Are Your Critics Really Trying to Get Close to You

Recently I’ve been reading a lot about how to view problems in ministry and leadership through a different lens. A concept developed in the late 50’s and 60’s by a psychologist, Murray Bowen, has shed some brilliant light on the subject for me; so brilliant, in fact, that I wish I understood this concept 25 years ago. Had I learned it and applied it then, I could have saved myself a lot of grief as a pastor and as a father as I respond to critics. The concept is called family systems. Don’t let the title fool you, though. It’s not all about your immediate family. This concept has profound implications for leadership in the church.

One of the best writers on the subject, Peter Steinke, a Christian psychologist, wrote the book How Your Church Family Works. It’s a great primer on family systems that directly applies to churches.

At the core of family systems is understanding emotional process and specifically, how we manage our anxiety, a term used for any negative emotion. In one of Steinke’s chapters he writes about those who criticize us. When I read his two paragraphs I paused and said to myself, “Wow. I’ve never heard it put that way before.”

Read it below and tell me how it hits you.

Pursuit behavior is any behavior that overfocuses on another person….

By far the most difficult form of pursuit behavior to recognize is criticism. How can those who act adversarially be said to be in pursuit? We feel alienated, not close. But the criticism is characterized by overfocus. The “stinger” and the “stung” are emotionally connected. Whenever a gnawing critic gets inside our brain cells and we can’t expunge him, we are connected, even if negatively. Whenever someone gets under our skin, we are infected with anxiety. If we are reactive to a pursuer, the pursuit behavior achieves its goal: connection. Strange as it sounds, the critic wants to be close. After all, if we can’t be close through play, ecstasy, touch, and nurture, our only option to accomplish closeness is through angry outbursts, specious charges, or harsh accusations. People feel close to us when they know we are thinking about them. What we think is not as important as that we are thinking of them. We play into the hands of the criticizer when we react to their invasion rather than define ourselves to it. (p 88 of How your Church Family Works).

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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10 Ways to Respond to the Church Critic

How to Deal with Criticism

What You Don’t Know about your Church May Kill You

Many pastors begin a new assignment and get blindsided from issues they never expected. When that happens, it can be deadly. I’ve found that creating a genogram of your church, called a family diagram in psychology, can yield much insight into how people may have perpetuated unhealthy patterns in a church. It’s simply taking a bird’s eye view of your church’s past, looking for connections, and drawing them out. I excerpted below a section from one of my books, People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership that illustrates the process.

I wish I had known about family diagrams before I began to pastor. If I had seen how dysfunctional batons pass from one leader or significant stakeholder to the next, I could have avoided a lot of grief— or least prepared myself to handle those issues better.

I recall one church I served where the founding pastor had been a father figure to many of the early members. He was “larger than life” from both the stage and in one-on-one relationships. Because many of the old-timers had come to faith through his ministry, most had never seen any other pastor lead. He had become close friends with many of the stakeholders, making himself available to them 24-7. The father figure he played loomed large.

When I arrived as senior pastor, my leadership style was not to give people 24-7 availability, except in emergencies, because I’d soon burn out if I did. I was also a ready-aim-fire leader, whereas he was known as a fire-fire-fire leader.

After about a year, I began to sense a weird vibe from some of the stakeholder leaders. It seemed that I couldn’t please them, no matter what I did. I felt befuddled. But as a clearer picture of the previous pastor emerged, I began to understand what fueled this tension. I realized that some leaders wanted the best parts of him— in me. They wanted a father figure who was available 24-7. One leader even confessed to me that he expected me to be a father to him.

They also loved his larger-than-life dreams that seemed to come “straight from the Holy Spirit.” It excited them, and many felt that church should be perpetually exciting. My vision, however, came more slowly through a more deliberate and thoughtful process, definitely not eliciting as much initial excitement as his did.

They had transferred the idealized former pastor’s strengths onto me, and I had failed to meet those expectations. Edwin Friedman captured this transference when he noted, “Institutions . . . tend to institutionalize the pathology, or the genius, of the founding families.” [Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (Bethesda, MD: Friedman Estate, 1999), p. 199]

This founding pastor had left under difficult circumstances. As a result I also bumped into another unspoken script: a fear and distrust of strong pastoral leadership among some stakeholder leaders. Had I known how churches, like families, pass down dysfunctions, I could have better navigated those bumps.

If you’re a senior pastor, I encourage you to probe your church’s past to learn the hidden scripts against which you may be bumping. Take some key leaders and long-term members out to lunch and ask about the church’s history. Listen especially to the stories from the old-timers. The more you learn about your church’s past, the better you’ll respond to its dysfunctions. I’ve listed some questions below that you might ask these leaders to help you create a diagram.

  • What significant events, both successes and traumas, have marked your church’s history?
  • How has your church responded to traumas and crises?
  • What problems seem to recur in your church?
  • Does your church have any deep, dark secrets?
  • How did the church begin?
  • Was it from a church split?
  • Was it a plant from another church?
  • Are relatives of the founding families still in the church?
  • Are some of the founding members still in places of influence?
  • How long have pastors stayed?
  • What were the circumstances behind their departures?
  • How were their departures handled? How do people talk about the prior pastors?
  •  Is there an ongoing pattern of firing staff?
  • Have any recurring sins persisted in staff or key leaders (sexual immorality, financial malfeasance, gossip and so on)?

You’re likely to find some repeating patterns. Simply knowing what you’re up against and paying attention to these multigenerational dynamics can give you a head start in dealing with the patterns. While acknowledging the past, you can more wisely lead your church into the future, knowing that these past patterns still play a part in the present. As Pete Scazzero has often said, “To go forward, you must go back.”

Here’s a fictional example of how someone might loosely diagram a church’s dynamics going back several years or several pastors. (People Pleasing Pastors by Charles Stone, permission granted, InterVarsity Press, 2014). Click on the image so you can see it clearly.

genogram of a church

What impact have you seen that your church’s past has had on your ministry?

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27 Questions to Ask Before A Pastor Takes a New Job

When a pastor considers a move to a new church setting or any leader considers a new job, he or she should do whatever is possible to define reality.  As Max Dupree, leadership guru and writer said, “The first job of a leader is to define reality.”

When I’ve considered a new ministry change, I’ve sought answers to key questions. And over the years I’ve compiled this list of 27 questions (actually 30) to ask a search committee and/or your future boss. If you’re moving into a non-ministry setting, you’ll want to tailor your questions to your unique setting.

  1. Why me? What about me interested your committee?
  2. What stories of God’s moving do people still tell?
  3. What’s not going well that needs changing or needs to go?
  4. What are the burning issues?
  5. What are the biggest obstacles facing the church?
  6. What’s missing?
  7. What significant events, both successes and traumas, have marked your church’s history?
  8. How has your church responded to traumas and crises?
  9. How would your community describe the church?
  10. What do you most hope that I will do?
  11. What are you most concerned I might do?
  12. What are the major obstacles I will face?
  13. What ministries are struggling? Which ones are shining?
  14. What will be deemed a success under my leadership?
  15. How do you see the church in 1, 3, 5 years? What kind of growth do you expect?
  16. Describe how you see our working relationship?
  17. What should I focus on? What should be my priorities?
  18. How is the current staff moral?
  19. What is your expectation for my spouse?
  20. What were the previous pastor’s strengths and weaknesses?
  21. How was his or her relationship with the staff and board?
  22. What do you wish he had done differently?
  23. What problems seem to recur in your church?
  24. Does the church have any deep, dark secrets?
  25. Have any sins persisted in the staff or leadership?
  26. How would you describe the church’s tolerance for change?
  27. What has caused recent people to leave?

What questions would you add to this list?

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What to Look for in a Good Friend

God made us to be in relationship with each other. We were made for community and we all want good friends. But what do good friends look like? What do they do or not do? In the most intimate of the 13 letters the Apostle Paul wrote that help form the New Testament, Philippians, we see a portrait of what to look for in a friend. Consider these 5 behaviors that a good friend will consistently live out and ask yourself if you model them as a friend yourself.

In Philippians 1.3-11, Paul gives us this template for what good friends do. A good friend will…

  1. Remember the best in you (v. 3).
    • When Paul prayed for his friends in the church in the city of Philippi, his thoughts of them brought him great joy. He chose to focus on their good qualities, rather than upon  their limitations and weaknesses. He remembered their best.
    • What emotions and thoughts rise up in the minds of others when they think of you…joy, happiness, and peace or fear, worry, and anxiety?
  2. Give their best to you (v. 5, 7).
    • He said that he had them in his heart. He fully gave himself to them by giving them the deepest thing about himself, his heart. He used the word koinonia, which means deep partnership, as he described their strong, intimate relationship. Paul was not a relationship skimmer. Rather he gave himself fully to these special friends.
    • How would others describe you? A relationship skimmer or one who is willing to risk and go deep in friendships?
  3. Encourage the best in you (v. 6).
    • He was confident that God would finish the work that He had begun in them. He emphasized that truth and sought to bring out their best. Good friends will bring out your best. Liz Wizeman who studied 150 leaders and wrote Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter discovered that there are two kinds of leaders: multipliers and diminishers. Multipliers bring out the best in others by amplifying their strengths, encouraging them, and empowering them. Diminishers do the opposite. They drain you by having all the answers, micro-managing, and being self focused. Good friends will always seek to be a multiplier in your life.
    • How would others describe you: as a multiplier or a diminisher?
  4. Pray the best for you (v. 9).
    • Paul fervently prayed for his friends. He prayed that they would love Jesus and others more, would learn more about God, and would live out the truths of God’s Word in their conduct and character. Good friends will pray that those three things will become reality in their friends.
    • When you last prayed for your friends, what did you pray for them about? 
  5. Expect the best from you (v. 10-11).
    • Good friends will hold you accountable. They will tell you what you may not want to hear because they will expect the best from you. They won’t let you settle for what is just ‘good.’ They will challenge you to do and be your best.
    • What friend in your life holds you accountable? Do you have a friend that knows you will expect the best from him or her?

Good friends are rare. But when God gives them to us, they are worth their weight in gold.

What question above most resonated with you? Is the Holy Spirit prompting you to become a better friend?

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5 Ministry Killers in the Life of a Pastor’s Wife

My wife, Sherryl, and I have been married for almost 34 years (this Saturday marks the date). We’ve been through ups and downs in our lives and in our ministry. Yet, we still have a zest for ministry as we see each other as ministry partners. When I wrote my second book, 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them, we collaborated on a final chapter called a pastor’s wife killers. Here’s what Sherryl believes can suck the life out of a pastor’s wife with a few suggestions how to combat them.

  1. Deep loneliness.
    • This issue hit home after we both graduated from seminary and I took my first church. The people were nice but Sherryl just couldn’t seem to click with them. Although Sherryl is very outgoing, some people seemed to distance themselves from her and building friends became difficult. It seemed that people didn’t think she needed friends. These experiences helped Sherryl realize that many pastors’ wives do face a loneliness void, especially when they come to a new church setting. Over time Sherryl did find safe friends, but the process seemed agonizingly slow.
  2. Inescapable vulnerability with others. (I quote Sherryl’s thoughts here.)
    • Pastors’ wives face a unique kind of vulnerability. By default, the church where her husband serves often becomes the center of her life in several areas. It’s her main opportunity for service, the place to find some of her closest relationships, the source of her family’s primary means of financial support, and her home away from home. Unfortunately, it also becomes the source of the greatest criticism. Unlike many women who find volunteer opportunities, friendships, and income through other various venues, a pastor’s wife often finds all three wrapped up in the same place: the church.
    • This can become an example of the proverbial “eggs all in one basket.” The history of the word pastor illustrates this idea. The Old English term for person, “parson,” became commonly used to describe a pastor, because the man and the vocation were so integrated that they’d become synonymous. The same holds true for a pastor’s wife.  (Kindle Locations 1644-1649, 5 Ministry Killers, Bethany House, 2010).
  3. Living in a fishbowl world. (again, her insights)
    • When I say that a fishbowl experience can become a ministry killer for a pastor’s wife, I mean this: We not only must face the normal and painful stuff life throws at us, but we must do it as the church looks on.
    • Fortunately, what created anxiety in the fishbowl also challenged me to deepen my walk with Christ. Knowing that others watched my response to crises spurred me to move forward in my faith rather than to wallow in self-pity. Had I not been in the fishbowl, I’m not sure I would have relied as much on His grace.
    • As I reflect on Jesus’ life, I realize He revealed the Father’s heart to us even when He lived in a fishbowl. The people expected Him to be one kind of Messiah, but He didn’t meet their expectations. Instead, He met His Father’s. He lived to please God, not others.
    • This understanding freed me. Although I can only reflect His image dimly, even in the fishbowl I want to mirror His character as clearly as possible. When I try to keep my eyes on the Lord to seek His approval, I’m more at peace and free to be me when I deal with others’ expectations. As a pastor’s wife I must remind myself that one day I will stand before Him to give an account of my life. Then the only thing that will matter is that my life reflected Him well.  (Kindle Locations 1680-1688).
  4. Managing unrealistic and unfair expectations.
    • The spoken and unspoken expectations churches place on pastors’ wives landed on my list because every church has them. Most churches don’t officially say they expect certain things from pastors’ wives. However, they’re as pervasive as dust bunnies and differ from what they expect from other women in the church. (Kindle Locations 1690-1692).
    • Some pastor’s wives simply give up when they can’t meet other’s expectations. They withdraw and become sullen. Others yield to despair, helplessness, and hopelessness. Others outright rebel and turn to behavior that at a conscious or subconscious level hope will force their husbands to leave the church or even leave the ministry. Most pastor’s wives don’t makes such devastating choices, but the expectations killer still exists. Ideally we wives should respond with grace and dignity to them. Through prayer, safe friends, and leaning into the Lord, we can prevail.
  5. Having little or no voice in response to church decisions/church critics. (final thoughts from Sherryl)
    • This issue concerns two groups: church boards and your critics. Boards where we’ve served have seldom asked for my thoughts on decisions. I recognize that because I don’t serve on those boards they aren’t bound to ask me what I think. And most decisions have had little direct bearing on our family or me. However, when a decision does impact our family, as a pastor’s wife I’m not able to voice concerns for fear that such disapproval could affect your job or how others may perceive you.
    • As for critics, we’ve often felt the brunt of unfounded criticism through an e-mail, a call, or a conversation. It hurts, especially when it comes from someone we’ve thought safe.
    • It’s easy for a pastor’s wife to take offense. Since these criticisms aren’t directed toward me, Matthew 18 instructs me not to bring them up; rather, you’re the one who is to approach the critic. But because I’m your wife, when you get criticized, I feel criticized as well. To add insult to injury, I’m expected to be gracious when I come in contact with these people. This makes me feel bound and gagged.
    • I remember years ago when a couple came to talk to you. The wife had been hurt because she believed you ignored her by not speaking to her one Sunday morning. Even though you explained that your oversight was inadvertent and that you’d be more sensitive next time, they left the church a few months later. I struggle with those situations because I feel I have no voice. I feel powerless. I want to express my disappointment with such people and help them get perspective, but if they’ve already decided to leave, it profits little. (Kindle Locations 1712-1722).

In our current church we both have a great relationship with those on our board. It really is a freeing experience for us.

Having been in ministry together for over three decades, we recognize that serving alongside a pastor as a spouse is difficult. And I believe these killers apply as well to spouses of female pastors. While we can’t ignore these killers, with God’s grace a pastor and his spouse can rise above them and choose the godly path.

What spouse killers have you seen in churches? How have you dealt with them?

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