Listening to My Critics

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In one of the first pastoral ministry classes I had in college, our professor gave us some excellent advice.
He said that as pastors/ministers, there'd always be a group of folks who would put us on a pedestal—we can do no wrong. 
When we’re down or discouraged, they could provide a lift.

"But listen only to them," he warned, "And you run the risk of being crushed under the weight of your giant ego. You would do well to listen to those who come to you with criticism," he emphasized. “It won’t be easy, or comfortable, but you’ll learn things from your detractors you will never learn from your Pastoral Fan Club.”

As a young, idealist ministerial student, I bristled at this suggestion.
After all, I was “called by God.” 

I was training to be a Pastor…the shepherd of the congregation. It would be my job to listen to God, then provide guidance, direction and vision for them, not allow them to control me. 
My marching orders come from God!
Wouldn’t listening to those who oppose me drown out the Voice of God? 
(I justified my objection with the stories of Moses, leading the grumbling Israelites out of Egypt. Of course, my arrogance cast me as Moses in my scenario!)

Needless to say, that experienced professor was proven right!
Sadly, it took me several years and much ministerial conflict to learn the lesson and heed his sage counsel.

I recognized I was not omniscient. (Duh!)
I realized I didn't have all the answers. (Again...Duh!)
Working solely from the vacuum of the Pastor's Study limited observation.

I needed input from those with differing ideas, skills, gifts, experiences and points of view.
Sycophants could not…would not…give me that.
Operating in the echo chamber of groupies can’t expand my perspective.

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I made a personal decision to listen, including and especially to those who criticized me.
I might not take their counsel/advice/criticism…but I would choose to listen. To hear them.

Here's what I now believe:

Listening is not weakness. It’s not indecision.
It’s not a lack of leadership, or a compromise of conviction.
Agreeing to listen is not a change in vision or direction.
Listening is not compliance.

My professor was also right that it is not easy.
It’s usually humbling. Mostly, it’s awful.

The impulse is to defend, or explain, or react.
That’s not listening.

In the past few Brain Bubbles, there’s a common threat—communication. Like it or not, criticism is part of the communication process.

That’s why it’s essential, in our listening, we look at facts versus opinions.
We need to know our “agree or disagree” limitations. 
It’s the reason we determine when folks want to help, or when they only need to “’Splain.”

I do not regret time listening to those who disagree with me, who think I’m wrong.
I haven’t wasted my time hearing from my critics.
I think it’s made me a better person.
In fact, one of the biggest, best (and hardest) decisions in my life came as a result of listening to a critic. It ultimately changed not just the direction of my life, but the quality of my life.

Note: For the sake of brevity and staying on topic, I won't relate the incident here. If you’re interested, I’ve included the story at the end of this post.

I’m no longer in the ministry, nor do I hold a job where I’m scrutinized by bosses and co-workers. But I still maintain this commitment in my personal life and in my avocation as a writer. It’s why I respond to questions, and complaints, on my Facebook page. (For example, several years ago, I was featured in numerous national articles about my past involvement in “ex-gay” leadership. The criticism, in the form of comments on those articles, was brutal. But I listened, and wrote about what I learned.)

At this point, I feel the need to clarify, lest someone think I’m advocating becoming a punching bag for anyone and everyone who has a gripe or complaint. (Though, honestly, it does feel that way sometimes!) This is not about being a doormat for all who want to wipe their muddy feet on me. (Yes, I mixed my metaphors.)

Over the years, I’ve implemented some necessary boundaries to go with this commitment.
In other words, I listen to my critics...critically. 

Motive is a factor. It’s not that I refuse to listen until I know their motive, and it’s not that I can’t learn, regardless of their motive. But many critics have their own agenda that actually has nothing to do with me. So it's important to "listen" beyond their words. 

Are they truly concerned, or do they only like to complain?
Are they focused on things I do or say, or is their criticism directed at me, as a person?
Is this about changing a situation, or about control?
Is this person a serial complainer? A perpetual critic?
Is it a veiled threat? An ultimatum?
Do they offer solutions, or only point out problems?
Do they even know me?

Methodology is considered. It's not just why they come to me, but how they come. I am interested in the attitude of their approach, and the words they use when they speak. I know that taking complaints and criticism to a person in authority makes many nervous. That might cause them to stumble, ramble or say inappropriate things that sound harsher than they intended. Some will opt for an impersonal letter. Even an anonymous letter.

Personal Note: Yes, I do read those, though they definitely don’t carry the same weight! However, I still want to "listen" and learn. I've used those letters to ask myself WHY they aren’t comfortable talking to me in person, or being transparent about their identity.
Do I come across as someone who doesn’t invite personal feedback or constructive criticism?
Am I seen as a leader who would retaliate if confronted?

Message is crucial. In listening, there are things that have become “red flags” for me. It won’t shut down the interaction, but it puts me on alert. (“Danger, Will Robinson!”)

Name-calling and bullying are not tolerated. Discussion over!!
Hiding behind divine unction. (“God told me…”)
Reliance on vague alliances. (“They're saying…” “Many of us…” “Lots of people…”)
Generalizations. (“You always…” “You never…”)
Directives. (“You should…” “You must…” “You ought…”)

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We all have those who disagree with us. 
We can ignore them, arrogantly assuming they have nothing to teach us.
Or we can listen.
It might surprise us. 

Listening to our critics keep us grounded.
Obviously, we can’t only listen to their voices; that would bury us in the ground.
We’d never get anywhere and we would never do anything! 


Personal Recommendation: In the midst of criticism, we must give attention to those who inspire and encourage. Otherwise, we get discouraged and disillusioned. That's self-care!
(I'm already my worst critic.)

Interestingly…and ironically…I get criticism from folks because I listen to the criticism of others.

"Why do you care what they say?"
"You're wasting your time!"
"Don't listen to them."

And...here we are!
<shrug>


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * 

Listening to a critic changed my life.
Here’s how that happened:

I’d spoken on a local radio show, talking about my work with those wishing to change their sexual orientation. I shared my own experience, and offered insights into what (I thought) the Bible had to say about the subject. I used several examples of those I’d met who were now proudly, successfully “ex-gay.”

A young man called me at my office a few days later, saying he’d heard me on the radio, and wanted to talk. Nothing new there; I assumed he was gay, and was ready to change.

We spent the first few minutes with casual introductions, getting acquainted. I found him to be a warm and kind person. I invited him to tell me why he came to see me. He asked permission to ask me a personal question.

“How comfortable are you with your sexuality?”

There was not a hint of meanness or confrontation in his question.
It was spoken graciously and without guile.

I dodged with something like “What do you mean?” or “I’m not sure what you mean.”

He went on to tell me that he’d listened to what I shared, about my own "ex-gay" journey.
“It doesn’t ring true,” he said.

He never attacked me, or challenged my theology or my theories. He didn’t argue.
I don’t remember his exact words, but this unassuming, soft-spoken guy sat there and gently punched holes in the persona I worked so hard to project to others.

“I listen to your words…and the intensity of your message…and it sounds like the person you're trying to convince is you. Your words are carefully chosen, like when I asked you that question earlier. It's like you're hiding something.”

I remember feeling so…exposed.
This stranger was looking inside me.

He left without me admitting to the truth of any of his accusations. (At the time, I couldn’t admit it to myself.)
But his words…his question…would not go away.
It echoed in my head, demanding an answer.

Not long after this conversation, my “ex-gay” façade began to quickly crumble.