It’s been a wonderful ten years in ministry at my church. And it’s also been very hard.
Some of the hardest moments have come when I’ve been the recipient of criticism, the cause of controversy, and involved in conflict. Sometimes the criticism was justified, and I needed to hear it, but other times it was just someone being mean and hurtful. And sometimes the controversy was because I had unknowingly ruffled some feathers, while other times it was because I stumbled into some spiritual strongholds. And sometimes the conflict was over insignificant things like whether or not we should have drums play during communion, and sometimes it was over major things like whether drums are Satanic in origin or not (they’re not).
For many years I struggled with responding to challenges with defensiveness, all the while getting my feelings hurt, my ego bruised, and my identity in limbo. I’d write multi-page emails responding to a woman’s harmless complaint about volume, or I’d be a bit of a jerk in a meeting with someone who thought the 4/4 rock beat was going to cause people to lose their salvation, or I’d get depressed, lose sleep, and get overwhelmed.
Ministry can be very tough and lonely at times. Especially when you have detractors. What do you do?
Cling to the good news of Jesus Christ
You. Are. Hidden. In. Christ. That’s very good news. And you can’t let yourself forget it when you’re someone’s target. You are safe, you are loved, you are accepted, and you are covered by Jesus’ blood. It’s amazing how freeing this is, and how bad things can get for you when you forget it.
Rest assured: most of the time it’s not about you
When you have the unfortunate experience (and you will) of being the target of someone’s displeasure, remember that it’s most likely not about you. Maybe it is. But most of the time it’s not. Address their concerns, listen to them, and respond with grace. Apologize if you need to and then move on. Don’t let someone fixate on you. If they’re mad, it’s probably because they’re sad.
Practical tip #1: stay away from email
Email is good for everyday stuff. It’s bad for weighty stuff. An in-person conversation is ALWAYS better. Always. One of the biggest mistakes (or, sequence of mistakes) in my last ten years was keeping a multi-week dialogue over email running with someone who was very upset with me. It was terrible. I should never have allowed it to go on like that.
Practical tip #2: have hard conversations in neutral territory
Another one of the biggest mistakes I made was insisting that someone come to my office for a difficult conversation. Understandably, they flat-out refused. Never insist on dealing with difficult issues in your office. It immediately places you in the “winning” position. Find a public place, like a Panera with semi-private-yet-public booths. The dynamic is instantly more favorable for a good conversation, not a confrontation. If a conflict has reached a point where it needs to be in an office, have it in one of your pastor’s offices with him present.
Be quick to make it right
Just get it over with and reach out to someone with a personal card, or a phone call, or a coffee, and put the difficult issue to rest. The longer it drags on, the more the molehill becomes a mountain.
Too many people in ministry are incredibly afraid of the slightest whiff of criticism, controversy, or conflict, that they’ll do anything to avoid it, including changing their mind, accommodating the critics, weakening their convictions, and literally trying to keep everybody happy. This is one definition of insanity. Sometimes you just need to stick to your guns.
Never forget: you have been called by God
God is faithful. He will defend you. He will accomplish his purposes in and through you. No elder board, no angry member, no petition, no nasty email, and no “I’m going to leave the church unless…” should frighten you. You can sleep well and let him deal with your problems for you. You’ll be much happier in ministry and you’ll last a lot longer too.