Criticism: it’s ubiquitous in congregations. No matter how we leaders pretzel-twist ourselves to please people, we fall short—and there are always helpful, caring people who will take the time to tell us so!
The worst thing we can do is overreact. Whether by proclaiming innocence or by fighting criticism with more criticism, leaders who respond too strongly only up the emotional ante. That’s why underreacting is a key skill for every leader.
Underreacting is not easy. The complainers, after all, are not mere customers—in our shop, there is no counter between us and them. Clergy, in particular, are more affected than we often show. We pour ourselves out week after week, and sometimes congregants pour themselves out to us as well. Sometimes “helpful feedback” pierces our thin skin and strikes vital organs.
Fight or Flight
When we humans feel attacked, our fight-or-flight circuitry swings into action. But how do you fight with people who—they say—have only your best interests at heart? Attacking back may feel like the best way to show strength, but often the main result is to reveal how weak and hurt we feel. Ministerial old-timers used to warn me against “getting blood in the water,” adding “all it does is attract more sharks.”
On this one point, at least, the old-timers were correct. An over-strong response to criticism reveals that the barb hit home and invites others to pile on.
Counterattacking is just one way leaders make things worse. Other ways include over-the-top groveling, false apologizing, and accepting misplaced blame. Taking the blame for what you do is a good thing, and so is taking responsibility for what others do under your direction. The problem is with the emotional envelope in which the message is delivered.
Containing Your Anxiety
Rabbi Edwin Friedman taught that “the capacity of members of the clergy to contain their own anxiety regarding congregational matters … may be the most significant capability in their arsenal.” The challenge, when the tension rises, is to stay calm enough to listen and respond to others while remaining firmly rooted in your own core values.
Being a “non-anxious presence”—Friedman’s most-quoted phrase—does not mean the leader is not anxious! Criticism “hooks” some of our most basic insecurities. What if I’m not good enough to be a leader? What if I am not as good a person as I like to think I am? What if I am actually a person who hurts others? Anxiety is normal in the face of such self-doubts. But injecting more anxiety into an already anxious situation—no matter what you’re trying to say—only escalates the tension and prompts others to act out of anxiety as well.
A temptation when we feel threatened is to step up the emotional level—giving more than we got. A better plan is to underreact. Wise leaders take the emotional temperature of a criticism and respond in kind—but at a lower temperature. If the perceived attack comes in at 80 degrees, respond at 60.
Learning to Underreact
But how? If overreacting is our natural response to stress, how can we learn to underreact? The first step, of course, is to learn to see our situation from the outside. It helps to know that criticism is a normal part of leadership, and that feeling personally attacked by criticism is a normal—if mistaken—part of being human.
Even simply reading this article may help you strengthen the part of your brain that knows you will survive and that your best chance to de-escalate the situation is to keep your own anxiety in hand.
When you feel anxiety begin to rise, here are some tips to redirect your energy in ways that are more likely to help your situation rather than inflaming it:
Avoid name-calling. It’s tempting, when we disagree, to label one another: “He’s a conservative.” “She’s a nervous Nellie.” “Those people aren’t really Presbyterians [or fill in the blank].” Lay people often label clergy as “controlling” or “naïve.” Clergy label their parishioners as “dysfunctional” or “clergy killers.” True or false, such labels are always unhelpful.
Wise leaders adopt a simple rule: Don’t label people. Ever.
The nice thing about a simple rule is that it’s possible to follow it even when you’re scared or angry. Don’t label people. Ever.
Focus on goals. Another useful rule for high-stress moments is to express your most important hopes and invite others to state theirs. (Usually this is the best sequence, despite what you may have been taught in seminary—asking others to express themselves first might work in counseling, but anxious people generally respond better if you take the first risk.)
For instance, if you give a sermon about white racism, you can expect to hear that you are trying to make white people feel bad about themselves. You could counter this by saying that white people should feel bad about themselves—or you could underreact by saying something like, “I do sometimes feel bad about myself as a white person, and I hope worship can be a place where we can explore those kinds of feelings. What do you look for when you attend worship?”
No doubt the other person’s goals will be a little different. No need to argue—rather than freezing one another into fixed roles or positions, you can then explore together options to move forward.
When we disagree, a kind of tunnel vision sets in—at worst we see only disagreement. By calming ourselves, we can see that most differences are about the best way to balance goals that we agree on, even if we weight them differently.
Watch out for triangles. Whenever tension rises, it’s a good bet there is some triangulation going on. More often than not, the person who delivers criticism to a leader feels they are speaking on behalf of others: “Many people are unhappy about…”
More generally, when two people feel uncomfortable with one another, they will “triangle in” a third. Because it protects the primary parties from dealing with each other directly, an emotional triangle heightens the anxiety for everyone.
Congregants who disagree with one another—about worship style, Covid reopening, or social issues—often find it easier to redirect their energy toward criticism of the pastor or another leader than to deal with one another. A leader who “bites” by accepting responsibility for others’ conflicts only feeds into the idea that only leaders can fix things.
Luckily, it takes three to triangle! The next time someone comes to you and says (or implies) that “many people are unhappy,” don’t defend yourself, apologize, or argue. Instead, lower the emotional temperature and say, “It must be tough for you to carry other people’s troubles. I wonder whether we can work together to help people speak up for themselves.”
How Congregations are Alike
In my work with congregations, I have yet to find one without sharp differences about important matters. All leaders receive criticism on a regular basis. People who like to stir up trouble seem to be distributed pretty uniformly through the population. In these ways, congregations all seem to be more or less alike.
Where they differ though, is in the way their leaders respond to criticism. Where leaders’ response is louder, more defensive, and more personal than the criticism itself, conflict tends to escalate. Where leaders learn to keep their own anxiety in hand and underreact, they can help turn criticism toward constructive conversation about how to achieve the congregation’s purpose.
Dan Hotchkiss has consulted with a wide spectrum of churches, synagogues, and other organizations spanning 33 denominational families. Through his coaching, teaching, and writing, Dan has touched the lives of an even wider range of leaders. His focus is to help organizations engage their constituents in discerning what their mission calls for at a given time, and to empower leaders to act boldly and creatively.
Dan coaches leaders and consults selectively with congregations and other mission-driven groups, mostly by phone and videoconference, from his home near Boston. Prior to consulting independently, Dan served as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister, denominational executive, and senior consultant for the Alban Institute.