Now that we have a new president in Donald Trump, everyone seems to have opinions about who he really is and what he will actually do. These opinions only serve to divide us more.
But the new president offers us a unique opportunity to think about leadership. If we can take off our partisan hats for a moment, we can learn a few things.
Listen to Your Critics
Not every criticism is a personal attack. Both the people who love us and the people who don’t may speak to us at times with a critical tone. It’s a reality of life that not everyone will have the same opinion. It is the role of a free press in a free society to ask critical questions, to inform the public of things that are not going well. The only way democracy can thrive is for people to be able citizens: informed and involved. Informed means that they know what is going on and involved means that they voice their opinions about what they have learned.
In the current age of fake news, it is harder to determine where truth is told and where we are being fed “alternative facts.” This is not new to church people. Rumor mongers in local churches have never had fact checkers publishing non-partisan essays on the falsehoods others have so eagerly seeded into the church flower bed. Even the most popular pastor has critics.
However, being a pastor means listening to all of it, even the ridiculous lies that someone believes are the gospel truth. It is important to know what is being said. It is less important to respond to it immediately.
When someone decides to unload his / her feelings and thoughts, it is because he / she expects us to listen. Extend the courtesy of listening – earnestly, dispassionately, and lovingly – even when it is hurtful. Listen. Then say, “I’d like to think about that. Thank you for your honesty.”
Even Trump’s most ardent supporters wish he would “Tweet” less. A discouraging percentage of his tweets are merely hurtful reactions to his critics. He reacts at all times of the day and night. Whenever he feels slighted, maligned, questioned or upset, he reacts and attacks. In the end, these are hurtful to him. They only serve to make him seem angry, insecure, and petulant.
Learn from this! Do not react to criticism immediately. Never ever tweet about it. Give it a good 24 hours before sending an email. Wait several days before responding in person.
There are several reasons why it is wise to react slowly. First, by reacting immediately we are much more likely to react emotionally, defensively, and inappropriately. All three are bad. Reacting from those positions is only going to serve our critics, it will rarely serve us. We may think, “I showed them!” But, most assuredly, their response will not be to capitulate. Most likely, their response will be to feel as if their pastor is attacking them – something pastors should not be doing – and they will dig in their heels and fight back. Now the battle is engaged and it will be very difficult to disengage.
Carefully Consider the Other Person’s Opinion
Trump seems to dismiss any criticism immediately. Anyone whose opinion is different is simply wrong and needs to be exposed. This deprives him of the opportunity to make himself a better person – which is why much of his conversation comes off as if he was socially arrested in middle school.
Learn from this! This is why we don’t want to react immediately. What if, … just for the sake of argument, of course, … they are right?
Few of us can honestly evaluate our own actions immediately and be insightful and honest with ourselves. Sometimes people will be unfairly critical, some people are just mean or highly critical of everything, or they loved the last pastor and we aren’t that person so everything we do is wrong. But sometimes people will be critical and have very good reasons. How do we know the difference?
Put it under a microscope and check it out.
- Pray about it. Ask God to examine your soul. Ask God to help you see reality.
- Ask a close friend. Share the criticism and ask a friend to examine it and feed it back in a way that you can deal with it.
- Ask the critic for more information. Why did they say that? What is behind it? Make a date for a lunch – or just coffee – but make the effort to hear more carefully. (Sometimes we will learn that they were just in a bad mood and feel sorry for crabbing at us. They may have even wanted to call and apologize but didn’t know how. Making the effort to listen opens the door to reconciliation that reacting would have slammed shut.)
Is there anyone out there who thinks Trump’s ties are attractive? Can’t we hire someone from GQ to tutor the poor man? It’s a simple thing: The tip of the tie covers the belt buckle.
Everyone has areas that are worthy of growth and change. When someone is critical of us, it almost always says more about them than about us. However, the simple fact is that they shared this information with us is because they would like us to change.
The common reaction to that is Popeye’s: “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.” Popeye is happy with himself, he is “Popeye the sailor-man.” He does not intend to examine his life and he has no desire to change. I am happy with who I am. Most people embrace the Popeye mantra, if not in voice, at least in practice.
But we are the church. If we are doing our job, we are asking the world to change. We expect our members to listen to sermons and change. In a world full of mean, nasty, angry, hurtful people, we are the ones who call for justice and righteousness to flow like a mighty river.
Why are we so defensive about changing ourselves? The most rewarding things in life are achieved by change. This is true about curing illness, building organizations, winning football games, or growing as people of God.
Pastors are not excluded from this. Ordination is not a certificate of perfection, nor a validation of our personalities. Ordination conveys authority, it does not validate enlightenment or entitlement.
We must believe at our core that we can change and grow and be better people today than we were yesterday. Jesus came to teach us how to live and love, forgive and embrace, that we may be more like him; in fact, he tells us we can actually be better than he is: “Greater things than I have done, you will do.” That will take some work! If you are going to be better than Jesus you might have to change a few things.
Can we do that by being the same people today that we were yesterday?
Listening carefully to our critics – whether their opinions are right or wrong – affords us the opportunity to learn from those opinions, and learning affords us the opportunity to grow into better people. Donald Trump might not approve, but Jesus would.
© 2017 by Steve Petty