A column provided in collaboration with the Center for Healthy Churches (chchurches.org)
Uncritical lovers and unloving critics
In 1968, John Gardner — an academic, reformer and cabinet secretary — spoke at Cornell University’s commencement at the height of the social unrest in America. He employed the rhetorical device of imagining himself to have traveled three centuries into the future and to be speaking on the struggles of public institutions that began in the late 20th century.
Gardner pointed out that many institutions in the 20th century were often unable or unwilling to respond to the challenges they faced in turbulent times. They were beset by those within the institutions who demonized their opponents — often ignoring the collateral damage inflicted on the institutions.
Gardner described these institutions as “caught in a savage crossfire between uncritical lovers and unloving critics.” On one side those who loved their institutions tended to smother them in an embrace of death, loving their rigidities more than their promise, shielding them from life-giving criticism. On the other side there arose a brand of critic without love, “skilled in demolition but untutored in the arts by which human institutions are nurtured and strengthened and made to flourish.”
Gardner’s words seem more prescient almost 50 years later when viewing the struggles our institutions — including government, higher education, school systems and law enforcement — deal with on a daily basis. There is little patience dealing with complex and deeply embedded problems in their institutions.
Gardner noted that “Demands for instant performance often lead to instant disillusionment.” It is not much of a stretch to see how these tendencies apply to the church. These two forces of unloving critics and uncritical lovers hinder an institution’s ability to change and respond to challenges.
A pastor friend shared a conversation his music minister was involved in recently. She was told if she liked a certain type of music, then she could “leave with all the rest.” That attitude is deadly as a church wrestles with change.
Gardner noted that some institutions show “astounding sclerotic streaks.” (I looked up “sclerotic.”It means becoming rigid and unresponsive, losing the ability to adapt.)
How can church leaders minister in the midst of these societal trends? How can we avoid the extremes of uncritical lovers and unloving critics?
One way is to be better informed about how to manage change and transition. In William Bridges’ classic Managing Transition, he noted that institutional leaders often forget the emotional and psychological aspect of change.
Bridges defined change as more than situational: for example, the new worship service or the newly created staff position. Transition is also a psychological experience. That is, it is the internal process people go through as a result of the change.
One thing I would do differently, when looking back on my ministry, would be to relentlessly communicate the reasons for the change and not stop with simply making the change.
As Bridges put it: “Sell the problem that is the reason for the change. Many people put only 10 percent of their energy into selling the solution to the problem. People are not in the market for solutions to problems they don’t see, acknowledge or understand. They might even come up with a better solution than yours, and then you won’t have to sell it to them; it will be theirs” (p. 16).
Another way we can help people avoid the extremes of uncritical love or unloving critic is to practice the biblical admonition to go directly to people with a problem. I fear that ministry leaders are not any better than others at sitting down and working out a disagreement or problem. We often develop a plan that either consciously or unconsciously avoids dialogue with those who disagree with us.
In doing so, we play to the uncritical lovers and avoid the unloving critics. Our avoidance of confrontation breeds congregational dysfunction and illness. Both groups suffer when they miss the opportunity to have honest and intense conversations.
When we retreat into a shell, pout, gather around our supporters and refuse to engage those who disagree with us, we set the church up for failure. How we think about people impacts how we act. People are watching closely, and it is often our role as leaders to be the “adult in the room,” and to act accordingly.
“Speaking the truth in love” is our ethic and must be our practice. Confronting uncritical lovers and unloving critics with gospel truth is no easy task. The fact that it is terribly hard does not mean it is any less important for us to aspire to do in our ministry. NFJ
—David Julen is pastor of First Baptist Church of Cramerton, N.C.