3 Qualities Necessary to Learn from our Critics

Nobody likes to be criticized, at least not at first. Sometimes criticism is warranted. Sometimes it’s not. And sometimes it hard to differentiate between the two. The writer of Proverbs implies that we should learn from and even seek out the beneficial wounds from a critic. Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy. (Pv 27.6) But when we need to heed a message from a critic, how can we position ourselves so that we can benefit from it? Below I suggest three ways we can do so.

Feedback Concept
  1. Stay teachable. We must be willing to let others tell us what we may not want to hear. We must cultivate an open, non-defensive heart. I’m trying to create such a culture among our staff through one of our key staff values… Continual growth and learning: We welcome constructive feedback. For a list of our staff values, read this blog post.
  2. Keep accountable. One way to stay open to the message from a critic is to develop a mentoring relationship with another person and/or use a coach. I meet with my personal coach each month via FaceTime. (I explain why every pastor should get a coach here.) He is free to ask me tough questions about my life and ministry. I’m also directly accountable to the chairman of the board. Without accountable relationships, we can easily miss our blind spots. I need someone in my life, including my wife, that cares enough about me to ask those tough questions and tell me what I may not want to hear.
  3. Develop a bias toward action. Tom Peters who wrote In Search of Excellence popularized this term. It simply means do something. In other words, when a critic tells us what we don’t necessarily want to hear but need to hear, a bias toward action means that we act on it. Learning from our critics means more than assuming a listening posture. It also includes a doing posture as well. 

So the next time you get criticized, ask yourself what you need to learn from it, if it came from a less-than-friendly source get the perspective from someone who cares about you, and then act upon it.

What other quality do you believe leaders need to learn best from their critics?

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My Daughter’s Emergency Brain Surgery: 3 Leadership Lessons Learned

My youngest daughter Tiffany was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 1. Now 27, she has endured seven brain surgeries, intractable epilepsy (non-responsive to drug therapy), proton beam radiation, and an experimental device implanted into her brain. The implant, just approved by the FDA and called a responsive neuro-stimulator holds great promise for epileptic patients that don’t respond to drugs. Two months ago we drove to Rush University Medical Center in Chicago to have her battery replaced. A week ago we noticed a tiny hole in her scalp at the incision line. I saw metal in that hole, a potential sign that the device was now exposed. The day we reported this to her neurosurgeon, he requested an emergency meeting with him ASAP. The next day we drove to Chicago unsure about what awaited us. Here’s what happened last week and what I learned about leadership.

Surgeons standing above of the patient before surgery

Upon arrival, we went straight to the neurology waiting room. We waited perhaps 30 minutes and they apologized for the wait, even though we had scheduled the appointment less than 48 hours prior.

The neurosurgeon’s new nurse greeted us with a smile and great concern. Within 10 minutes Dr. Richard Byrne, Tiffany’s doctor who is chairman of the department of neurosurgery at Rush Hospital saw us. After looking at her scalp, with concern and compassion he said that the device needed to come out. Its exposure probably meant that bacteria had contaminated the device and to protect Tiffany’s brain from further exposure, surgery was needed, the next day. However, he felt that even without the device her seizures may not occur since she had been seizure free since her temporal lobectomy four years prior.

We were saddened that it had to come out, but agreed.

The surgery the next day, her seventh brain surgery, went well and as of this writing, she is recovering nicely. We pray that her brain will take care of itself and that she will continue to be seizure free.

During our stay at Rush through this surprise surgery, I experienced three key leadership principles at play that I believe every pastor or leader should ask about his or her church or organization.

Leadership Principle 1: Great churches and organizations respond quickly and promptly to needs.

  •  The day we noticed the hole, the nurse on the other end spoke with us by phone twice that afternoon. And even though Dr. Byrne was out of the office in another state, she contacted him and emailed him pictures I had taken of Tiffany’s head. Tiffany’s neurologist, Dr. Marvin Rossi, who has followed Tiffany for 10 years also contacted us. Our doctors were quick and responsive to our need, exceeding my expectations.
  • Leadership question: How would those in need rank your church or organization for promptness to their needs?

Leadership Principle 2: Great churches and organizations help increase certainty in their culture by over communicating.

  • A key principle of the brain is that it likes certainty. Uncertainty, however, engages the brain’s limbic system (fight-flight area) which creates a threat response which in turn hinders clear thinking. In other words, uncertainty breeds worry. You can imagine how easy it was for our thoughts to drift toward a worst case scenario. While we waited in one waiting room, a nurse rolled around a computer on a stand and asked if we’d like an update on Tiffany. We gladly said yes. In the next five minutes she gave us detailed information that included the time she went into surgery, when the surgery was over, her blood pressure, her heart rate, her oxygen uptake, her self assessed pain level, and when we could see her in recovery. The five minutes the nurse gave us to over communicate about Tiffany’s condition greatly relieved our concerns.
  • Leadership question: Do you keep your church/organization in the dark about what’s happening or do you intentionally over communicate?

Leadership Principle 3: Great churches and organizations intentionally create a positive, hopeful, and happy atmosphere.

  • Having spent several weeks at Rush during the past 10 years, I’ve noticed a growing, infectious, positive culture. The admitting personnel, the nurses, the doctors, and even many of the cafeteria workers communicate a positive tone with their smile, their words, and even their body language. The concept of emotional contagion comes into play here. Emotional contagion is what the phrase sounds like: we catch the emotions of those around us, whether good or bad. We unconsciously mimic the emotions of others, an example of the principle in Proverbs 15.1. A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. I once noticed a supervisor exude friendliness to every employee he met and I told him that I experienced this same positive vibe from others. He said that they intentional sought to create such a culture.
  • Leadership Question: Do you intentionally seek to model for those in your church/organization a positive and hopeful attitude?

Rush is repeatedly ranked among the country’s top hospitals in US News & World Reports’s annual hospital survey. I can see why. Their culture reflects three key leadership principles that pastors and Christian leaders should seek to build into their churches and organizations.

What leadership principle would you add to this list?

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How to Have a Tough Conversation with a Staff Member

Leadership often requires that we navigate tough conversations with staff and employees. It’s easy to neglect such vital conversations for several reasons: fear, they’ve gone sour in the past, we don’t know how, etc.  But to lead well, we must not avoid those talks. I’ve learned that a simple process called active listening can help make those interactions go much better. Here’s how it works.

Two businessmen having an argument

First, appropriately set up your conversation. Assume, for example, that an employee named John is consistently late to work and you need to talk to him about that. To give him some sense of control (when we feel like we have control we can dampen the brain’s fear response), don’t spring the conversation on him. Ask John in a non-emotional moment that you’d like to talk about office hours at his convenience. Ask him to let you know a time that might work.

The conversation might go like this.

John, I’d like to chat with you for about 15 minutes about our office hours. Would you mind looking at your calendar and suggesting a couple of times that might work with your schedule? After I hear from you, I’ll check my schedule and then we’ll set a time. Thanks.

So assume that you both agree on a time. Before you meet, carefully think through what you want to say using this simple acronym, DESC, that I learned from my friend Sharon Swing. This easy-to-remember tool can help guide your conversation, keep it positive, and secure commitment for the desired change. Here’s what DESC stands for.

  • D: Describe the negative behavior.
  • E: Express the emotions you feel when you see the negative behavior.
  • S: State the positive behavior you desire.
  • C: Explain the consequences that will result with the new positive behavior you desire.

Here’s what a conversation might look like using the DESC model. I’ve shortened the conversation for brevity’s sake.


John, I’m noticing that you are often late to work. As you know we want to be here at nine so we can get in a full day of productive work.


When you are consistently late for work I feel frustrated because it does not provide a good example for the rest of the team. Sometimes I also feel angry at you because we’ve talked about this before. I don’t want to start my day feeling frustrated or angry at you.


Going forward, I want you to be at work at nine.


When you start arriving at work on time, it will help keep up team morale and help me start out with a positive disposition toward you for the day.

After you share your thoughts above, ask for a commitment from John to be on time and then set a mutually agreed upon follow up date to gauge progress.

This simple tool works not only in the workplace, but at home as well.

How have you handled those difficult conversations?

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Leader, have you Normalized God?

When you hear someone say, “God,” it evokes many images and thoughts. Yet for a Christian leader, without a clear biblical understanding of God, leadership lacks power. Recently I read the newly released book, Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying (Thomas Nelson) by Drew Dyck, managing editor of Leadership Journal. It is a beautiful written, thought provoking book about how God beckons us to see Him afresh. I highly recommend it for anyone, especially leaders. I asked Drew to write a guest post about the book and I’ve included it here.

Beautiful sunshine

There are no experts on God

Not me. Not you. Not your pastor or the theology professor with two PhDs.

Merriam-Webster defines an expert as “one with the special skill or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject.”

Have you ever met someone who possesses “mastery” on the topic of God?

Me neither.

While we know enough about God to receive salvation and enter into a relationship with him, our knowledge of him is still far from complete. Our intelligence is too small, our language too limited. When it comes to God, we’re all beginners. Yet this very realization—that we cannot fully understand God—is crucial to even beginning to understand him.

The early church father Gregory of Nyssa compared contemplating God’s nature to standing at the edge of a sheer cliff with no foothold. He wrote:

 The soul . . . becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is natural to it, content now to merely know this about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things which the soul knows.

We might assume knowing God simply includes getting all our facts about him straight. But maybe the first step is vertigo, a holy disorientation. Perhaps only once we’ve been shocked out of our normal way of processing reality—categorizing it, mastering it—can we hope to gain even a glimpse of God’s awesome power and beauty. Even C. S. Lewis, arguably the most brilliant Christian of the last century, speculated that “half our great theological and metaphysical problems” would be too confused to even have answers. “How many hours are in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask . . . are like that.”

Our attempts to describe God stretch the limits of human language. The best descriptions seem to veer toward the superlative and abstract. Theologians describe God as the ground of all being, the uncaused first cause, the overwhelming mystery.

How could we possibly hope to comprehend such a Being? Our brains are too puny, our resources too limited. The moment we think we have God figured out is the instant of our greatest confusion.

As the Dominican priest Victor White wrote:

So soon as we become satisfied with any picture of God, we are in danger of idolatry: of mistaking the comprehensible image for the reality, of losing the numinous, the mystery, the transcendent majesty of God. So soon as, consciously or unconsciously, we suppose we have grasped God, he must elude us, for he is always beyond the furthermost advance we make in knowledge about him.

Don’t get me wrong. We can feel God’s presence and receive his love. We can know him, but that’s only possible because, in a stunning display of mercy, he chose to reveal himself to us in ways we could understand. However, possessing this modicum of knowledge should never be confused with comprehensive understanding. Ultimately, when it comes to God, we’re like ants crawling across an iPad: in touch with something we only faintly understand.

Literary critic Jonathan Culler defined poetry as “the making strange of language.” What does he means by “making strange”? Simply that, in poems, words draw attention to themselves. With other kinds of reading (an instruction manual, for instance) words serve merely to convey information. But in poetry words become the stars. They don’t disappear behind their meaning. Instead, through literary devices such as meter, rhyme, repetition, and structure, poetry “foregrounds language itself: makes it strange, thrusts it at you—Look! I’m language!”

The Bible does the same thing for God. It thrusts God at you, saying, “Look! This is God!” It makes God strange. Not strange in a bad way but in the most basic sense of the word—unfamiliar, other, outside the range of our knowing.

Unfortunately, in our efforts to make the Bible interesting and relevant, we try to normalize God. We become experts at taking something lofty, so unfathomable and incomprehensible, and dragging it down to the lowest shelf. We fail to account for the fact that God is neither completely knowable nor remotely manageable.

This habit is not confined to the pews. Those of us who lead can be the worst. Preaching professor John Koessler writes of the tendency for preachers to “normalize the outrageous in Scripture.” There’s a temptation to flatten out the divine portrayals in the Bible to make God more palatable to our audience. We’re in desperate need of leaders who will resist this temptation and teach the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), holiness included.

Here’s the beautiful irony: making God strange actually enables us to know him more. Once we have marveled at his magnitude and mystery we are able to achieve the deep intimacy that grows out of a true appreciation for who God is. Instead of treating him as an equal, we approach him with reverent awe. Only when we’ve been wonderstruck by his majesty can we be overwhelmed by his love.

This post was excerpted from Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying (Thomas Nelson). For more information visit yawningattigers.com

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Our Church’s Giving Increased 33%…Here’s Why

I recently became lead pastor at a great church in London, Ontario, West Park Church. It has a rich tradition, great people, is located in a fast growing area, and has a killer facility. When I arrived we faced a significant budget deficit. We erased our deficit with a special offering around Christmas. However, during the first three months of this year we fell behind again. We then intentionally addressed our declining finances by taking several intentional steps. As a result, the last six weeks our average weekly giving has increased over 33%. Here’s what we did that I believed is positively impacting our giving.

generosity road sign illustration design
  1. I taught a 4-part series on generosity using the concepts in The Treasure Principle written by Randy Alcorn.
  2. We sold the book and encouraged the entire church to read it.
  3. Several of our small groups studied the series. It’s a great 4-week series in DVD format.
  4. We held what we called a “Tithe Demonstration Day” where we encouraged everyone in the church to tithe off one week’s salary. Here’s the bulletin insert we used: Tithe Day Insert 2014.
  5. I moved the offering to the end of the service. I also added a short comment about giving at that time and I often will put a face on giving by showing a picture of some ministry and tying the church’s giving to that tangible ministry. This move also made the offering time less of an afterthought.
  6. We added a challenge after the tithe demo day called the “90 Day Challenge” where I challenged everyone to take another step toward giving during the next 90 days. I even promised that if someone took the next step in that challenge and after 90 days felt it wasn’t worth it, I’d take them out to a steak dinner. Here’s the insert we used: 90 Day Giving Challenge.

I realize that six weeks doesn’t guarantee a permanent trend, but I sense that God is doing a work in our church in the area of generosity.

What has helped your church become more generous?

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