Saying Less When You Could Say More

A few days ago I was going through old files on my office computer, and came across a “note” I had written several years ago in response to a member of my church who wrote to complain about the volume level at our 11:00am service.

This “note” was actually a full page, single-spaced, size 11 font, extended margins, behemoth. The middle paragraph was about eighteen lines thick. And to fit as many words as I could on one piece of paper, I reduced the space between paragraphs.

It was ridiculous.

But it wasn’t only the number of words and the length of the letter that was over-the-top, it was also my tone. Reading it now, after four or five years have passed, my defensive tone jumps out of almost every sentence. I quote this person’s original letter back to them in several spots, only to answer with a literary kick to the face.

It felt good to write it, I’m sure. It probably even felt good to stick it in the mail. But It must not have felt very good when the person opened it and read it, with my name signed on the bottom.

I’m learning (or trying to learn) that in those instances when I have a lot to say to someone who offers me criticism, I should actually say very little. This doesn’t mean being dismissive or curt – it means only saying what I need to say, all out of cross-centered humility.

This person’s note to me (if I remember correctly) was actually pretty harsh. In reply, I wanted to tell this person all about how hard we work to find a good mix, about how the acoustics in the room are tricky, about how our floor monitors put out a lot of noise, about how the bible encourages stillness and loudness, about how I don’t want anyone’s ears to hurt, etc. And so I did tell them all of these things. In really long sentences and thick paragraphs.

Bad idea. When you write someone a lengthy, sharp, multi-point missive, it can have the effect of hitting them like a punch in the gut when they read it. And while you might not ever admit this out loud when you’re writing it, you’re actually kind of hoping it comes across like one.

The fundamental problem? It’s gospel-less.

When Jesus was crucified in our place, there was a lot he could have said. And he would have been right to say it. But all he said was: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Jesus, perfect in every way, having been condemned to death on a cross, responds by showing grace.

And it’s because of that cross that we are forgiven, we are freed from the idea that there is anything we can do to make ourselves righteous, and we are able to respond to criticism of all forms with grace, humility, and forgiveness.

There is a lot of “good news” in the Gospel. One piece of good news is that we don’t need to overreact and fret over criticism by writing ridiculously long “notes” in reply. There’s no worse criticism than knowing we deserved death – and Jesus has already paid it and raised us to life with him. Your responses to criticism should reflect the freedom that comes from this. Do they?

Knowing When to Laugh

“Hi Jamie – do you have a minute?”

“Sure!”

“Well, the craft guild was talking this past Wednesday, and we decided that when we sang that song that says ‘thank you for the cross’ last week, that singing it four times was too much. Two times would have been fine. They asked me to tell you.”

“Oh… well, uh…. OK. Thanks…”

“Oh, you’re welcome. We just think two times is plenty.”

This is an actual conversation that took place after a Sunday morning service when I was a teenager first starting out leading worship at a small church where my Dad was the pastor.

I was putting my guitar away when an older member of the congregation, a woman who had been there for probably about three hundred years, approached me with this report from the “craft guild”.

And for anyone (i.e. everyone) who doesn’t know what a “craft guild” is, then I’ll explain. It’s a fancy word for a group of ladies who get together every week at the church and do crafts (i.e. making potpourri, knitting blankets, and occasionally complaining about things.)

In some circles this would be called “the ladies who make crafts”, but in more liturgical churches we like to use words no one knows the meaning of because it makes things sound impressive. This is why the lobby is called the “narthex”, the lay elders are the “vestry”, and the custodial staff members are referred to as “sextons”. Seriously.

My initial response to this ambassador of the craft guild, sent to convey their unanimous decree that I repeat the bridge to Matt Redman’s song “Once Again” not four times but two, was to be offended and then get defensive. Oh the nerve! She doesn’t understand! She smells like blankets!

Taking criticism is never easy. And how to respond to that criticism depends on many different things. What is the heart behind it? How is it being given? Even though this is hard to hear is it right? Is this something I should ignore? It’s different every time. And sometimes, the best way to respond is just to laugh.

You’ll do well in ministry if you’re able to laugh. And this isn’t a mocking, cynical, arrogant laughter, but a “I refuse to let this get under my skin” laughter. I want to seek to humbly respond to criticism, listen to people with a gracious heart, and love even the people who are difficult. But sometimes those people who are difficult will say things that are hard to take. That’s when it’s helpful to laugh. But not in front of them. You might wind up discovered by a sexton buried under the narthex wrapped in potpourri. 

Ten Things to Say When Someone Criticizes You After a Service

The service ended three minutes ago, and an eager gentleman is already waiting to talk to you. He catches your attention, and you say hi to him, and then he says what you never want to hear three minutes after a service: “I just have to be honest with you…”

You know this isn’t going to be pleasant. You’re happy to take suggestions and know that criticism is part of the job, but so soon after a service ended isn’t the best time or place for you receive either very well.

So in that moment – when someone is criticizing you, or the way you led, or the volume, or the songs, or your shoes – how can you respond graciously? Here are ten quick ways you might consider:

1. “Thank you so much for feeling comfortable enough with me to share these concerns. I really appreciate it.”
– Translation: I’ll think about what you said – later.

2. “Hey – since I can be forgetful right after a service, would you mind emailing me your thoughts?”
– Translation: Not now.

3. “That’s really helpful to hear. Thank you.” (repeat as needed)
– Translation: I disagree, but I’ll still listen to you.

4. “Hmmm. That’s very interesting. I’ve never thought about it that way. Thank you so much.”
– Translation: This is a new one.

5. “I see where you’re coming from. Thank you very much!”
– Translation: I can see how you would think that. You’re not crazy.

6. “Yeah, you’re right. I was thinking the same thing.”
– Translation: I don’t take myself too seriously. I’m happy to admit when I could have done something better.

7. “Hmmm. Well… I’m really sorry you felt it was too loud. I will definitely talk with the sound engineer.”
-Translation: I’m noting your concerns and will talk with the people who might be able to do something about them.

8. “That’s good to know. Thank you. Please always feel to share your concerns with me.”
– Translation:  I heard what you just said, and am happy to listen to you whenever you want if it makes you feel listened to.

9. “Well why don’t you call me tomorrow or Tuesday and let’s set up a time to talk?”
– Translation: I’d love to talk with you about this, but not right now.

10. “That’s interesting. What makes you say that?”
– Translation: This seems to be more about you than it is about me. What is it about you that makes you think what you’re thinking?

Someone once told me that being in ministry should make you “tough but sweet”.  That’s been the key for me when dealing with people who have really bad timing. Try to be as Christ-like and “sweet” with them, while at the same time, be strong and “tough” enough to have clear boundaries about what kind of criticism you’ll accept and when you’ll accept it.