Critical care


One of the most difficult things about being in the pastorate is taking criticism. Sometimes it’s warranted. Sometimes it’s not. I’m very happy to say that my current congregation doesn’t complain much, but I have been in places where everything I wore, everything I ate, and every decorative pillow I bought for my home was up for dissection and disapproval. This is a post about the unfair grumbling.

For instance, I have a friend whose congregation criticized him for clinking the communion trays one time when he served communion. I knew a pastor with a parishioner who would not speak to her after she got caught going to the grocery store in cut-off jeans. A man told me that he made one of his members furious because he wore a navy blazer and khaki pants instead of a suit to certain functions. During a children’s sermon a couple weeks ago, a child loudly remarked to my husband, “I don’t like your beard! And I’m not the only one!”

So, when we find ourselves in these places, with a handful of parishioners who have eyes bent to criticize, what’s the best thing to do? Here’s what I do:

Echo the words back. For instance, when someone says to me, “I hate when you wear black clothes. It’s so depressing. You really need to brighten up your wardrobe.”

I can respond by looking down at my beautiful new cashmere sweater that I just got on a fabulous sale and say, “You don’t appreciate my black clothing. Hhmm.” I can even tilt my head to the side a bit, as if I’m giving the remark some honest reflection. Then I can walk away.

But the important thing here is that I’m not quickly defending my sweater choice (because it’s really none of their business), and I’m not apologizing either (because, as I said before, it’s really none of their business).

Laugh about it. We wait until our daughter’s in bed, and we make endless jokes. We even use expletives, if warranted. Nothing takes away the sting of resentment like a good night of laughing.

This is also important if you’re going to a church where there’s more than one pastor on staff. Make sure there’s a pastor that you can laugh with there. Seriously. It just makes the job so much more fun. If these are not options, call a seminary friend or join a clergy group. If the clergy in your town have no sense of humor, create your own clergy group with people who do.

Avoid drinking. I went to seminary in Margaritaville. And there was nothing like the end of the week, when we could go out with friends and blow off the stress over a fishbowl of tequila. But, this is never a good habit to continue. I haven’t done any actual studies on this matter, but we all know there’s a lot of alcoholism in the pastorate, and I’d bet that has a lot to do with the high criticism rate.

Most of us love people. That’s why we’re in this job. And so it hurts when we’re picked apart, even when the complaints are petty. And it’s a lot quicker route from pain to laughter when there’s alcohol involved, but there are way too many other complications if we’re using it to medicate our depression or numb our feelings.

Don’t be afraid to leave. Some churches are more critical than others, and if the strain of constant negative commentary is making you miserable, if your eating habits have changed drastically, if it’s causing you to become burdened with all sorts of stress-related sicknesses, it may not be entirely your fault. We can get in the trap of thinking that if we try harder, everything will be all right. But sometimes it’s important to find a place where we can flourish–as the people we are.

Churches are never going to give us all the love and affirmation we need. There will always be grievances. That’s a fact. But if criticism is particularly difficult for you, and certain members in your church are relentless in the complaint department, then it simply may not be a great fit.

So, what are your strategies? What do you do so that you don’t spiral into recrimination? What’s the weirdest complaint you’ve heard? And, who do you laugh with?

photo’s by knitting collage


11 thoughts on “Critical care

  1. my hair! they love it, they hate it. it’s too long, it’s not long enough. i should wear it up, i should wear it down. i should color it (now that there are a few grays…), i should never color it! i am usually amused and bemused by all the discussion of my hair!

    also, my voice – i talk too fast, i talk too softly, etc.

    usually, i laugh, with them. i make fun of myself as a yankee, or a hippee (which i am neither, really). occasionally, someone really gets on me – recently, someone very angrily insisted that i take speech improvement lessons because he couldn’t hear me (he wears two hearing aids). in that case, i just listened to him fully, and then thanked him for his insight, then let it go.

    i DO think about whether i am projecting enough from the pulpit, but i also think that people just need outlets for their anxiety or their anger, and i try to think that this is my way of providing a safe one for them, by not defending myself from their criticism.

    but you are right, sometimes it really hurts…

  2. Warning: I’m getting ready to ramble because I have a number of unrelated thoughts on the matter.
    1. For the last year I have been serving in the most affluent community I have ever seen, houses with additional houses on the property, that sort of thing. I have asked the HOS, “What am I supposed to wear?” more times in this year than I have in the rest of my ministry.
    2. Sometimes when I hear criticism about myself or other pastors I think, If that’s all they have to complain about, life is pretty good. My home church has a new pastor. He is very tall; he pronounces the benediction from the pulpit with both hands raised. My mom told me that someone complained they felt like he was about to “pounce” on them at the end of every worship service. It seemed to me that things must be going pretty well if they’re digging that deep to find something to complain about.
    3. I try to listen for the truth in what is being said. We have twins and my wife went on bedrest near the end of her pregnancy. One young mother who was a church member approached me and told me I would need to start pitching in and helping around the house with laundry and dishes, etc. I already did the laundry and the dishes, but I think I got a glimpse into life at her house.
    4. I challenge myself to listen to each piece of criticism. We hear so much goofy stuff that yes, we could take it all too seriously, become sick, etc. But we could also be tempted to write it all off as silly complaints from silly people. Then, we close ourselves to those who really do have our best interests at heart.

    It’s a challenge, but it does provide wonderful material for a book. You write something helpful like Tribal Church; I always thought my book would be titled, Wingnuts and Lugnuts: What I Learned from Congregational Ministry.

  3. I’m wondering what is behind these comments. It seems to be something bigger than the pastor’s clothing, hair, habits.

    Could it be that parishioners expect higher standards for their pastor than for themselves? (e.g. It’s okay for them to drink casually, wear cut offs to the store, but not the pastor?)

    Could it be that parishioners and pastors have mismatched cultures? (e.g. Parishioners in that town simply “don’t wear cutoffs” but where the pastor comes from cutoffs are just fine)

    Could it be that parishioners don’t understand that the pastor is just “one of them” – a minister among ministers who, like them, has bad hair days or a poor night’s sleep or a cranky child?

    Could it be that parishioners see the pastor as their representative to God and the community. (e.g. They want their pastor always looking good because she/he represents them.)

    I don’t know. But I’m pondering such things these days as I hear of several big deal churches in my area who have formed uprisings against their pastors – usually for something bigger than hairstyle, and yet, it’s often something that doesn’t make sense . . . unless it’s really about something else.

  4. Last Sunday a member chewed me out — in the line after the Sunday service — because I had not included a link to photos of the church fair in an email I’d sent him Saturday evening. It’s the sort of occurrence which makes me less enthusiastic about taking pictures at church events.

    Last fall we did an “all church evaluation”. Several people wrote cruel comments about my children’s moments and demanded that I be fired because I did them so poorly. Altho the deacons here think I do great children’s moments, this fall I have been much more pro-active in recruiting members to do them. And I’ve announced my retirement this coming spring.

    I’d like to reinforce the suggestion that we not look for all our needs to be met within the congregation. And, if you — like me — pastor a middle-sized church, you may have to be quite intentional about finding connections away from the church (because there’s a ton of work in a 300 member sole pastor church ).

    About 2 years ago, I got involved in a totally non-church recreational activitity and have taught myself to simply refuse church committments which interfere with it (well, not funerals, but having made an effort to schedule it for my time off, I don’t then cancel my fun for committee meetings). This has made a HUGE difference in my life, and brought me several good friends!

  5. Jan,

    Kevin Ford has a book called The Thing in the Bushes that covers that very topic. Basically that what when conflict comes up, it is rarely about the issue that sparked the conflict. There is always something else “in the bushes.” He says that finding out what that is and dealing with that issue is what helps an organization get back on track.

  6. frcathie,

    Why is it that all of the hard-of-hearing people sit on the back row? It must be a rite-of-passage of some sort. It’s like that “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple” poem. There will be no purple for me, instead “When I am an old woman, I shall sit in the back of the sanctuary and complain that the pastor’s not speaking loudly enough.”

  7. doglover, ugh. I’m so sorry about the post-service pounce. And to be fired over the children’s moment?? There must be some “thing in the bushes” at your place.

    You’re right a 300 member church is a massive amount of work for one person, especially if you have to spend a lot of emotional energy on complaints. It’s sounds like you’re doing a great thing by finding an outside activity. I hope the nastiness blows over soon. Hang in there and take care of yourself, spring’s just around the corner!

  8. At one point one of my matriarchs complained for the 1000th time about not being able to hear me while sitting in the back pew. Unfortunately, without thinking I joked, “What makes you think I want you to hear what I am saying?” I was lucky that she had a sense of humor. Actually, she really loved that type of thing.

  9. I like that you included a comment about a change in eating habits being a signal to watch out for. I really put on the poundage in my first church, a stressful Associate Pastor position in which I worked way too hard. I also think I was “insulating” myself somehow and eating to be kind to poor me. Isn’t eating one of the acceptable ways for religious people to be kind to themselves? Anyway, I was miserable. Funny thing: I went back to visit that church two summers ago. It struck me on the visit: everybody there seemed really miserable. One of the truly wretched women came up to me and demanded, “What are you doing here?” So she was complaining about me again! For existing! Yep, there’s no escaping clergy complaints.

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