Thursday, December 4, 2008
My first month in a fulltime ministry position, a more seasoned minister gave me a maxim that I have tried to follow to this day.
Maxim #2. You can't outpuke a buzzard.
I worked at the time for the "liberal" church in town, and had volunteered our congregation to host an area wide summer youth gathering. The watchdog churches in the area decided that we weren't really a safe place for their teens and so began a public campaign to boycott our time to host. Seriously. We spent an entire morning on the phone with the attack dog at one of these congregations trying to convince him that we were ok. Toward the end of the conversation, a more experienced minister dropped by to see how we were holding up and insisted that we get off the phone with this guy. "My daddy taught me," he said, "that you can't outpuke a buzzard." My dad taught me other colorful phrases, like "that's as slick as eel snot," but this buzzard saying has far more cache in ministry.
There are some conversations in ministry that aren't worth having. In fact, you know you're having one when it doesn't qualify as a conversation. I had a member who for several weeks would meet me Monday mornings as I came into the office to express his concerns about the church, a passive way of saying he had concerns about me. I wasn't preaching enough about heaven, which was code for I wasn't preaching enough about hell. He was afraid we were getting morally soft.
After a few weeks of explaining both my preaching commitments and my theology, it became apparent that this was not really a conversation. I was puking with a buzzard. One morning I asked him if he found these conversations satisfying. I told him I didn't and wasn't really interested in having this conversation anymore and wondered if this was really the kind of relationship he wanted to cultivate with me. He looked stunned, as if I had broken some kind of ministerial obligation to sit and listen to all criticism ad infinitum. We stopped having that conversation, and over time he took me up on my offer to have a different kind of relationship.
One of the hardest things about ministry is the people pleasing side of it. Many of us get into ministry because we're pleasers to begin with, and in a consumer driven society church members pretty much think its our primary job to please them. It's exhausting. It's a prolonged effort at customer relations and it really does not serve the purposes of the gospel. And ultimately the church will break your spirit if you're in it to please, or what amounts to the same thing, to win their approval. And they probably should.
With chronic complainers (aka, puking buzzards), I learned to redirect the conversation. "You know, Fred (the name is changed to protect the guilty), I've noticed that this isn't the first thing you've complained about around here. I'm coming to the conclusion that keeping you happy isn't a reasonable goal. I can't think that this is much fun for you. I know its not pleasant for me. I'm interested in having a different kind of relationship with you."
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that this approach is not always received positively. I've been cursed at in church at the end of one of these. But it does keep them from coming back to complain about something else. And in some cases, it has been a turning point in my relationship with them, and them with the church. And trying to please a chronic complainer has never turned them into a happy camper in my experience.
Three caveats here. First, this is not an excuse not to listen, and especially not to listen to criticism. We are always obligated to try to understand the other, which requires genuine, empathetic listening. But there comes a time when these matters are no longer occasions for listening, when what is occuring is no longer a conversation. Buzzard puking.
Second, this has to be an expression of genuine concern for the other. The phrase, "I'm wondering if we can try a different kind of relationship" has to be a genuine offer. And its going to be up to you to initiate that.
Third, this works best if everyone in leadership is on the same page. There are elders and other leaders who know that one source of power (a pretty weak source, ultimately) is to be the guy the complainers go to. I'm convinced that a congregation cannot discern the will of God if the congregational ecosystem doesn't sustain dialogue. Criticism has to be allowed, even encouraged, and leaders need to know some of that will come their way. But a culture that honors complaining is another matter, and leaders need a common approach to this dialogue killer.
Finally, anger and defensiveness have to be avoided at all costs. I'm usually pretty good at controlling my anger. I'm horrible at avoiding defensiveness. I'm the buzzard. It's no longer a conversation. Apologize and reschedule.
It is striking to me how many of the ethical admonitions in Scripture have to do with how we speak to each other. Sometimes this includes knowing when not to speak to each other.