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.

 

A Pastor’s Dilemma: When People Are Wrong on the Internet

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Someone was wrong on the internet this week.

I will let you have a couple moments to calm down from that shocking realization before I tell you who it was.  .  .

It was a wonderful human being with a heart of gold.   They were perusing their feed when they read something they found fascinating.  The title probably made them laugh and they thought they could brighten your day by sharing it.  They were probably in a hurry, having more important things to do than obsess over the facticity of Facebook memes.  So in a moment of weakness they forgot to run the article’s title through Google or Snopes before posting it and now it is out there for everyone to see.

And you judged them!  Or chances are you did.  After all, I did.  I read their dumb meme while thinking to myself, “I don’t see anyway on earth that that could be true.”  Because I apparently have nothing better to do with my time than obsess over the facticity of Facebook memes, I took a minute or two or thirty to read the incredibly lengthy Snopes explanation of why this meme is mostly false.

After that I went back to Facebook, with the copied Snopes URL in hand (or in the cloud) ready to prove my superiority over that kindly but naive person who still has not learned to use the internet.

They won in the end on account of being a decent human being, albeit a less informed one.

None of that really happened to me this week but I have done it in days past and I see people doing it all the time.

And yes, we should be careful about what we retweet, repost or rehash for each other.  A lie is a lie no matter what media we share it with.  Yet at the end of the day there are greater sins than being wrong on the internet.  Take for example, the sin of judging people who are wrong on the internet.

In fact the other day I was reading over that Matthew 7 passage about not judging people.  I found that after Jesus’ rather blunt command, (Judge not!) he has a lot of fun with a plank of wood and a speck of sawdust.  I am not quite sure what Jesus would have classified as “plank” and “sawdust” but I am pretty sure being wrong on the internet has more in common with the latter.

Therefore I am trying to get God to heal me of my incessant need to prove my Snopes surfing abilities to all those who are wrong on God’s good internet.

Here are some guidelines that might help us all out with that:

  1. Don’t correct people’s spelling or grammar.  God did not invent the rules of language.  They are not legalistic markers of holiness that when violated give Satan keys to your kingdom.  They are just some silly but important rules we made up in order to communicate well with each other.
  2. Ask yourself if there is a legitimate debate to be had or just points to be scored for your pre-chosen side.  This especially comes into play in political debates.  Most of us are fact checking each other in order to prove our “side” was right all along.  Instead we should be seriously tackling and debating the underlying issues.  Yes, agreement on correct data is important for serious debate.  However, if I am willing to correct your data but not willing to let mine be corrected, than that is sheer arrogance.
  3. Be gentle and private.  If you feel you must really fact check someone, send them a private message.  Or better yet, bring it up with them in a one on one meeting (if people still do those).  It is much better to be rebuked privately than publicly.
  4. Don’t fight invincible ignorance.  In Matthew 7, Jesus adds,  “Don’t give to dogs what is sacred.  Don’t throw pearls to pigs.”  The traditional interpretation of this passage is don’t waste your time and energy arguing or judging those for whom it will do no good.  I am not entirely sure I like that interpretation but I do like another oft quoted maxim.  “Don’t argue with a 3 year old.  In no time at all those watching will not be able to tell the difference.”  Or even better, “Don’t argue with an idiot.  They will drag you down to their level and beat you with their experience.”  No matter how I put it, there is much wisdom in choosing your battles and your opponents very carefully.

In closing. please use discretion and kindness when engaging your fellow internet travelers.

And remember another favorite cliche of mine, “You don’t have to show up to every fight you are invited too.”