Why, “You’re Too Nice” Is The Best Compliment That Sounds Like An Insult There Is

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On October 5th, 1971 the Rock and Roll star Rick Nelson was invited to play at Madison Square Garden.  He opened his set playing his well known classics.  The audience cheered, applauded and sang along.  However, halfway through the set he switched to a newer sound, including a countrified version of a Rolling Stones hit.  The crowd turned vicious, booing and jeering him until he left the stage.

He wrote a song about the incident called “Garden Party.”  The low key, melodic chorus teaches us the lesson he learned from the fiasco:  “You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.”

As a Christian pastor I definitely relate but I also disagree.  Anybody who works with people quickly realizes that you can’t really please anybody.  As I have been in ministry I have learned that on an instinctual level most people want control.   They know insulting others is the best way to gain control.  This is true even of myself.  We don’t even realize we are doing it.  We just sense that we are not in control and we begin to criticize others as a way of gaining it back.

So as a pastor I have learned that criticism is unavoidable.  In fact the measure of my faithfulness is not if people are booing and jeering me off the stage but rather what they are booing and jeering me for.  If I can’t avoid criticism, I would rather be criticized for the things that matter.

On that note I have been accused several times of being too “nice.”  The people offering that criticism have good intentions.  They truly believe that if I were just a tad bit more confrontational, a tad bit meaner, a tad bit more firm than the church would grow, the kingdom would come and everybody would get saved and sanctified.

Sometimes this criticism has appeared amidst personal conflicts.  Someone is mad at someone else and they want me on their team.  So they argue I am being too nice to “them” and if I would just grow some pastoral cahones I would be mean and confront that person with their “sin” and all heaven would break loose.  At times I have quietly reminded that person that the minute I start being mean and judgmental I am probably going to start first with myself and second with them.

At other times I have broken down and actually decided to be mean and judgmental and not surprisingly the people who criticized me for being too nice were the first to cry foul when I was “too mean.”

Then there are the more academic critics who have said the reason I am too nice is because I am too afraid.  If I would just be less afraid I would be more confrontational.  They read that in some psycho therapy book and assume it applies to me.

I am not going to say that there isn’t some truth there.  To deny I am afraid would be to deny my very humanity.  There is a type of person that does scare me and I do avoid them in order to protect myself from severe harm.  I am still not entirely sure I should but in this fallen world it is the only option.

But beyond that my “niceness” does not come from fear.  It comes from a life devoted to the Scriptures, particularly Paul’s epistles.  My “niceness” comes from passages like 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 12, Colossians 3, Ephesians 4 and Philippians 4.  I could also include the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings of Jesus in Mark 8-10.  These passages teach me that God is patient, therefore I must be patient.  God is kind, therefore I must be kind.  Jesus was silent before his critics and accusers.  Therefore I must also be.

I am not passive, patient and kind because I am afraid.  Quite the opposite my passive, patient kindness is borne out of hope.  Yet it is not the hope that patient kindness might be the most effective manipulation tool.  I am not that naive.  I know that passivity and patient kindness get you crucified and that quite often.  People take advantage of me constantly.  Even my closest friends and family members take full advantage of my kindness.  They take me quite for granted.  People in my churches have and continue to get away with things they wouldn’t under a more manipulative leader.  So my hope is not that I will somehow control people more if I am passive.  This is not a political strategy like “non violent resistance” or what we blandly call, “pacifism.”

Instead my hope is in a coming Kingdom, a coming glory, a coming King.  My hope is that some glad morning when this life is over the trump will resound and the Lord will descend and when it gets to be my turn to face him, he will smile at me and say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”  Forget mansions in glory.  That’s all I want, a smile from the King and a nod that says, “You tried your best, even if you did fall short.”

Maybe that means I would edit Nelson’s song to, “You can’t please everyone, so you better please the Lord.”  But maybe that sounds too hokey.

Not that I have attained all this.  I am not saying I am the perfect specimen of passive, patient kindness.  In fact, several times over the last several years I have spent days angry at the world and angry at the people who have taken advantage of me, who have gossiped and lied and yelled and scream and booed and jeered.  I have sat with my back against a wall and shaken my fist at the air and thought about all the mean emails I want to send and all the angry things I want to publicly say.  Then I calm down, cry a little and ask God for the strength not to do that.  In those moments I remind myself that crucifixions are what I said “yes” to so many years ago.  And I have begged God for the strength to get up again, go out into the world smiling, answer the cursing with blessing, the insults with compliments, the abuse with love and the anger with patience.  I’m not sure I am doing very well and sometimes God hasn’t answered that prayer and I have let a harsh and careless word slip but I have always been quick to apologize and that too has taken a toll.

But surely the fact that people are still telling me, “You’re too nice” means I am getting closer to my reward.

 

Come, Lord Jesus.

My Honest Evaluation of the Culture of “Honest Evaluation”

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My very first college major was “Business Management.”  I had this pipe dream of one day owning and managing my own publishing company and I figured I would need some business savvy to pursue it.  I only took one year of business classes, which I enjoyed very much.  The next year God had different plans and I changed my major to pastoral ministries.

Then, as fate would have it, I married a brilliant and beautiful business management major who now works in economic development.  My repentance from the idolatry of business was quickly undone!  Be that as it may, I have actually read more books from the business world than she has, especially lately.  The reason for that irony is that there is still an expectation that pastors be half-CEO’s who are knowledgeable of modern movements in the corporate world and can employ them in churches.

Several pastors agree that one of the best modern movements is towards a culture of “genuine feedback.”  This culture creates and maintains the expectation that every person in an organization should be evaluated consistently and sometimes constantly.  Every executive is expected to evaluate their employees and be evaluated by them.  In turn, every employee is to be evaluated by their peers and their executive.  The hope of all this critiquing and judging is that meaningful conversation can occur about strengths and weaknesses and relationships in the organization.  But, ironically, one recent book I read claimed the honest conversations never happened.  (see “Leadership Divided” by Robert Carucci).

Churches adopted similar strategies.  We just used higher sounding terminology to justify it.  Instead of “evaluation” we call it “spiritual accountability.” Instead of “suggestions of improvement” we talk about “opportunities for repentance.”  We couch the whole thing in a “God who expects us to change.”  Don’t let the spiritual words fool you.  In practice it looks the same.  Everybody should have feedback conversations with everybody else.  We create forms and surveys that everybody can fill out about each other.  We are expected to “evaluate” our ministries, our pastors, our board, our lay leaders.  Over time everything about the church becomes fair game for human criticism.  We show up to church with our mental scorecards prepared and we check boxes and circle numbers in our heads, waiting for the moment to share the results with others.

Don’t get me wrong, the feedback culture sounds really good on paper.  For example, consider the scores of “isolated” leaders whose moral and executive failures were the result of an absence of “truth tellers” surrounding them.  They are in the church with just as much frequency as in the business world and they all prove to us that un-evaluated leaders become spectacular failures.  I do believe that one of the ways to “help” them is to criticize them.  That means that one of the ways to help me is to criticize me.  Receiving feedback is a means of grace.  It enables humility and forces us to “not consider ourselves more highly than we ought.”  In fact, I love the Apostle Paul’s words that “when we are cursed, we bless.  When we are persecuted we endure it.  When we are slandered, we answer kindly.”  (1 Cor. 4:12-13)  It would seem even receiving harsh or unfair criticism is an opportunity for spiritual growth.

But still I worry for the spiritual health of the critics.  After all with the expectation that I will be evaluated comes the opposite expectation that I have the power and authority to judge others.  Under this expectation, insulting, slandering and persecuting others becomes my “right.”  All ready we are seeing scores of people in the business world and the church world abusing that power.  I hate to say it but I am sometimes one of the chief abusers.

Coworkers have used peer to peer evaluations to settle personal vendettas.  More disturbingly, managers have too.  And that happens in the church world too.  When the District Superintendant comes to town some parishioners use it as their opportunity to “fill them in” on just how great or lousy this pastor is.  Humorously one parishioner once tried to use the DS visit as an opportunity to complain about my wife.  It did not go well for them but the very fact they felt obligated to “express concerns” to the DS about her shows how out of hand the feedback culture can get.

The feedback culture has a very deep problem of god-making.  Because of the feedback culture we now believe that not only can we evaluate but we get to choose the criteria by which you are evaluated.  This produces feedback that is not rooted in any sort of ethic other than the critic’s own selfishness.  It is the complaints of bathroom use or bad hand writing or ridiculous email etiquette producing lines in the comment section like, “didn’t put toilet paper on roll the right way” or “can’t tell if her I’s are actually P’s” or “You should always put your phone number in every email you send” or “doesn’t text me back soon enough.”

In the church these comments take a slightly different form. Parishioners feel very qualified to say that the pastor’s tie was not tied right (too long, even touched the belt buckle, gasp!) or that the lettuce at a potluck wasn’t chopped correctly or that the lighting in the sanctuary was too dark or the paint colors not welcoming.  They do not realize that Scripture says nothing about sanctuary lighting or chopping lettuce and ties weren’t even invented yet.  But they don’t care because the feedback culture has made them the gods and their made up evaluation form are the new sacred scriptures.

In their thinking the pastor or interior decorator or lettuce chopper is entitled to hear their opinion.  This attitude reveals a very disturbing inner life that has been malformed and misshaped by our “expectation” of feedback.

With that in mind the feedback culture also runs counter to one of our deeply held Christian values, “do not judge or you too will be judged.” (Matt. 7:1)   By applauding the culture of feedback we are giving into the myth that you are the consumer god who deserves to be appeased and to give “honest feedback” when you are not.  But in the real kingdom of God we are not gods.  We are grateful servants who live lives of gratitude, even foolish gratitude.  This gratitude gives thanks for your pastor even when their tie looks absurd.  It thanks God for the lettuce that was chopped all screwy.  And it enters the sanctuary doors with thanksgiving even if it is “too dark.”

I wonder if rediscovering a culture of gratitude might offer a powerful counter to the god-making culture of feedback.  I wonder if our culture of thank you might be a powerful witness to the poor employees who are stuck under the oppression of constant evaluation.  I wonder if our poorly lit and painted sanctuary with absurd pastors and weird lettuce could be safe places for those who need a rest from constant evaluation.

As an experiment I’ll take the first step into that world by saying thank you for reading this today.  Every click I get is a wonderful gift from God and I do believe that.

And if you want, you can leave your evaluation in the comments below.  Just know that I will be blessed when you do, but that you will be cursed 😛