Should you get Closer to your Critics?

What’s happening in this picture? I used this in a recent talk and asked the church audience to give me their answers. Their responses included… two people are angry, they are upset, they aren’t talking, they disagree about something. One lady came up to me afterwards and said, “I think it means that she was right and he was wrong.” I chuckled at that one. In a phrase, this is what I see: two people, for whatever reasons, have cut themselves off from each other, both physical and emotionally. Leaders do that sometimes to their critics and naysayers. Here’s why that’s not a good idea and how we can stay closer to our critics.

One of the greatest survival stories ever began in August 1914 when the famous explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, sailed with twenty-seven men on his ship the Endurance. He planned to lead the first expedition across the Antarctic continent. However, his ship got stuck in heavy sea ice which eventually crushed it off the coast of Antarctica. Stuck on four feet of ice over mile-deep water, Shackleton and his crew survived 635 days and nights with poor shelter and limited rations in some of the harshest conditions known. Amazingly, on foot and by small boat he eventually got to safety and then rescued his entire crew. You can read the full story in the great book, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.

What was the key to this amazing story of survival? It was a quality of Shackleton’s leadership presence. The ship’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, captured one of the most important characteristics Shackleton embodied that contributed to the men’s survival. He wrote in his diary, “Shackleton at this time showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly (my emphasis) that we must winter in the Pack, explained its dangers and possibilities; he never lost his optimism.”[1]

Shackleton illustrates a quality I believe leaders need: to maintain a calm presence with their critics, dissidents, and naysayers. In his time of crisis, he calmly connected to his men, especially the dissidents and potential troublemakers. It made the difference between life and death.

It’s a counter intuitive approach. Staying reasonably and calmly connected is the better way to lower the relational tension and personal anxiety we feel toward our critics. It can improve those relationships and it doesn’t mean that we become their best friends or that we let them run over us.

So, who in your ministry is your biggest detractor today?

  • An old-timer who has been in the church 40 years?
  • A board member who seems to always take a contrarian view?
  • A staff person who isn’t performing?
  • A volunteer who doesn’t like you?
  • Or?

Shackleton’s secret was that instead of pushing away his detractors he actually drew closer to those men. He made two of his troublmakers his bunkmates in his tent. And when he left on a lifeboat to assemble a rescue party, he took 3 men whom he felt might cause trouble with the men who were left.

Here’s what I suggest to maintain a calm presence with such people.

  1. Recognize the power of emotional and relational force fields.
    • Just as magnets have force fields around them, leaders carry emotional force fields as well. Our demeanor, words, and vocal tone all carry power. We can draw people to us or push them away (like the same poles on a magnet do). Great leaders monitor and control their emotional force fields because others will sense our tone. It’s a social neuroscience concept theory of mind that states that we can somewhat intuit the emotions, intentions, and thoughts of another. Although it’s not mind reading and we often misread other’s intentions, it is what some call our sixth sense. Great leaders recognize this and create welcoming rather than repelling emotional force fields, especially toward their critics.
  2. Take the initiative.
    • With our critics and naysayers, it’s easier to keep our distance even though we know relationship tension exists. A good leader, however, will take the initiative to reach out to a critic, even though he’d prefer that if, “they have a problem, they should come to me.” A simple conversation like this can potentially ease tension… “Hi, John, just wanted to check in with you. How are things going?”
  3. Practice empathy.
    • Empathy is the ability to step inside another’s shoes and see life from their perspective. Try stepping into your critic’s shoes to see you from their perspective. You might gain new understanding about what lies at the root of their resistance. Daniel Golemen (the emotional intelligence guy) believes there are three kinds of empathy. I describe them in this way: knowing empathy (we cognitively know our critic’s distress), feeling empathy (we feel our critic’s distress), and doing empathy (we are moved to help relieve our critic’s distress). Which kind do you need to express toward your critic?
  4. Become more self-aware.
    • Related to number 1 above, becoming more self aware refers to recognizing the power of emotional contagion, the concept that explains how others catch our emotions. If you act distant or cold toward someone, they tend to mirror your behavior. If you act friendly and open toward others, they tend to respond in like kind. Neuroscientists have discovered a unique set of brain cells called mirror neurons that play a role in emotional contagion. These brain circuits prompt us to subconsciously mimic goal directed behavior we see in others. Ask yourself how you come across to your critics. Would you want them to relate to you as you do to them?

Again, who’s the person in your life or ministry that criticizes or hassles you the most? Which of these four suggestions if applied might make that relationship better?

Even though we may not feel we have the strength or emotional reserve to relate in a positive way toward our critics, the Bible tells us that every follower of Jesus has the Holy Spirit. He promises to give us everything we need to relate in wise and healthy ways toward our critics. The Apostle Paul reminded us of this when he wrote these words.

You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you (Rom. 8.9, NIV)

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[1] Marcuson, Leaders Who Last, kindleKloc. 1117.

5 Vision Killers

Casting vision is a key role every pastor must fill. Yet sometimes corporate attitudes and unhealthy cultures can get in the way. I’ve discovered five attitudes that will stifle even the best cast vision. See if you agree.

  1. Consumer Christianity reflected in the attitude, What’s in it for me?
    • Healthy churches realize they can’t consume their way into discipleship. Following Jesus is not all about us. Great churches rally around a unified cause centered in Jesus and move forward for the good of the whole and the glory of God even it means some people won’t get their preferred way. Good leaders will teach that flexibility and a deferential spirit are crucial ingredients for prevailing churches.
  2. Losing sight that the church gathers on Sundays to scatter the rest of the week.
    •  Leaders and churches must not lose sight that we live in a troubled world desperately in need of the Gospel. Attending church was never meant to be an end in itself.

      Rather we should gather to be transformed, taught, challenged, discipled, and inspired so that we then can scatter into our respective worlds as salt and light for the Gospel.

  3. Risk aversion.
    • Minimizing risk and maximizing safety can becomes a trait for risk averse leaders.  J Oswald Chambers who authored the devotional My Utmost for His Highest wrote, “The frontiers of the kingdom of God were never advanced by men and women of caution.” Great churches can’t play it safe, huddle and cuddle, strive for safety and security, nor guarantee comfort and convenience. While not throwing caution to the wind, great leaders and churches must take bold steps of faith
  4. Programs and processes that trump passion and people.
    • It’s easy to assume that great plans and strategies will automatically and easily reach people. They are important, but without a driving passion for God and a love for people, they are, well, only plans.
  5. The barrenness of busyness.
    • Busy pastors often struggle with this one. I know I do with what seems to be a limitless to-do list. However, busyness can make us miss God. And it does not always translate into productivity. As Bill Hybels has famously said,”Doing the work of Christ was killing the work of Christ in me.” When that happens, our hearts become calloused and cold, we lose our leadership edge, and vision gets stifled.

What have you experienced that can stifle a God-directed vision?

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Stopping the Inner Mental Chatter when you Teach and Preach

Has this every happened to you when you teach preach? You’re in a groove and as you scan your audience, you notice someone not listening…or someone’s arms are crossed…or someone has a scowl on her face. And then an inner dialogue begins. Why aren’t they listening? They must not like what I’m saying? They don’t like me, etc., etc., etc. And then you lose your focus. Every preacher, teacher, and speaker faces this temptation. When it happens, what’s going on and what can we do?

It’s all (or mostly) in our brains. Certainly satan is at work to distract us and our listeners as Mark writes.

Mark 4.15 Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.

But often it’s simply a conscious/unconscious process going on inside our brains due to an overactive part of the brain whose function is to scan for something not right in our environment. When we notice someone(s) in our audience not listening, instead of just noticing and moving on, our minds often add silent commentary like, They must not like what I’m saying. And then we add more dialogue on top of that and even more on top of that.

It we stay in this thought stream, it actually blocks our ability to communicate effectively. We lose our mental focus, we can lose our place in the talk, and negative emotions like fear (they are rejecting me) or worry (what will they say about me since they have rejected me) further distract us.

When this happens, fortunately, we can take some quick practical steps to get back on track. Here’s what has helped me stop this negative chatter before it affects my sermon or talk.

  1. Recognize the physical clues that this may be happening. For me, a dry mouth indicates I’m doing this. When our fight-flee-freeze center in our brain is active, it activates a part of our nervous system that among other things, causes our muscles to tighten, get sweaty palms, or slows down our saliva production. Thus for me, my dry mouth. So, it’s important to stay aware of body sensations that indicate your mind is chattering. Sometimes it’s easier to notice these physical sensations first.
  2. After the physical clue reminds you, simply acknowledge that your brain is messing with you. Those anxious thoughts and emotions are not really you. They are simply passing sensations in your brain. In reality, most of those negative thoughts have no basis in fact. So, let yourself off the hook. It’s your brain messing with you.
  3. Reappraise the situation. I’m a very attentive listener and I always look straight at those talking to me, whether I’m in a 1-1 conversation or I’m listening to a speaker bring a talk. I assume others do the same. However, some people are auditory learners and even though they seem to not be listening, they often are. So, when I see someone not paying attention to my talk I mentally tell myself, They must be an auditory learner. I may be wrong, but this short mental reappraisal helps me get back on track.
  4. Finally, pause at a natural break in your talk, take a breath, and move on. Many studies have shown that a slow breath actually lessens anxiety.

When we bring a sermon or a spiritual talk, spiritual forces certainly seek to minimize the Kingdom impact of our teaching. Satan does not want God’s Word to change lives. Yet, at the same time, our bodies and brains often work agains us as well. We must recognize the difference and when it’s our brain, these simple techniques can help.

What has helped you deal with this mental chatter when you speak?

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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.

Related posts:

10 Ways to Respond to the Church Critic

How to Deal with Criticism

Dumb & Dumber Mistakes Pastors Often Make

I’ve served over 37 years in different churches in various roles and have make lots of mistakes. I didn’t make these mistakes with ill will or with an evil heart, and neither do most pastors. However, we make them, and sometimes they are, well, just dumb. Here are some of the dumbest mistakes I’ve made.

  1. Assuming everybody understands what I meant.
    • Just because people remain silent when I share my idea does not mean that they get it or agree with it. I’ve learned the hard way that I must pry feelings from those who don’t speak up when I share a new initiative. Otherwise, their concerns will show up later and probably surprise me.
  2. Getting defensive when somebody didn’t buy into my plan.
    • Sometimes I’ve unintentionally conveyed to others that every aspect of the church vision must start with me. And if it’s not my idea, if must not be from God. Perhaps in the Old World top down command and control style of leadership that thinking worked. It doesn’t in today’s environment.
  3. Believing that my position as pastor automatically elicited trust from the church.
    • Positional leadership does not guarantee trust from potential followers. I’ve learned that church people only give a certain level of trust in leaders, often low at first. And most likely the trust they have extended to spiritual leaders has taken a hit in the past. I’ve learned that I must go the extra mile to build trust with those in the church. I suggest 10 ways leaders build trust here.
  4. Not communicating enough.
    • I’ve heard mega-church pastors Rick Warren say that because vision leaks, he revisits the church vision every 30 days. He’s right. We must continually communicate not only the vision, but others important issues in the church as well. We almost can’t over-communiate.
  5. Thinking everybody will love, remember, and apply my really great, God anointed, exegetically sound sermons.
    • I used to think that a well crafted sermon I spent 25 hours preparing would light up the hearts and minds of those who were in church that day. Unfortunately, the mind can only absorb so much and if those who listen to my sermons get and apply one insight, they are doing well. I’ve sense tried to find ways to make a few cogent points really stick through brain based communication insight.  You can read my blog here about brain based preaching.
  6. Failing to realize the concept of “uninformed optimism.”
    • The bell curve of change tells us that initially those in a church tend to be excited about a positive new idea or initiative. It’s called uninformed optimism. In the listeners’ minds the idea initially seems really great. However, that optimism often only lasts until they realize what the change may cost them (inconvenience, more money, etc.) That new phase is called informed pessimism. I’ve since  learned to prepare myself for some eventual pushback when the realities of the change finally set in. Tempering my expectation has helped me manage my disappointment when the resistance comes.

What dumb and dumber mistakes have you seen other leaders make?

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