Every time I preach there’s a chance I’ll say something stupid.
Sometimes my mistakes are harmless, like when I quoted God at the burning bush telling Moses, “Take off your feet, you’re standing on holy ground.”
Other times people get hurt. Sometimes the very people I’m trying to help.
Now that I’m blogging three times a week, I’ve gone from one chance to four chances. Add radio/podcast interviews and my conference speaking schedule, and I can have up to eight or nine chances to put my foot in my mouth.
That happened last week. In my most recent post, Check the Mirror, Pastor – After Five Years, Your Church Looks Like You, I wrote "If you’ve been the pastor of your church for five years or longer, it’s time to stop blaming your predecessors, your circumstances and your congregation. Like it or not, after five years, your church looks like you."
I believe that is generally true. During an extended pastorate, the church starts taking on the characteristics – especially the spiritual maturity – of the pastor. But I did not take into account that, in many cases, the process takes much longer than five years.
There are many churches with endemic, long-term dysfunction or deep cultural roots where it will take 7, 10, even a dozen or more years of hard, wise, prayerful work to bring the necessary turnaround. Because I did not take those situations into account, I caused some unintentional pain to the pastors I want to help the most.
That oversight was pointed out to me – very graciously, I might add – by a couple of those pastors. So I updated my post to apologize for the oversight and to reflect their advice.
This got me thinking about what we can learn when we’re criticized for saying or writing something that turns out to be incorrect, even hurtful.
1. Listen to Valid Criticism – Ignore the Rest
I’m always looking for valid criticism. Because it helps me get better.
But, in order for it to be valid, it must meet at least two criteria:
First, it must be a mistake, not just a difference of opinion.
For example, there were two types of criticisms offered on my previous post (along with many, many more positive responses, for which I’m always grateful).
One pointed out an inaccuracy – that the five year limit wasn’t always enough time. The other pointed out a difference of theological and ecclesiastical opinion – that churches shouldn’t be structured the way they are.
The first criticism pointed out a factual error, so I corrected it. The second criticism is a valid conversation to have, but it’s more a matter of opinion than a statement of objective facts, so I stayed silent on that.
Second, for criticism to be valid, it must be given with a constructive attitude.
I don’t care how accurate your criticism is, if you call me a name or assign motives to me that I don’t hold, the content of your criticism won’t get through because I won’t read or listen to it.
I encourage other pastors and communicators to do the same thing. Listen to those who are trying to build you up. Ignore those who just want to argue or criticize.
For more on how to criticize well, check out The Church Needs Better Critics (9 Ways to Win Hearts, not Just Arguments).
2. Apologize, If Necessary
There are few more important words in a leader’s vocabulary than “I’m sorry.” It shows humility, respect for the facts and a willingness to learn.
3. Correct the Mistake, If Possible
One of the advantages that blogging has over traditional magazines (or preaching, for that matter), is that you can go back and correct errors after you hit publish.
It shouldn’t be done too often, but any time I have the chance to correct an obvious factual error, I do so (with an appropriate notice that the post has been updated).
For other mistakes, the correction should correspond to the error. If you made a mistake during a sermon, correct it from the pulpit. In private? Make the correction in private.
4. Don't Beat Yourself Up Over It
Perfection is a heavy burden to bear. Trying to maintain the perception of perfection is almost as heavy.
We know you’re not perfect. You need to know it, too. Mistakes should be acknowledged and fixed if possible. But don’t use it as a stick to beat yourself up.
5. Do Better Next Time
This is why I appreciate valid criticism. Because it gives me the chance to improve.
Every error reminds me to check my facts more carefully next time. To read and re-read my own posts and/or speaking notes with a more discerning eye. To ask “is there anything that is, or could be seen as unkind, untrue or unhelpful in this?”
So, to all who have encouraged, corrected, prodded and otherwise nudged me to be a better communicator, I thank you.
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