You might be asking yourself as a church leader, why does everyone seem so angry with me right now?
You’re not alone.
As pastor appreciation month fades into the rearview mirror, despite getting a few chocolates and a handful of thank you cards (or nothing…that’s happened before too), many church leaders I talk to are feeling more unappreciated, misunderstood and more criticized than ever.
Criticism stings, and in a prolonged crisis like this one, just when you feel like you need more encouragement than usual, it feels like you’re getting all-time-high levels of static.
What’s going on?
Just so we don’t all go to a false pity-party, let me say sometimes it’s definitely you. I’ve made some significant leadership blunders myself. Maybe you did something to anger your team, upset your church, led change unwisely or made some other decisions that really messed things up.
If that’s the case, the best thing to do is stop reading this post, talk to the people around you, get some help and make it right.
But if that’s not the case—and I’m guessing for most of you that’s not the case right now—what do you do when you’re giving your all, working hard day and night and you really love the people you serve, and you still get a load of rage dumped on your doorstep?
What do you do when you throw your heart into it and you still get an ALL CAPS EMAIL, an anonymous note and people threatening to leave the church? Sure, you’re not perfect, but come on….really?
What’s up with that?
I’ve gone through some undeserved seasons of opposition and criticism before, as well.
Here are three factors that might help explain what’s happening, as well as three things that can help you push through the months ahead. We all need all the help we can get right now in the midst of this crisis.
3 Factors That Create Undeserved Criticism
Undeserved criticism is the kind of criticism that either comes out of nowhere, or that happens when people treat a 2 out of 10 level problem as though it were a 12 out of 10 issue. You know what I mean.
All of which leaves you feeling perplexed, hurt, agitated, isolated, defeated and angry at the same time.
You feel like you have nowhere to go and over time, it diminishes your motivation to serve.
Why does that happen? Why do you get all kinds of static when there’s really nothing wrong?
Here are 3 reasons that happens all the time in the church and in many organizations.
1. 95% Of All Problems In The Church Have Nothing To Do With The Church
In the early days of ministry, I began to see a pattern.
The complaints people levied against the church often didn’t have anything to do with the church.
Yes, they were upset about the music or the direction, but if you drilled a little deeper, you soon discovered that there were other factors at work.
They were struggling at work, or their marriage was under a lot of stress, or they were battling an addiction or really down on themselves.
Add the global crisis into the mix, and people are struggling deeply with fear, medical, financial, political, emotional and relational stress unlike anything most have every coped with.
No wonder they’re agitated. Under that kind of stress, people get agitated and the anger has to come out somewhere. The church is an easy target.
In the same way road rage is rarely about what happens on the highway, church rage is often not about what’s happening in the church. The guy who barely cut you off just bore the full weight of your unresolved issues in that moment.
Which leads us back to the key point: 95% of all problems in the church have nothing to do with the church.
That doesn’t make the anger go away, but it can help you empathize more and take it less personally.
2. Distance And Division Have Made People Ruder And Bolder
The pandemic has separated us from each other in so many ways.
As more of our life moves online, and as personal contact becomes less frequent, you and I get bolder and ruder.
We live in an angry age, and the current crises have only made that worse. Far worse. (I outlined 5 reasons anger is the new epidemic here.)
Here’s what happens when we get separated from each other, in normal conditions but especially in the midst of crisis: Distance between people desensitizes people.
Think of how you sometimes behave in your car. As already indicated, chances are, you’re naturally more aggressive there too—occasionally cutting people off, tailgating, honking your horn and not caring nearly as much as you normally do.
Why do you behave differently in a car than when you’re not in a car?
Because you’re in a 3000-pound armored vehicle. You don’t see the guy bothering you as a person. You see him as a problem. So you get way more aggressive.
Even in the supermarket, you’re ruder when you have a shopping cart in your hands than when you don’t.
The same dynamic is at work in social media and our life online and any time we’re not eyeball to eyeball in the room with another human.
When you’re online and you can’t see the whites of someone’s eyes, it’s just easier to shoot.
Bottom line? It’s never been easier to be known and hide simultaneously than it is online. And it’s never been easier to take pot shots at leaders than it is now.
So when you get those angry emails, letters, voicemails and snappy comments, just know it’s often 10x more animated than it would be in-person.
3. You’re A Little Agitated Too
Ever notice that on some days little things bother you, while on other days nothing seems to bother you (even criticism)?
What’s the difference?
The difference is you—some days little things get to you and little things become big things. Other days, everything rolls off your back.
When you’re stressed everything tends to bother you, including things that shouldn’t.
Guess what? You’re leading in the midst of an insanely complicated crisis. You’re stressed.
So something that wouldn’t get under your skin in normal times probably is getting under your skin today.
Something you would handle maturely and calmly has now got you cracking on the inside.
That’s natural. It’s a really tough season.
The best strategy when I know I’m not in a good place is to take a break. You never respond well when you’re angry or irritated. Neither do I.
Pray, get some sleep, talk to a friend and come back at it with a fresh mind and heart.
The situation won’t have changed, but you’ll be better. And when you’re better, things tend to get better.
3 Keys To Getting Healthier
So what do you do?
In terms of replying to the people who are mad at you, these 5 pro tips on how to handle criticism will help. Every time I use them, the situation gets better. Every time I ignore them, I make things worse, not better. In and of itself, Pro Tip #4—Reply Relationally—is a very effective tension diffuser and conflict de-escalator.
So start there.
But it’s deeper than that.
You probably still have months—or even a year—of this crazy upside down season ahead of you in leadership. I want you to make it through the long haul.
So here are three longer term strategies that can help you lead healthier and stay healthier.
1. Grieve Your Losses
This has been a season of incredible loss. In normal times, people in ministry suffer loss every day.
Think about it.
Every time someone leaves your ministry or steps back from your team, it’s a loss. Whenever you give something only to find ingratitude, it’s a loss. Every time someone tells you you’re great but you should really see the other guy who’s awesome, it’s a loss.
Add in death, illness, and strained or lost relationships and, well, you get the picture.
Then add all the complexity, shock and insanity that 2020 has been into the mix and it’s just so much loss.
A mentor of mine once told me that in his view so many pastors quit ministry or lose their effectiveness not because any one incident made them snap or quit – but rather because the loss that provoked their exit is tied to dozens or hundreds of ungrieved losses along the way.
They might not even understand why they’re stepping back, shutting down or resigning. All they know is they just can’t take it anymore. (My mentor, Terry Wardle, explains that theory here.)
When I first heard of this theory, I had so much ungrieved loss it took me about a month of tears to move through it.
Since then, one of the practices I’ve adopted is to grieve my losses as they happen.
I take time daily and weekly to review what’s bothering me and simply pray about it. Sometimes I talk to others about it.
I try to let myself stop and feel what I’ve experienced. And when I feel it, something surprising happens – the negative feeling pretty much disappears.
If I do it promptly when a loss occurs, I can even respond to a four out of ten email or remark with a two out of ten reply – not a twelve. I can actually offer grace.
If you want to stay healthy, grieve your losses. You’ve had a lot of loss.
2. Get Around Some Life-Giving People
So much of ministry and leadership involves giving. And because ministry is giving, it can be draining.
I frequently ask ministry leaders, “When was the last time you went out for dinner with a couple and laughed so hard you cried? You know, a lost-track-of-time-completely kind of dinner?”
The blank looks and the looks of shock and disappointment on leaders’ faces tells the story.
We don’t do this nearly enough.
Your leadership is like a bank account. You can only give so much without becoming overdrawn. Be overdrawn long enough and you go bankrupt.
Go find some friends who energize you. Then, hang out.
3. Embrace A Sustainable Pace…Before It’s Too Late
This crisis has gone on way longer than anyone either wanted it to or than most (including me) thought it would.
Most leaders are dead tired. And a lot of leaders are still holding out for some time off for their sanity and for the way to make it through. Time off is wonderful.
But time off can’t save you if the problem is how you spend your time on.
And the problem with most leaders is not how we spend our time off. It’s how we spend our time on.
Moving forward, definitely take some time off but focus even more intensely on creating a sustainable rhythm for every day.
The mantra I’ve lived by for the last decade plus is, live in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow. Do that, and you’ll lead through this crisis so much more effectively.
Living in a way today that will help me thrive tomorrow will help me figure out everything from how much sleep I need, how many meetings to take, how many decisions I can reasonably make, and how to replenish myself daily so I can lead at home and at work.
This might take constant adjustment on your part, but it’s worth it.
More time off isn’t the solution for an unsustainable pace. A sustainable pace is the solution for an unsustainable pace.