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