A much more experienced writer than me recently gave me some writing advice about editors:
He suggested that you don’t always need to make the changes editors suggest—and every writer breathes a sigh of dramatic relief. But you do need to assume that they have spotted something that’s wrong and that section or idea needs attention.
To put it another way, they aren’t necessarily right about the solution but they are right about the problem—or at the very least that there is a problem right there.
I thought that was helpful advice for a wider setting than the one I was being given it in. Let me show you what I mean.
If you receive criticism, and it doesn’t seem to jibe well with your own self-understanding and the other feedback you receive, it is possible to disregard it. After all, that person could be wrong.
Of course, the problem is, so could you. A Christian understanding of sin and the deceitful nature of our hearts should give us pause when we assume that the problem is outside of ourselves. We might be right. Before we decide we are, we should examine ourselves carefully. I found it helpful to think that, like an editor, perhaps my critic has put their finger on something even if they are completely wrong about what that is.
It’s certainly worth consideration and prayer before we decide that they are just flat wrong.
I think we should apply the same principle in Church leadership. All Church leaders have plenty of critics. Everyone has an opinion about how things should be done in the church. Some people have been hurt badly, and some of those by the church, meaning that their complaints and criticisms come laced with pain and can be difficult for church leaders to receive.
As pastors we’re supposed to understand people, so you don’t take the way the feedback is delivered into account and instead listen to the marrow of it. You also think about how to help the hurting person, but always aware that they won’t be able to receive your help if you can’t first speak to their concerns. You also remind yourself that it’s those who are hurt who are most likely to know that something is wrong.
Of course, I’ve been in situations, I’m sure every pastor has, where you deeply feel for the person but you think that their criticism is off base. They aren’t reading the situation right. Perhaps because of their pain, perhaps because they’re not stood in the right place to look, perhaps because they really haven’t helped themselves. It’s tempting at that point to dismiss them—the New Testament does suggest that there are people who come among churches to disturb them (Romans 16), so maybe we mentally put the person in that box. We don’t actually mean that classification as if we did we would follow through with some form of church discipline, but it’s convenient so we let it sit.
That’s never the right move with someone in pain, as all pastors know, but it is tempting if we’re under fire from five different directions and cannot take on board this additional set of concerns. Here’s where I think the editing advice comes into play: assume they have correctly diagnosed a problem even if the solution isn’t right. Even if their explanation of the problem doesn’t work in your opinion—though check this out with your fellow elders before you assume that—decide that they have put their finger on a problem.
Take the time to analyse it. What is the problem? What would be an appropriate Biblical solution? Carefully check your heart, lots of problems in churches flow from the characters of their leaders. Repent where you need to, and its generally true that we need to repent somewhere. Think about how power dynamics might affect your or their ability to see the problem clearly and how this might affect your analysis. Then suggest your own ‘edits.’
Go back to the person, tell them what you’re going to do—this closing of the loop is a vital element in pastoral work that shouldn’t be overlooked for either its spiritual power or the way it builds genuine trust based on your genuine trustworthiness—it’s possible that they’re the kind of editor who is put out that you aren’t taking their change, but really good critics like really good editors will tell you if that’s better.
They also might tell you that your solution doesn’t fix the problem. Which it might not, so repeat the loop.
Leading a church is a bit like working with an editor—for all there is pain in having lovingly crafted prose torn up, there is purpose to it. We can rarely see our own faults, and since churches tend to work well for their leaders, we can rarely see our church’s faults either. Work with ‘editors,’ be they trusted outsiders or those within the church. Trust their intentions even if their words make it hard, and edit like their lives depend on it. They might.
And like any manuscript, it’s never finished, it’s just due. You won’t get it all the way to perfect, but keep doing the best you can. Jesus is cheering you on.
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