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  • Writer's pictureC. Ryan Chandler

Grace in Conflict

How do you receive criticism with grace?

I've been working in a Baptist church for the past 15 years. I began this calling at 19 years old. Folks seem to think I'm a bit more "wet behind the ears" than I am. Perhaps it's my boyish looks, charm, and voice! So, I take it as a compliment most of the time. Granted, most of that experience was not in the senior pastor role, but they have all been pastoral positions. Needless to say, like the Farmer's Insurance commercial says, "I know a thing or two because I've seen a thing or two." In all those 15 years, I've heard just about every kind of criticism you can imagine.

When I was the associate student pastor in a large Houston suburb church, a parent accused me of immorality. During youth camp one summer at South Padre Island, a student started a rumor (in jest) that I was throwing a midnight party on the beach. I was doing no such thing, just to set the record straight. Yet, one family in the church caught wind of it and called the youth pastor screaming that "his child would not be partying with that guy on the beach!"

The whole accusation, however, was even worse. This church member even accused me of promoting homosexuality in the youth ministry. Although he did not downright say it, his accusation suggested that he even questioned my sexuality, despite being married with kids. I'll admit that I'm not the manliest man you've ever met, but our entire church staff was flabergasted by his outburst. When I returned home, our meeting was turbulent, to say the least. As I recall, he wouldn't even meet with me in the same room.

That was a severe conflict. I've also received plenty of petty criticism as well. When I was a young youth intern, I failed to turn the fan off in the youth room. One of the deacons of the church left me a handwritten, three-page essay on my immaturity. It was somewhat understandable. The church was small and struggled to pay the bills. A higher energy bill that month would have been challenging. But a three-page note seemed then, and does still, overkill for what could have been a quick, stewardship-oriented conversation with a young minister.

I could continue to air my grievances - after all, Festivus is upon us - but that's not the purpose of this blog. Maybe I would get more readers if it was! The bottom line is, if you're a leader, you're going to receive criticism, whether you like it or not! So, back to my original question:

How do you receive criticism with grace?

First, I think you have to ask yourself a crucial question: Are they right? Is there any truth in this criticism? Even a little bit?

If the answer is no, then hold your ground firmly but politely. If the answer is yes, even slightly, then own it. Timothy Keller made an interesting remark in a pastoral counseling class I attended not too long ago. When he does marriage counseling, he reminds couples that even if the problem is split unequally, let's say one person is 80% of the problem and the other is 20%, the 20% person still needs to own their percentage and repent! Is there any truth in the criticism? 20% even? Then own it! You're not perfect, and it's okay to admit it.

In the earlier cases, the first one was utterly false. I met that criticism with a vehement denial of his accusations. In the second case, however, the church member was right in principle, even if his method was not. I probably did not, but I should have met that criticism (Hey, I was 19! Give me a break!) with a simple, "I'm sorry I left the fan on. That was irresponsible of me. I'd like to know more about the church's finances so I can be a better steward of our resources. However, in the future, would you just come to talk with me about it? It's hard to read tone in a letter."

Second, keep your anxiety in check. This is one of the most challenging but essential parts of leadership. The best leader in the room does not react from anxiety. While everyone else's anxiety rises, they control their own.

Edwin Friedman, a leader of leaders, wrote much on being a "nonanxious presence." He writes, "What is vital to changing any kind of 'family' is not knowledge of technique or even of pathology but, rather, the capacity of the family leader to define his or her own goals and values while trying to maintain a nonanxious presence within the system."

Pastor and theologian Robert R. Creech comments on this, saying, "The process of becoming a less anxious leader is not simply a matter of deep-breathing exercises." "Being a less anxious presence is more than just calming down."

Controlling your anxiety has to do with knowing yourself.

Dr. Creech says, "It means that one is fully present as a self, with all one's beliefs, values, principles, and goals clear amid an anxious system that attempts to challenge or sabotage leadership. It means being fully present in the system, remaining connected to the important others who are part of it as well. The nonanxious presence aspect refers to the capacity of leaders to regulate their own reactivity to the anxiety."

Who you are matters. What you believe matters. As Polonius said to his son, "To thine own self be true." Do you know yourself? Do you know what you stand for? Do you know your beliefs, values, principles, and goals? Can you separate yourself from the other-selves in the room and not adopt their anxiety as your own? You will need to if you are going to receive and respond to criticism with grace.

(A quick side note: It would be beneficial if "thine own self" is shaped primarily by the gospel and Jesus. In fact, it will be essential for the grace part of all this. Your own self is insufficient. "Thine own self" shaped by Christ is sufficient. Just a quick, friendly discipleship note!)

Third, do the right thing no matter what. Now that you've evaluated whether the criticism is right or wrong, you know where you stand, and you've got a handle on your anxiety, do the right thing. Firmly, but calmly, hold your ground. It's okay if someone disagrees with you. That's part of the church! But it doesn't mean you have to let someone's emotional reactivity determine what you do. In truth, part of your job as the leader is to protect the church from emotional reactivity. The tail cannot wag the dog. More problems are lying in wait if you do.

Fourth, aim toward reconciliation. If I weren't a Christ-follower, grace wouldn't be a concern. I'd hire, fire, and split ways without a second thought. But the grace of Jesus Christ governs me, all of me. That doesn't mean we don't criticize one another or that conflict in the church means the church stinks. What it means is that Christ determines how we criticize and disagree with one another.

In grace, we offer criticism; and in grace, we receive it.

Paul makes it obvious when he says, "16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:16-21, NIV)."

The other in the church that has lobbied criticism against you is made in God's image. They are not your enemy. Do not regard them from a worldly point of view. In any conflict, aim toward agreement and unity. That is part of the mission God has called you to. You are his ambassador. He has given this ministry to you. Keep it in mind always. Let's bring people together by handling our conflicts in a Christ-like manner - full of grace and aimed at reconciliation.

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