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 😛

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Do Not Judge Lest Ye Be Judged

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About 2/3rds of the way through the best sermon ever preached (the Sermon on the Mount) right after a wonderfully poetic and tiny bit judgmental section about not worrying, Jesus drops this bombshell on us, “Do not judge or you too will be judged!”

That verse peaked in popularity about a decade ago after a crazy 30 year run built off of the Jesus movement.  As the newly baptized hippies were inducted into the membership of the church they reacted strongly against the crazy legalism of their parents and grandparents and held up high the “do not judge” banner.

As evidence of this verse’s crazy popularity, note that it is one of few bible verses where people still quote the King James English (see title above).  I also offer as evidence a remark my awesome adult Sunday School teacher made a few weeks back, “Oh, that verse hasn’t come up in a month or two.  Before that it came up at least once a week for years.”

That was ironic because although that verse saturated my youth I hadn’t thought of it in years.  I had kind of forgot it existed.  But one of the joys of being a pastor is that no matter how deep your intellect takes you into the faith, there will always be that baby Christian ready to pull you back up to the surface with kindergarten questions about who we really should judge and under what circumstances.

That last sentence was not as sarcastic as it probably sounded.  In fact, after my Sunday School teacher reminded me of that verse’s existence, I realized that I did not have an easy answer to the questions and concerns about the tension between judging and tolerating.  It is true that Jesus’ command leaves little room for interpretation.  Studying the grammar of the sentence and the meaning of the words leads one to conclude that Jesus really meant we should not judge each other.  Looking at the context of the passage and the history of 1st century Palestine eliminates even more nuance to the verse.  It literally reads and literally means, “Do not judge or you will be judged!”

However, Jesus said some pretty judgmental things here and there and not just to the religious elite but his own disciples.  After all, it was Peter that he called Satan and 9 of his disciples that he accused of having little faith.  In the actual Sermon on the Mount and only sentences after the “do not judge” command, he calls his entire audience evil (see Matthew 7:11).

Then the apostle Paul, addressing a serious issue in the Corinthian church, offers, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (1 Cor. 5:12).

And don’t get me started about the cranky prophets of the Old Testament who were extremely judgmental, as was the Old Testament God they spoke for.  Though Jesus’ actual sentence and context gives little room for nuance, the rest of Scripture does.

Therefore, while comparing Jesus’ simple statement to the nuances in all of Scripture and the complications in our own contexts, I confess that I really don’t know when it is appropriate to tell someone that they are doing Christianity wrong or when I should just keep my mouth shut and “tolerate” their sinfulness.  In practice, I don’t do it well at all.

However, I do know this, judging people is messy.  It gets really sloppy really fast.  Take for example the church gossip who accuses a young couple of being lousy parents.  Or consider the politician who neglects their children for months on the campaign trail while promoting “family values” and accusing the opponents of being “against family!”  Or look at the Christian celebrity who uses Facebook, which is run by a very liberal executive team, to denounce Starbucks for being “liberal.” If you really were going to boycott the liberals, shouldn’t you start with Facebook?  Or take for one last example the pastor who accuses his church leadership of not praying enough while struggling to carve out adequate prayer time in any given day.  Yes, that pastor has been me.

And yes it is true that Starbucks donates money to causes that make some Christians feel very uncomfortable.  It is also true that the church leaders need to be spending hours a week in prayer and, yes, most young parents I know need all the help they can get and our country needs to relearn some old family values anew.

Yet the people pointing these things out have huge planks in their own eyes.  By opening their mouths they are opening up a very messy can of worms because immediately their life gets the spotlight and that spotlight reveals all kinds of nasty viruses and germs lying under their focus group polished exteriors.  Then the argument becomes, “if they can’t live up to the standards they are promoting, that obviously means I can’t!”  So we all continue our destructive lifestyles, but feeling a little more arrogant about it.

In turns out that Jesus is right.  Judging others is the quickest way to get judged, and not just by God but by every one else.  And when we judge others for being judgmental, like all the hippies did, it makes the mess worse.  Now we are all going around pointing out planks in each other’s eyes and playing a game of “Whose speck is it anyway?”

I have played that game and it is really messy and not all that much fun.

But there is an alternative that isn’t messy.   It is neither judging or tolerating.  Instead it is personal repentance.  Personal repentance is the act of judging yourself.  It is the step of faith that says, “I am the lousy one.  I am the bad parent, the neglectful politician, the lazy pastor, the judgmental gossip.  I am the one in need of a savior who can clean all this junk out of my life.  I am the one who has some things to learn about family values and personal holiness and private piety.  I am the one working on these things because I wish they weren’t there in my life.  And only through the strength of God, I am overcoming them.  My life is the mess and I need the great cleaner.”

The goal of personal repentance is not to somehow keep the judgmental people from judging you or even to judge them back or worse, preemptively judge them.  The goal is to turn your own judging spotlight on yourself before they can.  To go back to the Sermon on the Mount, the goal is to get the plank out of your eye before anybody notices it.  Or at least to acknowledge it before they do, saying, “I have all ready confessed the planks exist in my life and am working on them.”

Whether or not they follow your example is really up to them but at least you found a way through it all.  And that is a lot easier and cleaner than the mess of judging.

 

My First Foray Into Performing the Scriptures: The Sermon on the Mount

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There is a neat trend hitting modern day Christianity where clever interpreters and actors memorize and perform a large portion of Scripture in an engaging way.  You can watch some of these live performances on Youtube.  When done well, they are quite engaging.

A few weeks ago I decided to give this a try with the Sermon on the Mount.  I memorized it and performed a dramatic reenactment of it for my congregation, complete with Powerpoint slides and props for the kids.

I would love to take a week and write a whole book of posts about this experience but I am way too busy and all ready a day behind because yesterday I was in bed with the stomach flu.

However, here are a few things I learned/gained from memorizing and performing the Sermon on the Mount.

First, I learned way more memorizing it than I did studying it.  Last year I spent a few months preaching through the Sermon on the Mount.  I read a few books, looked up a lot of Greek words, realized some Old Testament connections and poured over the structure.  All that was really useful.  However, I learned more memorizing it out loud.  I saw things I would never read in a book.  These were things like subtle transitions, rhetorical devices, tonal changes and sarcasm.

Second, you make 1,000 more interpretive decisions reciting a text than you do preaching it.  When I preach I try to focus on explaining just one or two interpretative moves from the text.  However, when I spent 15 minutes reciting the Sermon on the Mount, I found I made and conveyed over 1,000 interpretive moves.  When does Jesus raise his voice and lower it?  When is Jesus standing or sitting?  What props did Jesus have handy?  Was there a snake in the distance he pointed to?  Did he have a loaf of bread in hand?  When did Jesus’ voice convey sarcasm?  When did it convey compassion?  When was Jesus being ironic?  When was he being solemn?  Then there is the wonderful ending to the sermon when Jesus says the house fell with a crash!  Do you yell “crash!” or whisper it?  What do you do after you say, “crash?”  Do you get up and leave?  Do you issue a call to follow Jesus?  Do you add an “amen” or a “so be it?”  This brings me to.  .  .

Third, I had to work my tail off not to add words.  I do believe the Sermon on the Mount has an internal structure that made sense to 1st century Jews.  I think that structure is something like:

Describing the World as God Has Made It (5:1-5:20)

Commandments for Living Well in God’s World (5:21-7:6)

Various Metaphors Imploring You To Live Well (7:7-8:1)

With that in mind, there are still some really awkward transitions.  I had no idea what to do with the transition from “do not worry” to “do not judge” or from “salt and light” to “I have not come to abolish the law.”  So I found myself adding “and’s” and “but’s” and “oh’s” to help the audience out a bit.  I felt really uncomfortable doing that, like I was adding to “God’s Infallible Word!”  Still, I didn’t know how not to do it.  After all, that is what I would do in any other sermon or even in blog posts.

Fourth, when Jesus says, “if your right hand is causing you to sin, chop it off” he is definitely talking about masturbation.  I read that in a book over a year ago and didn’t believe it.  But after memorizing it in the context of looking lustfully after a woman and after learning a little bit more about those addicted to pornography.  .  .yeah that is exactly what Jesus was talking about.  This brings me to,

Fifth, parts of this sermon are quite mean.  Everybody loves the poetry of the “do not worry” passage but when read out loud it comes off rather insulting.  “Don’t worry about food and clothes!  The pagans run after those things!”  “Who of you by worrying can add one single hour to your life?!”  In another part, Jesus says that anybody who makes promises is evil, taunting them with, “you can’t make one hair on your head white or black!”  Then there are the obvious ones like, “Be perfect!” or “Your righteousness must surpass the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law!” or “Any man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery!”  It is hard to say this stuff out loud and not sound like a jerk, especially when your congregation is full of guilty addicts, remarried divorcees and gray haired worriers!  Still I should add that my personal favorite is, “if you then, though are evil, know how to give good gifts.  .  .”  Wait, did he just call his entire audience evil?  Yes, yes Jesus did.

Sixth, there are softer parts too.  The aside about settling matters quickly before your adversary takes you to court is just Jesus giving us some good, loving advice.  Out loud, it almost sounds fatherly.  The question, “are you not much more valuable than sparrows?” is full of compassion.  The beatitudes are beautiful.  There are lovely assurances of God’s provision in statements like, “your father knows what you need before you ask” and “ask and you will receive.  Seek and you will find.”

It turns out these are not just descriptions of God but invitations to express our holiness in the way that God does.  The unseen God insists our “acts of righteousness” remain unseen.  The God who forgives sins insists we forgive sinners.  The God who shows mercy insists we be merciful and yes, the God who is perfect insists we be perfect as well.

In closing, this was a very worthwhile practice for me.  My congregation also seemed enjoy it, and not just because I offered a kid a loaf of bread, only to actually throw a rock at him.

Therefore I will definitely do it again, but maybe next time with one of the minor prophets.  That will fill up a sanctuary, only to empty it out just as quickly!

Blessings on your weeks!  May they be full of God’s provision and protection.