Disapproval in the Church: What a Pastor can Do

Serving as a pastor brings many joys as well as headaches and hurts. One of the biggest hurts comes when others disapprove of us. Neuroscientists have discovered that a disapproving look from a person physically hurts. A disapproving facial expression stirs up the flight-fight part of our brain and heightens anxiety, even more than an angry facial expression does. I’ve experienced those disapproving looks and have learned how to cope with disapproval.

When the emotional part of our brain (the limbic system) takes over, we lose the ability to think clearly and lead well. When that happens, these behaviors surface.

  • We react and act impulsively
  • We assume the worst
  • We get defensive
  • We lose our creative ability to solve problems
  • We grieve the Holy Spirit
  • We lose perspective
  • We can’t truly listen
  • We can’t think as clearly

These kinds of behaviors show their ugly selves when the emotional brain takes over. Constant disapproval, especially from significant people in your church, can evoke these behaviors.

In a previous church several years ago, the most influential lay leader there was once my number one supporter. His words, body language, and facial expression would almost always encourage me. I could count on him to lift my spirits when I was down. However, something happened in our relationship and his demeanor took a 180-degree shift. He now became my greatest disapprover.

His view of me carried significant weight because he held a very high status in the church. When our paths crossed at church and I saw his disapproval, my anxiety level shot up. When I saw those disapproving looks, a brain dynamic kicked in in the flight-fight part of my brain that dampened my ability to think most clearly so I could preach at my best and compassionately relate to others on Sundays. Essentially, I stifled the Holy Spirit’s work in my life. Initially I was not consciously aware of this dynamic.

However, as I began to learn how my brain worked when I saw a disapproving expression, I started to make these choices that helped me cope with disapproval, especially his.

  1. I consciously took notice when his physical presence evoked anxiety in me. Instead of stuffing the emotion, I named it. I would breath a prayer under my breath, “Lord, I feel anxious right now after I saw _________. Please help me cope with this tension in my heart.”
  2. I sought out a coach/counselor to help me reappraise the situation quicker. Taking a different perspective helps calm the fight-flight part of our brain. Often we need an objective person to help us see the situation clearly.
  3. When I would preach, I would look for approving faces instead of his. I purposefully did not lock eyes with him in a sermon because I knew the toll it might take on my focus while preaching.
  4. I finally met with him for breakfast, shared my concerns, and asked him how I could regain his confidence. Essentially, his view of me as a leader had changed and I could not change it back. At least I cleared the air with him. However, through this experience the Lord helped me more consistently moderate the painful distraction I often felt when I saw his disapproval.

As painful as this experience was, it became a great learning experience. Now that I know what happens in my brain when I see disapproval in someone’s face, I’ve become quicker to more proactively moderate its negative effects.

How have you managed those who disapprove of you?

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Source: Burklund, L., Eisenberger, N.I. & Lieberman, M.D. The face of rejection: Rejection sensitivity moderates dorsal anterior cingulate activate to disapproving facial expressions. Social Neuroscience, 2, pp.238-253.

Six Ways to Encourage your Pastor

Being a pastor is a high calling, yet pastors often face loneliness and discouragement. Surprisingly, some surveys reveal that up to 80% of pastors face regular discouragement in ministry. If that statistic even remotely reflects reality, then your pastor probably needs your encouragement. Yet, it seems so rare. The influential writer Henry Nouwen even wrote these insightful words. … there is little praise and much criticism in the church today, and who can live for long in such a climate without slipping into some type of depression?[1] If your pastors need encouragement, should you offer it to him or her or should they just suck it up? If you do want to encourage them, what’s the best way to do it? I suggest some practical ways here.

I’m convinced that we all need encouragement, even the strongest believer and most mature pastor. In fact, the Apostle Paul admitted he needed it and often referred to those who refreshed his and other people’s spirits, Philemon, Onesiphorus, and the Corinthian church. At times he even asked for it. A key character in the bible, Barnabas, was known as the son of encouragement.

Hebrews 13.17 speaks to this need and admonishes followers of Jesus to respond to their leaders in such a way as to make their work a joy. These translations bring out the meaning.

  • So don’t make them sad as they do their work. Make them happy. (CEV)
  • Let them do this with joy and not with grief … . (NASB)
  • Give them reason to do this joyfully and not with sorrow. (NLT)
  • Let them do all this with joy and not with groaning. (ESV)

In the research I did for my book, 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them, I surveyed hundreds of pastors and asked them how people in their church encouraged them. These were the top six responses.

  1. You showed me tangible appreciation (such as small gifts like a gift card to a coffee shop).
  2. You let me know that I spiritually impacted your life (such as sending an email to him or her about a recent message that helped you grow).
  3. You prayed for me (such as sending a note telling your pastor that you prayed for him).
  4. You accepted and understood me, cared for me, and were there when I needed you (such as communicating in a genuine way that you know how difficult it is being a pastor and that you truly care).
  5. You supported my leadership, defended me, and trusted me (such as going out of your way to tell your pastor that you truly believe in him and trust him).
  6. You ministered to my spouse and/or my family (such as remembering his or her kids’ birthdays).

The pastors who responded to this survey shared many touching stories and sad ones as well. One pastor even wrote that he wasn’t sure anybody in his church really cared about him. I hope your pastor doesn’t feel that way.

If you’re a pastor, would sharing this statistic with your church in an appropriate way open the door for the encouragement you desperately need in your life right now?

If you aren’t a pastor, what is God prompting you to do this week to encourage your pastor?


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[1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989), 32.

Introverts Don’t Make Good Pastors

Or, maybe they do.

  • I’m a pastor and an introvert.
  • I get energy from being alone.
  • Being with people for long periods of time drains me, although I  have strong people skills.
  • I love to read.
  • I go on silent retreats.
  • After church every Sunday I need to spend time without high people interaction.
  • Did I say I am an introvert?

Am I automatically disadvantaged as a pastor?

Do only the gregarious, back slapping pastors lead big churches?

Some  years ago I learned that my introversion offended a church leader where I once served. We held an overnight leadership retreat at a local retreat center. After the last session ended around nine, we provided snacks and games. At about ten, I went to bed as was my habit. Most of the other leaders stayed up past midnight. Had I stayed up with them, I would have been toast for the sessions to follow the next morning.

I learned months later that my leaving the group to go to bed offended him. He brought it up more than once. He was an extrovert and did not like me yielding to my introversion.

Should I have stayed up to “work the crowd?” Perhaps. But that incident illustrates the challenges introverts often face when they serve in ministry.

As I’ve pondered this issue more deeply, I read the book Quiet, the Power of Introverts that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, a great read. As an introvert, Susan presents a compelling case for the the power of introverts. If you are an introvert, you will feel affirmed if you read it.

Here’s a good article on introverts here.

If you are an introvert, what challenges have you experienced in ministry?

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Three Probing Questions every Pastor should Ask Himself

Some time back I sat in a local McDonalds working on one of my books. I had set my iPhone to remind me to pause and be still each day at 10am and 3pm. I don’t always stop, but that day I did and read a portion of Pete Scazzaro’s book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Day by Day. That day Pete quoted Eugene Peterson’s thoughts about  Jonah’s resistace to God’s call on him to preach in Ninevah. His words left a powerful impression on me and prompted me to ask myself three questions we leaders should often ask ourselves.

Here are Peterson’s words.

And why Tarshish? For one thing, it is a lot more exciting than Nineveh. Nineveh was an ancient site with layer after layer of ruined and unhappy history. Going to Nineveh to preach was not a coveted assignment for a Hebrew prophet with good references. But Tarshish was something else. Tarshish was exotic. Tarshish was an adventure … Tarshish in the biblical references was a “far off and sometimes idealized port.” It is reported in 1 Kings 10:22 that Solomon’s fleet of Tarshish fetched gold, silver, ivory, monkeys and peacocks … In Tarshish we can have a religious career without having to deal with God.

Did you catch the last line? “In Tarshish we can have a religious career without having to deal with God.” As I reflected on my goals and drive in minsitry, I asked myself these questions.

I encourage you to ask yourself them as well and ponder your answers.

  1. Where do I find my identity, in Christ or in my ministry?
  2. Am I driven to bigger and better ministries so I can feel good about myself? Or can I find contentment “that transcends all understanding” even in what appears to be a dead-end ministry or one without much potential for growth?
  3. Is my deepest motive to one day hear Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”? Or, am I driven to hear the people in the church say it instead?

Take a few moments and ask yourself these questions to see what God reveals about your heart and motives.

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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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