Critics: Stay Away or Draw Close to Them?

Criticism hurts, especially the non-constructive kind. We tend to stay away from such critics. But is that the wisest choice? Should we draw close to them instead of pulling away from them? In this post I explore the idea of not shunning your critics.

Murray Bowen, the father of family systems, coined the phrase “non-anxious presence.” He used this term to describe a personal quality that when a leader exhibits it, can keep a family or a group’s overall emotional reactivity and anxiety down. He and others suggest that leaders should not cut off their critics, but should actually stay connected to them in a calm way.

What does a non-anxious leader look like?

  • can truly listen to another, even if he or she is bearing bad news or criticism
  • can hold his emotions in check when in the hot seat
  • seldom gets defensive
  • can acknowledge the emotions of his critic
  • will calmly and courageously respond instead of reacting

Ernest Shackleton, one of the greatest explorers ever, modeled this non-anxious presence with his Antarctica expedition crew as they were marooned for over a year in 1915-1916 after their ship was crushed by the ice. His calm presence and his drawing to difficult crew members allowed him to lead them all to safety. Not one man perished. Here’s what he did.

  • His photographer, Frank Hurley would feel slighted if the crew didn’t pay attention to him and would become difficult to work with. Instead of isolating him, Shackleton gave him a place in his tent and often conferred with him.
  • His physicist, Reginald Jamer, was an introverted academic. Shackleton feared that his personality might invite ridicule that in turn could escalate into a serious issue. He made him a bunkmate as well.
  • When Shackleton selected a crew to take a lifeboat to sail from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island to assemble a rescue party for the entire crew, he selected the carpenter, McNeish. He chose him not only for his skills but also because he was concerned that McNeish could create discontentment with the men who were left.
  • Finally, Shackleton specifically picked two other crewmen because he felt they might cause trouble in his absence. In total, more than half of the group he chose were potential troublemakers.

So, how can we present a non-anxious presence to those who are our critics or to those with whom our personalities rub? I suggest these five ideas.

  1. When criticized, truly try to understand the critic’s perspective. Ask questions. Really listen.
  2. When someone criticizes, thank them for sharing it.
  3. Keep a good sense of humor. Don’t allow the criticism to suck the life from you.
  4. Spend some social time with the critic so he can get to know you. Share some of your personal life story.
  5. Do something thoughtful for your critic, something that he or she would not expect from you.

As counter-intuitive as this may seen, staying calmly connected to your critics can actually help you grow as a leader and move your church or organization forward.

At what point do you believe you should you draw the line with criticism? That is, when should you cut if off before it truly damages you?

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5 Ways to Get People to pay Attention to Your Sermons

One of the most disconcerting feelings we pastors experience is when we prepare a sermon and pour our heart into it, yet feel that it didn’t make a difference in people’s lives. It’s equally frustrating when we preach to see somebody tuning us out.

What can we do to help people pay more attention to our sermons? For when they do, there’s a greater chance what we say will stick in their minds to give the Holy Spirit time to ultimately change their hearts.

listening

Neuroscience is teaching us a lot about how people remember things. Two mental processes related to attention simultaneously activate in the minds of those sitting in the pews on Sundays.

  • Focus: the ability to attend to what you are saying.
  • Inhibiting distractions: the ability to tune out competing information. Those distractions can be external like a baby crying or internal like self-talk or mulling over memories of what happened on the way to church.

So what can we do when we preach to help increase attention? I’ve listed 5 neuroscience insights to keep in mind as you prepare your sermons.

  1. Mood matters. Scientists have discovered that when people are in a good mood they pay better attention. We can’t change what happened to a family on the way to church (ie-a fight), but we can take some steps to help put them in a good mood. Humor is a great tool that does that. Don’t begin your sermon with something heavy. Rather, try to interject some humor. Smile and put people at ease.
  2. The head cannot take more than the seat can endure is true. Our brains need downtime. They can’t concentrate for long periods of time. In fact, the brain will make downtime for itself when it gets tired. So, build ebb and flow into your sermons. Alternate intensity (something that may require intensive concentration) with points or stories that don’t take much concentration.
  3. See your sermons like firing a gun. Three distinct processes take place in the brain for attention to occur. It’s firing a gun: load, aim, fire. To load is when the brain is alerted to take notice. Aim is when it looks for more information. Fire is when it actually acts. So develop your sermon with this in mind. Build each point around the load—aim—fire process.
  4. Include novelty in your sermons. Attention increases with something novel or new. Include a couple of surprises. Perhaps you pull out a “show and tell” item unexpectedly to illustrate a point. Maybe you move to a different location from where you usually preach (ie-off the stage and into an aisle).
  5. Make it relevant. Preaching is connecting the then and there to the here and now. We must try to help people apply the message to their lives. The brain pays much more attention when it senses relevance. Don’t just wait until the end for application. Provide application points throughout the sermon.

Ultimately, we want our sermons to stick in the listener’s long-term memory. The more they stick, the greater the chance for the Holy Spirit to bring about life transformation.

What presentation techniques you found that helps sermons stick?


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How to Increase the Spiritual Return on a Sermon

Every Sunday something happens over 400,000 times in North America:  A pastor preaches a sermon. Have you ever wondered, though, how much impact sermons really make? Consider these shocking statistics.

If an average sermon lasts about 30 minutes and if roughly 56 million people attend on an average Sunday, then church attenders in North America’s churches spend this amount of time listening to our sermons each week.

  • 23,000,000 man hours
  • which equals 958,000 days
  • which equals 136,904 weeks
  • which equals 2,632 years

And if the average pastor spends 10 hours preparing a sermon, all together pastors will spend the following amount of time in weekly sermon prep.

  • 4,000,000 man hours
  • which equals 166,666 days
  • which equals 23,800 weeks
  • which equals 457 years

Adding it all together, each week sermons gobble up three centuries of man-hours. If you multiply that over a year’s time . . . well, you do the math.

When I calculated this number, it boggled my mind. That statistic then begged this question.

What spiritual return is our preaching giving us?

I know we can’t measure the eternal impact from our sermons. However, the amount of time we invest in them and the time people invest in listening to them should cause us to pause and evaluate.

Take a few moments and consider these ten questions. As you read them ask yourself if should make some changes to maximize your sermons’ spiritual impact.

  1. Do I spend sufficient time preparing my heart to preach (ie: spiritual disciplines, stillness, character development)?
  2. Do I spend sufficient time with people to understand the issues they face that need a word from God?
  3. Am I being true to what the biblical writers intended when I preach?
  4. Am I willing to get honest feedback from people who can help me improve my preaching?
  5. Do I make my preaching more about Him and less about me and what others may think about my preaching?
  6. What am I doing to improve my study and presentation skills?
  7. Am I willing to preach on unpopular subjects about which the Scripture speaks?
  8. Do I spend sufficient time thinking about ways that could maximize the listener’s attention to increase their retention of my sermons?
  9. Do I always tie my sermons to the overarching redemptive theme of the Gospel?
  10. Do I approach preaching as a hallowed trust?

Perhaps the venerable Haddon Robinson captured the essence of good preaching when we wrote this in his excellent book, Biblical Preaching.

When you get right down to it, preaching is like farming. I often say, “Lord, here I am. As far as I can tell, I’ve tried to fill my sack with good seed. I’ve done my homework, I think my attitude is right, and it’s the best, most interesting seed I’ve got. I’m going to scatter it now, Lord. So here goes. We’ll see what comes up in the field.” Then, once I’ve sown the seed, I do what farmers do: I go home and rest.

What questions would you add to this list?

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Should Andy Stanley have used Sermon Notes for His “The Bible Told Me So, Not” Sermon

In August, Andy Stanley delivered a sermon that has upset many because he appeared to question biblical authority. You can hear his message, “Who Needs God? The Bible Told Me So,” here, read a negative critique by Albert Mohler here and read a positive one by Frank Turek here. In this post I’m not critiquing whether or not he undermined biblical authority. I will leave that to people a lot smarter than me. However, I do suggest in the post that this latest evangelical brouhaha offers a lesson to us preachers in favor of using sermon notes, or a manuscript, especially when we speak on difficult and potentially controversial topics.

First, some caveats.

  • I only met Andy once when I sat next to him in a church service 25 years ago.
  • I attended his dad’s church while earning my engineering degree at Ga Tech and I heard Andy speak a few times.
  • He is without a doubt one of the Church’s most gifted leaders and communicators today.
  • I’ve read lots of his books and have learned much from them.
  • The attendance at my church would probably fit in his church’s chapel, if it has one.
  • I don’t question Andy’s commitment to the Bible nor his heart for God.
  • And, I believe that with recent new insights we’re learning about how the human brain works, pastors must craft their messages with those insights in mind. I believe this so strongly that I’ve earned a master’s degree in the neuroscience of leadership and my last book unpacks how we can learn from intersecting neuroscience with biblical truth.

So what I suggest may seem like an ant telling a lion what to do. Even so, I raise these two questions.

  1. Is it wise to write out a manuscript for messages that deal with sensitive topics?
  2. And if it is, should we stay close to script during those messages instead of speaking off the cuff?

Pardon one more caveat: When I’ve seen Andy speak I notice he doesn’t use notes. If he does, he masterfully uses them. So, I am assuming he does not use them but speaks more extemporaneously. I could be wrong. But if I am close to correct (I also assume that Andy prepares well but speaks off the cuff more than most pastors would) here are 4 reasons why using a manuscript and staying close to it is smart, especially when dealing with controversial topics.

  1. The human brain is wired to lean negative. Our brain has five times more circuits that look for the negative than circuits that look for the positive. 2/3 of the brain cells in an almond shaped part of the brain involved in the fight-flight response, the amygdala (there are actually two of them), are wired to be vigilant and look for the negative. The brain more easily encodes negative emotional experiences than positive ones and more quickly recalls such negative experiences.
    • The implication: When we speak about volatile subjects in our sermons, we increase the chance that our listeners will attribute negative connotations to them, thus amplifying our message in ways we don’t intend. When we write out our manuscript, we can more carefully craft statements about volatile subjects and potentially lessen the chance of being misunderstood.
  2. Writing out a manuscript can help us avoid sloppiness in saying things that could potentially hurt others. Andy may write out his messages. Again, I’m making some assumptions. But in the last five years, I’ve changed how I craft my sermons. I now write them out as full manuscripts and I use them from my iPad when I preach, although I’m familiar enough with them to not be glued to them. Writing them out forces me to think deeply about how I need to address difficult to understand issues.
    • The implication: The Bible actually did ‘tell us so’ long before neuroscientists told us this. Words really hurt (Death and life are in the tongue, Pv 18.21). In fact social pain registers in the same areas of the brain that physical pain registers. When someone with great influence uses words than can easily be misunderstood and potentially hurtful, those words physically and psychologically hurt. For a 6 year old girl or 65 year old saint who came to faith after hearing the song, Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, and is then told those words are not true… that experience can be profoundly hurtful. Writing and using a manuscript can help us avoid this.
  3. The larger the platform, the more we must take care to be clear and graceful. Andy’s platform is ginormous. Whereas hundreds of thousands of people tune in, read, and follow Andy, on a good Sunday we live-stream to about 25 viewers and my total Twitter followers is probably equal to the number of views he has per Tweet. Even with my small platform, I still must be clear and graceful.
    • The implication: What I or any other pastor says can instantly be re-tweeted or posted on Facebook and the entire world can know it, if it wants to. Soundbites are now ubiquitous. And, in today’s world, it seems that reality is not the issue. Perception is. Writing out and using a manuscript can help us more carefully craft our words by thinking about how they could be quoted and repeated in cyberspace. It can force us to ask, How would this soundbite be heard out of context?
  4. Sloppily stated statements can throw the listener’s brain off track so that the full message gets missed. When listening to a speech or sermon, the average brain goes in and out of attention every 12-18 seconds for a bit to engage internal dialogue that seems more interesting (salient) than what it is listening to. In fact, recent research has shown that goldfish have longer attention spans than humans. When our brains are shocked and they go into reflective What did he just say? or I totally disagree with that! mode, it can cause the listener to miss what follows the shock statement, the unpacking of the statement.
    • The implication: Writing out and using a manuscript can help us catch those potential shock words or phrases that can disconnect our listener from us. With a manuscript we can remind ourselves to intentionally slow the pace and pause to give the listener time to catch his mental breath before we continue, thus giving the listener time to hear the entire context.

So, this latest ruckus gives an opportunity for us communicators to put the manuscript back into our sermon toolboxes.

And the hackneyed phrase, Hindsight is 20-20 still bears repeating. Could a little old fashioned manuscript have avoided this ruckus and resulted in Andy’s message being simply another great one? We will never know.

But, if you write out or use a manuscript, how has it helped you?

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What NOT to Say to Someone in Pain

Several years ago at a physical therapy appointment I was getting some kinks worked out of my back. As the therapist torqued my left leg into a pretzel, she told me about a friend who recently got news about a life threatening medical condition. As my therapist shared, she felt unsure about what to say to her friend facing such sadness. Even though I’ve been in ministry over 35 years, the right thing to say to a person in pain still eludes me. What should we say to someone like her friend? Or better yet, what should we not say?

Since our youngest was diagnosed with a brain tumor 28 years ago (and is now doing well), what people have said to us through the years has run the gamut from perfect to really bad. Most people really want to encourage when we hurt, but often they say exactly what you don’t need to hear.

Here’s a few statements to NEVER say to someone in pain, no matter what kind of pain.

  • Every thing will be all right. God’s in control. (Yes, God is control, but everything may not turn out all right.)
  • Just have more faith and you will be fine. (Platitude.)
  • God told me that you’d be healed/your problem will go away. (Why did he tell you and not me?)
  • Could there possibly be some sin in your life? (Sounds like one of Job’s friends.)
  • My (aunt, uncle, grandmother, etc.) faced the same thing and they were healed. (I’m not your aunt, uncle, grandmother, etc.)
  • Well, I’m facing such and such…and then this person prattles on and on about himself or herself, seemingly oblivious to our pain. (You really didn’t hear me, did you?)
  • Just let us know what we can do. (Often this really means nothing or else they would have gotten specific on the spot.)

Words carry great power. The book of Proverbs tells us they have the power of life or death and that a well-placed word is very valuable. This verse is a great one.

Prov. 25.11 The right word at the right time is like precious gold set in silver.

I’d love to hear words that you’ve heard or said that were like gold in times of pain.

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