Being a leader can be really disheartening. The amount of slander and criticism that pastors go through has caused thousands of early retirements, I’m sure. Bearing the brunt of people’s focused aggression when you are doing your best to serve God and love people has caused more than one relapse into a former life of substance abuse and crime, I’m convinced.
Leaders can get an overload of “feedback” that is often just plain mean-spirited criticism. When the sound is “to loud” or the preaching is “to long” or the message doesn’t promote someone’s pet doctrines, or, even worse, when the sermon does address someone’s pet doctrines (in a negative light), people often feel absolutely zero reservation in letting leaders know their displeasure. Yes, the comment box is FULL! I, of course, experience none of these tendencies and can only pretend to relate to you pastors who are so stressed out and discouraged. *note to readers, please have your sarcasm detectors fully engaged*
But there’s a flip side to being a leader. Sometimes we don’t receive any feedback and we spend a lot of our time wondering what people think. Was that sermon helpful? Were those phone calls deemed unimportant? Did God use the ministry event in a positive way? Has all of the counseling and time invested bone unnoticed? At the end of the day, a lot of leaders are extremely frustrated because no one says anything or has any opinions or provides any feedback on anything!
It’s really frustrating. I’m not sure what’s worse, mean-spirited criticism or no feedback. Feel free to share your thoughts on that one.
Anyway, a few months ago I was meeting with some leaders and they were giving me updates on how their ministry teams were going. One of the leaders started to express their frustration at the “no feedback” situation. After explaining the feelings involved with not having any clue about which way was up or down, they ended their update by saying:
“I guess no feedback is good though. No one is complaining so everyone must be happy.”
That’s when I, and several others, all about fell over in our chairs. Here’s why…
In the small town church, there are some very strong controlling ideas at work. There’s often an unwritten rule where people simply do not want to rock the boat. Why confront someone when it is easier to just let it go? Plus, many of these people are related to each other, so they want Thanksgiving and Christmas to be pleasant. Or there’s the vicious mean-spirited lady who always has a criticism and who has no problem sharing her opinion, no matter what damage is done.
There are a lot of dynamics at work here in small town church. It can be kind of difficult to wade through the different ways in which people may be speaking to you through the lack of feedback. So I’ve taken the liberty to provide three quick thoughts that are often held by the people pastor’s serve:
“We’re so happy you are here!” When you first start leading in a small church, people may not give you any feedback because they are just glad they have a pastor. It might have been a few months or even a few years since the last time they had a pastor, and now they just want to smile and enjoy the alleged satisfaction of knowing someone will do their funeral or perform a wedding for the second cousin removed on their step-uncle’s side. No feedback is feedback, but it is neutral.
“You’ll be gone soon anyway!” There are a lot of rural churches that have a revolving door in the pastor department. To the shame of some denominations (and leaders!), rural churches are simply “stepping stones.” They function to break new pastors in or operate as a nice transition towards retirement. After all, no one wants to minister in a small town where success can’t be measured by big numbers and large paychecks! That’s the popular thinking on the matter. And since this is quite popular, there are a lot of churches that see approximately five pastors every ten years. That’s right, every two years there is a “transition.” Therefore, people in the church figure they’ll let the new pastor slide for two years because he’ll be gone soon anyway. In fact, when you move the organ or stop teaching Sunday School or make changes to the building, no one says anything because they know you’ll be packing your bags soon. No feedback is feedback, but it’s negative.
“We love you and trust you!” If you are a wise leader, you’ll do your best to create a culture where constructive criticism and gracious confrontation can occur on a regular basis. Yet no matter how hard you try to create this culture, there are some who just won’t give you any feedback unless you absolutely beg for it. The reason why is simple. You’ve gained people’s trust and they know you are “one of them” and, at the end of the day, they believe you are called by God to serve them and lead them and they are comfortable with that. Obviously, this does not happen over night. And I assume that the longer a person serves in a church, the greater the love and trust grow. No feed back is feedback, but it’s positive.
As you can see, these are just three simple concepts that are at work in churches. I’m sure they apply outside of small town church contexts, but they are quite powerful in rural churches. And sometimes you find that all three of those perspectives are shared by people in your congregation at the same time! *gasp!*
What do you think? What other perspectives would you add to these three?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.
“If you are a wise leader, you’ll do your best to create a culture where constructive criticism and gracious confrontation can occur on a regular basis. ”
Wow I hear you. Excellent and practice advice. Allowing good forms of Confrontation can be soooo good in a rural context (in my experience)
A fourth (negative) option I’ve seen: “we’re not talking because you’ve made it clear you don’t want the kind of feedback we have.” I’ve seen pastors squelch honest feedback through verbal and non-verbal messages (more often the latter) that negative feedback is unacceptable. People stop speaking pretty quickly when this happens.