by Eddie Pipkin

I was on a shopping excursion recently and found myself inadvertently trapped in the Ninth Circle of the-Place-That-Is-Not-Heaven.  I needed a bag of filter material for my pool pump, and the only ones on the shelf were bizarrely in unmarked, unboxed plain brown paper bags.  This utterly stumped the sales associates (all five I eventually talked to on my quest to give them money for a product in their store).  The apex of this (mis)adventure was an exchange with a fellow who initially was helpful, but having floundered, blurted, “Hey man, I don’t know what to tell you.  I work in tools.”  He did not value my response to this statement—and perhaps in retrospect my response was snarkier than I intended.  I mentally replayed the whole exchange later.  Even if I wasn’t wrong, wasn’t rude, and wasn’t unreasonable, maybe my words could have been better?  Ministry involves those kinds of exchanges on a regular and predictable basis.  There’s no reason we shouldn’t be better prepared for them and better rehearsed when a response is required.

Everyone who has worked in ministry either as a vocation or as a volunteer is well aware that critique is inevitable.  No matter how hard you have worked on a project or event, someone is going to criticize it, and they are probably not going to be shy about doing so.  Since this is a fact of ministry life, we should be prepared

Mark Croston offers some tips for how to mentally process our response in an article on the Lifeway website:

  1. Expect it. There’s no need to be caught off guard—it’s coming.
  2. Embrace it. Welcome the opportunity to connect with people and to potentially grow from what you hear.
  3. Evaluate it. Consider the source, objectively and non-emotionally analyze the feedback itself.  Even if the comments about your performance or decision making are not helpful, you may learn something useful about the inner workings of the person who made them.
  4. Learn from it. Think deeply and honestly about things that might have been done differently or changes that you might make in the future.  (Don’t dwell on these things or obsess over them, and never get confused about the possibility of getting everything perfect.  It’s not going to happen.  But use what you can for good.)
  5. Don’t give it back. Resist the urge—especially if you think the feedback has been intentionally delivered in a hurtful manner.  Even when critical feedback is delivered politely, our first impulse is always to be defensive—and defensiveness can quickly take a negative tone.
  6. Thank God for it.

Sound advice.  These are all excellent healthy strategies for working your way through criticism constructively, whatever its origin.  But what I am really suggesting in this blog entry is that we should carefully prepare a script for what we are going to say—the actual words we are going to use—because we almost certainly have to say something.  For many of us—especially those of us whose operating temperature tends to be on the high side of the gauge—the best possible option is going to be to take some time before fully responding, but walking away with no response is rarely a workable option; we are going to have to respond (at least temporarily) with words of some kind.

That’s why we need a script.

Since the feedback (and often the timing and manner in which we will receive it) is predictable, there’s no reason we should not have thought through what specific words we might say when we receive it.  Ministry teams can do valuable work together thinking through such scenarios.  As a team, you can both chart out likely critiques that people are going to have, especially if you are introducing changes to your normal congregational routine or birthing a bold new idea.  As part of your planning sessions, especially when you are working on a new project, program, or event, take time to brainstorm the concerns  people are likely to have.  Write them down.  Role-play them.  Team members can take turns being the ‘complainers’ (and having some fun as they are granted permission to be the grousers for a change—they should ham it up in as exaggerated a fashion as possible), while other team members practice graciously receiving the complaints and responding to them in healthy and conciliatory ways.

Management coach Jamie Lee offers up some “Scripts for Responding to Negative Feedback at the LinkedIn website:

  1. Express appreciation for the feedback.
  2. Reflect back the critic’s emotions and thoughts.
  3. “Get curious, not furious” (and make absolutely no assumptions in that process).
  4. Show an openness to receiving help (when appropriate) or solicit additional feedback.
  5. Take responsibility. If you have the power to change something based on the feedback, go for it!  (See Charles Stone’s 3rd necessary quality below.)

Lee shares these ‘scripts’ (you might call them flow charts or action plans) for the process of responding, and she does it in the context of employees who are receiving uncomfortable feedback from their managers on the job.  That is a familiar scenario to us all, but the ministry setting is even weirder and more challenging.  It’s different, in that everybody who participates in your ministry thinks of themselves as part-owners/managers . . . as your boss.  Or else they think of themselves as consumers . . . paying customers who have every right to express their preferences.  In either case they feel that their critique is appropriate, perhaps even righteous.

Part of our challenge is to accept their viewpoint without judgement.

It is one of the unique aspects of ministry leadership that we should lean into the biblical principles of appropriate power and authority, based in love, that cause us to welcome honest feedback in ways that are different from the ways of the world and how it routinely does business.  We should, in fact, value it and encourage it, and if we actively promote such a culture, there is going to be some awkwardness in people figuring how to navigate this territory with positivity.

Charles Stone suggests “3 Qualities Necessary to Learn from our Critics,” and while none of the three items in the list is explicitly humility, each of the three things listed is a variation of that most foundational of godly traits:

  1. We should always be eager to learn, everywhere we can, in every way we can, at every opportunity we can.
  2. We should want others to take an active part in ensuring that we are actively living out the very standards and ideals we have publicly professed.
  3. Bias toward action. I loooove this idea.  It means that we are primed by default for doing something in response to the feedback we receive, regardless of the source from which it is received and regardless of whether that feedback is perceived as positive or negative in nature.

As to specific scripts we might use, we might say something like . . .

  • “I hear what you’re saying. Sundays are a very busy time for me with a lot going on, so I can’t talk about that right now.  How would you feel about writing down your thoughts and sending them to me?”  (Or conversely, “Give me a call.”)
  • “I’m not person in charge of that decision. Would you mind if I have Person X give you a call next week to talk more about that?”  (Or conversely, “Let’s go find Person X. . . .”)
  • “Thanks for your feedback. I never noticed that before.”  (Or conversely, “You know, you are not the first person to make that observation.”)
  • “That is not what I was expecting you to say. . .” or “That was not the direction I was expecting this conversation to go. . .” or “That is a lot to take in. . . “ followed by “So, would you mind if I think on that for a couple of days and get back to you?”

There are as many variations in scripted responses as there are people, contexts, and personal styles.  Two things to keep in mind, though.  Don’t use the same response for every person every time!  That begins to feel trite and ultimately non-responsive.  Also, please, please, please don’t promise people follow-up that you then fail to deliver.  That is a relationships and trust killer.

I’ve focused on critique and complaint, perhaps because is the version of challenging response with which we are most familiar, but there are plenty of other versions of questions people will ask that will seem frustrating to us in the moment but legitimately are worthy of an answer when asked sincerely (sort of like me needing a price on an unmarked product).  This kind of question is evidence by the classic theme park canard, “Hey, can you tell me what time the 3:00 parade is?”  That question is, on the one hand, ripe for ridicule, but from another perspective it is a perfectly legitimate query.  What the person is truly seeking may be clarification about the time that a parade which obviously begins at 3:00 p.m. arrives at the spot where the person’s family is currently standing.  That might be 3:20, or it might be 3:35.

Church folks and visitors ask plenty of those sorts of questions.  The answers may seem obvious to us. But if we wear our frustration at answering such questions on our sleeves, we are modeling neither humility or empathy.  It is better to be prepared with a patient and positive response.

How about you and your team? Do you talk about the possibilities of variations of ways people will potentially complain or ask frustrating questions?  (Or do you just take turns complaining about the complainers?)  Do you script out potential answers and practice them on each other so that they can be deployed effortless and in good humor when needed?  Share your most frustrating experiences and (conversely) your very best tips for navigating these fraught relational waters.  Cheers!