Being Defensive

It was probably good that it happened during my first pastorate, when I was in my late 20’s.  At a routine Pastor Parish Relations Committee meeting, I suddenly found myself deluged by a boatload of “feedback.”  I was too young.  I preached about social issues that had no place in the pulpit.  My pastoral prayers were not spontaneous.  To top it off, one person was offended that I asked church members to care for my toddler daughter while I volunteered to add more hours to my half-time appointment by initiating and leading a new youth group on Sunday night.  I’m sure we also talked about the good things that were happening in the church, but all I really heard was the negative stuff.

I confess that their feedback was very painful to hear.  However, I was too stunned to even react, so I simply listened and thanked the committee for their honesty.  We talked through the issues, formulated a plan and shared expressions of grace as we parted.  What I learned by accident from that never-to-be-forgotten meeting is that by sitting quietly, listening, and reacting with openness, the committee knew that I heard them and was willing to learn and grow in my ministry.  If I had retreated to an attack mode and tried to defend myself, an adversarial relationship would have been created, which would have inhibited the collaborative ministry that we were developing.

At times, all of us have been in a meeting where it would have been easy to believe we were being personally vilified and our ministries were being denigrated.  It is in the very nature of being a public figure that people will be unhappy with us on occasion.  Unfortunately, people sometimes unfairly project their own fears, anger and powerlessness onto us.  Other times, the concerns are legitimate, for none of us is the perfect pastor.  At least, I’m not.  What I’ve learned over the years is that how issues are addressed depends in large part on our own reactions. 

Common sense dictates that listening objectively and attentively to those who criticize or offer feedback gets the best results.  On the other hand, reacting with anger, feeling as if we are being attacked, or claiming to be the victim, often polarizes the issue even further. 

Why is it that we get so defensive at times?

  • We think the complaints can’t possibly be true, so we must defend our honor.
  • We are not willing to think we just might learn something by simply listening.
  • Our ego holds us back from looking objectively at ourselves.
  • We are insecure and uncertain of our abilities.
  • Other stresses in our life compound to push us over the edge, and we “lose it.”
  • Our anxiety about conflict prevents us from being a calm, self-differentiated presence.

How do we act defensively?

  • We get angry.
  • We act hurt.
  • We withdrawal.
  • We pout.
  • We can’t listen or won’t listen.
  • We insist that we are the victim.
  • We assume the worst about another’s intentions.
  • My favorite: We threaten to ask for a new appointment.  “Well, if this is what you think of me, I’m outta here!”

What are healthy alternatives to reacting defensively? 

  • We listen carefully and truly hear what others are saying.
  • We discern what elements of truth are in the concerns.
  • We are grateful for the opportunity to dialogue about our ministry and develop a plan for growth.
  • We consult with valued friends, those whom we trust to be honest with us.
  • We hold our tongue and don’t react immediately.  Instead, we take time to ponder, pray, reflect and sleep on it.
  • We have the confidence to believe we are a good pastor and are going to become an even better pastor.

Why is it important not to be defensive?

  • People will never be honest with us if they know we’ll react in an angry way.
  • We will be labeled as intimidating or unapproachable.
  • Our defensive reactions will silence church members from making constructive comments and close the door to dialogue.
  • We will not model emotional intelligence and healthy behavior to our staff or congregation when we are defensive.
  • Learning how to accept feedback is a key to maturity in ministry.
  • Our call to ministry includes setting the example by being patient, gracious, open, a good listener, and a servant.  

I will always be grateful for the Staff/Pastor Parish Relations Committees who have gently and graciously helped me to become a better pastor by their feedback.  And I will always appreciate those pastors who react non-defensively themselves and have modeled for me how to give and receive feedback gently and graciously.  Right now I’m reading a new book by Gwen Purushotham, Watching Over One Another in Love; A Wesleyan Model for Ministry Assessment.  You and your S/PPRC might find it very helpful. 

Speaking of feedback, I’d love to hear yours.  I’ll try not to be defensive! 

Blessings, Laurie

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