loneliness and even anger. It is difficult for people to translate strong emotions into helpful feedback. My job is to hear and acknowledge the emotions, yet also try to find the helpful information behind them that can lead to solutions.
I now challenge myself to move conversations that start with complaints to a more positive place through listening and asking questions. I may gently ask someone to start over and try to re-frame their comments so they contain helpful, direct information aimed at finding solutions. This gives the conversation a common goal, which helps remove a need for power and control from both parties.
Humor can be a great way to diffuse conflict, yet it can also cover up real issues. As a woman I have learned the coping skill of brushing off hurtful and sexist comments with a laugh. It serves me better to repress this urge and respond with earnestness through questions like, “Is that how you wanted to frame your thoughts? Is there a better way we can start this conversation?” With these questions, I am requiring respect but remaining open to the other person’s thoughts. If they cannot move forward respectfully, we may need to talk at another time or include others in the conversation.
My new favorite tool is a big notebook I bring to every meeting and conversation so I can take notes throughout, which helps me to focus on the process of gathering information and finding solutions rather than defending myself. (As a bonus, this allows me to indulge my love of stationery and pens.) It is a physical cue that I’m there to listen. It gives me a job and automatically helps me to “get on the balcony” (see the book Leadership on the Line by Heifetz & Linsky).
My new favorite question is, “Is there anything else I need to know?” Eventually, people will run out of comments to share. If I stay ahead of the comments and try to gather as many as possible, this helps prevent surprise critical calls and emails (these will still happen, but maybe with less frequency).
Most of all, I remind myself over and over again that the level of criticism I am receiving is not an indicator that I am doing a terrible job. It is an indicator that we are in a crisis and we are learning as we go. I have learned to lean more on the congregational leadership to share the weight of difficult decisions in this time. I have learned to be gentle on others and myself. In his recent book Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times, Bishop Michael Curry writes about how he has learned to stand and kneel at the same time when it comes to conflict. In difficult conversations, he kneels with humility, knowing he is not God; yet he also stands, humbly trusting his own thoughts and instincts. I hope to listen humbly, yet also trust that I am doing the best I can in this challenging time.
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