How I Stopped Banging My Head Against the Wall

I read an article by Thom Rainer this weekend and it got me thinking. In the article he lists the 5 most difficult challenges for a pastor. [read the full article here]

  • Responding graciously to someone right before you preach.
  • Knowing what do with a staff member who is not making a vital contribution to the church.
  • Loving a person in the church when that person is your critic.
  • Preparing more than one quality sermon a week.
  • Doing the funeral of a person who was not a Christian.

Now not all of them fit for me…However, I have wondered how anyone can prepare more than one message per week. (Although when I think back to my days in Albany, the pastor there normally used Sunday night service to complain about why people didn’t come out to Sunday night service anymore.)

For me, the one that hit home was dealing with critical people. (And I don’t mean people who have a criticism. That is generally how things get better. I’m talking about people who are normally critical.) It seemed for a few years I found myself spending more and more time dealing with people who simply wanted to tell me how bad I was, or how bad the church was. It got to a point where I dreaded opening my email, or I’d see the caller ID on the phone and I’d feel the knot in my stomach.

I’d let it get to such a place, where I was getting resentful towards our church. Because it seemed like our church was full of people who only complained. And then one Sunday, I was in the back during worship, and I went down each row and realized, I really like almost every one of these people. There were a handful who would not have made my list of “people I’d invite to a party,” but that day was helpful in making a change in who I related to people who seemed to love stirring up trouble.

I wanted to share 5 things that have made a major difference for me.

1) Realize What Is My Stuff & What Is Not:

This one I’d known, but I needed to be reminded. I make more than enough mistakes, and when confronted with them, I need to take ownership of them. At the same time, just because a someone else accuses you or me of having a problem doesn’t mean there is one.

We had a couple a number of years ago both of whom had grown up with basically absentee dads. The were getting started in their careers and both struggling in that regard (they were both losing their jobs). To complicate matters, they began having some relational issues within the church. And as they were struggling with all that was going on, the problems at work…well, they both had terrible bosses. The problems at the Vineyard…that would be the terrible pastor. In fact as they recounted some of their stories of what upset them with me, there were other leaders who stepped in and said, “that was me you spoke to, not Bob.” But that didn’t matter, their minds had already been made up.

If you are a pastor, you are a lighting rod for people who have had bad experiences with authority. While our heart’s desire is to help those who find themselves in that place, taking their stuff onto ourselves, doesn’t help anyone.

2) No Agenda…No Meeting: 

A number of years ago, a young man in our church who’d never really talked all that much to me, sent an email basically saying, “I’d like to get together and talk. I’ve been coming to the Vineyard for a while & we’ve never gotten to hang out and chat.” The first hour of the conversation was pleasant & enjoyable, and the next 20 to 30 minutes were a litany of all of the things he believed I had done wrong as a pastor. From style of leadership, to my sense of humor, to, well, you get the idea.

If that wasn’t bad enough, I let him do it to me again a few months later. You know that scene in Ghostbusters where they get slimed? Yeah, that is kinda what those meetings felt like. A few months later, when he wanted to meet to tell me why he and his wife would no longer be attending the Vineyard, I said that I think our previous two meetings had made that abundantly clear and I thought we could avoid meeting again.

This one took me a while to learn, but it has made a huge difference. If someone calls or emails, and requests a time to meet, but refuses to say what they wish to discuss, I won’t meet with them. I mean, if I ask someone to meet with me, I’ll let them know what I want to talk about. It seems disrespectful and inconsiderate to not do so. Now, I don’t think they need to spell out the whole conversation ahead of time, even a, “Hey, I’d like to follow up on our conversation from yesterday. I have some concerns with how it went,” would be fine.  That allows them to meet with me having had some time to process and prepare for our discussion.  But when the person refuses to tell you anything about what they are upset about, most likely they are coming fully loaded and want to ensure you are starting off in a defensive positional.

When I was a campus pastor and wanted to have lunch with a student to hang out, I soon learned most of them thought we were meeting because they were in trouble. So I got in the habit very early on of communicating what I wanted to talk about, so it didn’t cause them unnecessary stress. And then I finally decided that if I could do that for other, I could do it for myself as well.

3) No Meeting Without an Ending time: 

I’d read a book by Steve Sjogren a number of years ago and he said that he allotted a certain portion of his week to negative conversations and after that he was done. “Sorry, I already have 60 minutes of negative meetings this week. We’ll need to schedule something for next week.” While I didn’t do that so much, I did start telling people who wanted to meet because they were upset, that we would have 30 minutes to meet. While many would say that was not enough time, I would ensure them it would be and say we could have a follow up meeting the next week if it wasn’t.

What I’ve seen over and over is when a person knows they have a limited time, if forces them to focus on the heart of the issue.

4) I Can’t Make Everybody Happy or Fix Anybody:

I spent way too much time for a number of years saying, “But this person has so much potential.” Of course it was usually said in the context of a discussion with other leaders as we worked to fix another blow up, this gifted person had just had. I kept thinking we’d be able to figure out how to make this person happy…that if we could manage this, or give them that, or make sure to tip-toe around them when they were stressed, then they would not have another messy conflict that we needed to address. (The very first Vineyard National Conference I went to, had a workshop, and the speaker made the point, you can not change people’s character…I should have listened better).

One of the most important things I learned over the past few years was from Peter Scazzero & Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. He makes the point that if a person is not emotionally or relationally healthy, they cannot be spiritually healthy. He pointed out something I was guilty of which was putting people in leadership because they could get things done…not because they were emotionally and spiritually healthy. That was not fair to them…to our church…to the rest of our leaders or to me. And it caused a lot of problems that we didn’t have to have. (See point 1…if it is your stuff, take ownership)

5) I Only Have So Much Energy:

As an introvert, I need time alone to recharge. I have so much “people time” in a day, before I get depleted. And “people time” where the focus is what a jerk I am…that can suck days worth of energy pretty quickly.

One of the things I regret is that I had a few years there where I let my time get taken by people who simply worked to tear down what we were doing here, and didn’t often have enough left for the amazing group of people who have made up the overwhelming majority of the Ithaca Vineyard.

What I am excited about is that over the past 2 years, our church council staff and leaders have really worked on Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, and getting in a better place as a leadership team. There have been some difficult steps along the way, I think our church is in the best place it has ever been.

What have you found helpful in dealing with critical people?

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