Progressive Churching: On Receiving the Critic, Part II

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Yesterday I told the story of an exchange I had with a guy (we'll call him Stan) after church a few Sundays back. Stan was none too thrilled about the content of my message, informing me that "as the Pastor" it was my job to "preach the Gospel" every Sunday, and not "this esoteric nonsense."

Now, to be sure, this wasn't the most scathing feedback I've received from people. I get trolled fairly regularly at places like this. But obviously there's a big difference between a total stranger calling you a "servant of Satan" on a platform like the web, and someone you know personally delivering criticism just moments after you gave your offering.

Looking back, one of the things that stand out to me about our interaction that day was how I responded to Stan. And I suppose that's the reason for this three part post; to reflect on my own growth (as I see it) and to offer a word of encouragement for those who might regularly be in a position to receive critics.

Being Aware of the Old Me

I can look back on my life, at previous encounters like this, and identify two of my more typical reactions to people like Stan.

One reaction from the Old Colby would have been to asses all the ways I felt offended and determine how best to prove the Critic wrong.

The Old Colby was driven by being right. I've reflected on this before, but it has only been in the past 4-5 years that I have slo - o - o - wly began to retrain my brain and my heart's reaction to moments like Stan after church. The Old Colby, driven by being right, would have immediately sensed a threat to his ego and postured accordingly.

I would have heard statements like, "it's your job to preach the Gospel," as attacks on my preaching and would have responded in kind. By defending how, in fact, I do preach the Gospel every stinkin' Sunday! I would have pointed out how Stan's view of what the Gospel is must be far too limited. I would have argued that my more expansive awareness of "the Gospel" invites me to preach sermons like I did that day, where we move in our humanity from places of being trapped by our fears and hurts to a life of freedom as recipients of the Grace of God in Jesus.

In other words, I would have made sure he was wrong about his thoughts on how I thought about the Gospel.

Another reaction the Old Colby might have had would be to asses the situation and determine how best to appease the Critic.

I used to also be driven by being liked. (Okay, well, I still am... but I'm getting better!) Specifically this manifested by making sure I didn't disappoint people. In terms of identifying this particular trait about me, and moving towards growth and maturation, I'm a couple years behind the whole "have to be right" thing. In other words, this one is still pretty fresh, so I am much more susceptible to it.

But I can imagine how previous versions of Colby would have responded to Stan with an over emphasis on affirming his perspective and appeasing his feelings. To be sure, part of being a good Receiver of Critics means you listen well, which should lead to some sort of affirmation of their perspective and feelings. But I'm talking about the tendency to move past that, and towards a place of essentially crumbling in to a soft pool of "don't-be-mad-at-me!"

In other words, I would have made sure that he knew his points were valid, that I was sorry for offending him, and that I would work on doing more of what he just said.

The Pursuit of Humble Strength

Of course I could look back on my interaction with Stan and nit-pick my responses, both verbal and non-verbal. But the two things that stand out to me the most were signs that I am moving toward a posture of Humble Strength when it comes to receiving the Critic.

Humble in that I don't have to be right. I don't have to defend myself at every turn. I don' t have to point out the ways in which the other person is wrong (or rather, the ways that I think they are wrong). Instead, I can just receive their perspective as their perspective. And I can release a bit of the driving anxiety to be understood.

Then there's the importance of living in to strength. Where I am able to stand firm in who I am, feeling good about and okay with the person who lives inside me. Believing that even if I let this person down it does not make me a bad person. Believing that my worth is not found in the voices of the few Critics (nor, for that matter, in the voices of the Crowd who love me, which far outnumber the Critics). My worth and identity, as Richard Rohr talks about, is something that no one can give me and no one can take away. I am a loved child of God, end of story.

So a Humble Strength is the ability to stand confidently in who I am, believing in my attempt to faithfully walk forward in to my calling (which in this case was delivering the sermon that I did), and be okay if not everyone sees that or gets that.

Self-confidence can handle criticism, whereas deluded pride (and/or feelings of unworthiness) cannot. -Source

Looking back, then, on my response to Stan, I can see how I am starting to retrain my heart and my brain to react to the Critic. My choice to not argue with Stan demonstrated my growth in not having to be right all the time. And my choice to push back slightly at his point about coming here "for me," when I kindly suggested that that was a bad move because I will let him down, shows me that I am growing a little bit in being confident with who I am and what I do. Because I could have gotten all neurotic that he was upset with me, and then committed to not letting him down again, or something silly like that.

Part I: Receiving a Critic just moments after preaching a sermon.Part III: The Power of the Critic and the Power of Supporters, plus an update.