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Dealing With Faceless Criticism  


"I am really discouraged at the moment. Over these last few weeks I have been the object of indirect criticism. I don't know the source so I don't know how to respond".   


This wasn't the first time I had received such phone call from a Pastor and I'm sure it won't be the last. Surely one of the most debilitating forms of discouragement that can be experienced by any leader is second hand or faceless criticism.It's that form of criticism that somehow finds its way into our hearts and minds by following a devious path from an unknown source via a network of people (few or many) until the original source of the criticism is hidden in the shadows of anonymity.   Of course Pastors and leaders aren't the only victims of this kind of anonymous criticism. Everyone in any kind of relational network is a potential victim of destructive communication. However, I am writing with Church leaders particularly in mind.  


Before I go any further I expect some readers will be saying, "So what? Every Pastor or Leader has to put up with that stuff. What's the big deal? Get over it and get on with your life".If you are a person who can genuinely adopt that response, then you had better stop reading now. You will only get frustrated with what follows. This is for those of us who can't ignore faceless criticism and who want to find a way to creatively address this all-too-common disease in the Body of Christ.  


Why is it that some people engage in this covert activity of verbally (or in written form) undermining deliberately or ignorantly the work of God's Kingdom and the workers in that Kingdom? There are many reasons but I suggest three that have been true in my experience.  


[1] There is no other appropriate or "safe" forum for them to express their concerns.  

Of course, for some people, even if there was such a forum they would not use it. Somehow they have learned through their life experiences that indirect criticism is the safest way to process their concerns or disagreements. We need to address that reality in a moment.   Yet we need to recognise that there are some folk who engage in indirect criticism because, for them, they see no other way. The direct approach may seem obvious to us but it may need to be pointed out to them. Such a direct approach may be a totally new idea to them.  


Given that there may be an element of truth in all forms of criticism, it behoves us as leaders to invite people to talk directly to us and to assure them that this is both appropriate and safe to do. Then we need to clarify the criticism and examine its legitimacy or otherwise.  


[2] The critic is unsure of the legitimacy of his/her criticism.  

Rightly or wrongly (probably wrongly) the critic is caught in a web of uncertainty and feels the need of anonymity to 'test' the legitimacy of the criticism. Now, again, I think I can hear a groan of frustration because it is obvious to the pastor or leader that there is a better way to test the criticism; namely, ask the person being criticised!   But we have to realise that such openness makes the critic very vulnerable and they may not be ready for that kind of risk-taking exposure especially if they have done that in days gone by (in any kind of relational setting) and have been soundly rejected and marginalised.  


[3] The critic is seeking to manipulate and control the leader by subterfuge.  

The sad truth is that many critics are energised by this less than God-honouring motive the desire to manipulate and control from a safe distance and using others as their "conduit" to reach the leader or leaders. They thereby avoid responsibility and accountability for their opinion or concern and, more importantly, for the damage done by their method of subterfuge.  


How do we creatively address this destructive, debilitating faceless criticism?   We begin by planning a specific strategy. Simply wringing our hands and hearts in anguish will accomplish nothing positive and probably a lot negatively. What follows is what I have endeavoured to do in days gone by (with varying degrees of success and failure, I need to add!).  


[1] Expose the reality & impact of faceless or indirect criticism  

Faceless criticism draws most of its energy and power from anonymity. To state the obvious, if we can put a face to such criticism, it ceases to be faceless. We need to bring the insidious aspect of indirect criticism out into the open and make the people that we are seeking to lead aware of its nature and effect.   I like to think of this as a "pre-emptive strike" the leader takes the initiative, defines and describes the true nature of faceless criticism and, in so doing, exposes the critic's arena of operation before the critic steps into that arena.  


We also need to alert our people to the negative impact such criticism has on our lives as leaders and on the Body of Christ of which we are all part. This will involve teaching Biblical principles that might be summed up in the phrase "speaking the truth in love" (Eph.4/15). It's important that we, as leaders, teach and model a 3-fold strategy.  

a.Make sure it's the truth. It's often the case that much criticism is ignorant of all the facts in any particular case and is thus founded upon half-truths.  

b.Say it where it counts. We need to encourage those who feel they have a genuine case for their criticism to express it directly to the person or persons concerned rather than through an intermediary.  

c.Say it in love. The critic needs to know that their concern needs to be motivated by love if it is to meet the biblical criteria of maturity.  


[2] Provide a viable alternative   The viable alternative will be an appropriate and safe forum mentioned above. This involves the pastor/leader being sufficiently secure within himself/herself to invite the critic to share openly and honestly with the assurance that they will be heard without immediate recrimination or subsequent discrimination.  


[3] Enlist the help of the "conduits".   I mentioned earlier that some people allow themselves to become (often unwittingly) conduits or channels through which others communicate their concerns and grievances. These people tend to be among those who are perceived by the critic to 'have the ear' of the pastor/leader. We have to educate these "conduit" people about how they are being used and enlist their help to dismantle the anonymity that energises faceless criticism.  


For example, imagine the following scenario. Allen has a grievance with Pastor Gerry. Allen thinks Gerry's preaching style is too academic and he also needs to do more pastoral visitation. One morning Allen is having breakfast with Andrew who is a Church Deacon and he tells Andrew just what he thinks about Gerry.   Now Andrew is a good friend of Pastor Gerry. You don't need a Ph.D. in psychology to construct the scenario that evolves. Pastor Gerry gets the message from Andrew who got it from Allen. But somewhere in there the confidentiality factor is activated. Allen doesn't want Andrew to mention his name. This leaves Pastor Gerry looking at a two part criticism re preaching & visitation, the source of which remains unknown to him! Sound familiar?  


In that situation Andrew is the conduit. He feels that Gerry needs to know "what people are thinking" so he reports his version of what (the anonymous) Allen has said. Meanwhile Allen goes on his merry way totally unaccountable for the words he has spoken and, more to the point, for his failure to speak to the only person who could actually do something about his concerns if they had any validity.   What should have happened?


The whole scenario would turn out differently if Andrew had listened to Allen's concerns and then said something like this:   "Allen, this really concerns you, doesn't it? Tell you what. I want to urge you to go directly to Gerry and ask if you could spend some time with him. If you are right, then this is way too important for him not to hear it directly from you. And it's also too important to be entrusted to a third party like myself; not to mention the inappropriateness of him hearing it from someone other than yourself.   Let me make an offer here. Why don't you call him this week and ask for time with him. I'd be happy to go with you if that would help. I've always found him to be a good and gracious listener. Why don't I call you next week to see if you've been able to set up a time with Gerry?   There is another alternative here if you'd prefer it. I'd be happy to talk to Gerry and mention that you have some concerns and I'll ask him to call you to see if you could meet with him. What do you think?"  


Such an approach means that Allen now has some decisions to make. Will Allen cross over from the shadows of anonymity into the light of personal responsibility? Andrew is graciously refusing to be a conduit. He is helping Allen take responsibility for his own concerns and what he does with them. If Allen refuses to make the shift, he will have to find someone other than Andrew to "fire his bullets".   If there are any others who get caught in this scenario but have been helped to understand the dynamics of faceless criticism and have been alerted to how best to respond when a would-be faceless critic tries to recruit their services as a conduit, then they won't be available either.


Potential conduit people (all of us!) need to be trained so that the critic knows that, if they want the conduit to pass on information, it will be with the name of the critic.   The trouble with that imaginary scenario is that Allen probably won't have much trouble in finding another conduit. There are plenty of them around! How do we turn conduit people into an endangered species? (It's probably unrealistic to hope for their extinction!). That question brings us to our final point.  


[4] Educate our people  

The above scenario is not perfect and it certainly will be limited in its effectiveness if the whole Church is ignorant of the "strategy" and its purpose to encourage openness and transparency within relationships while minimising communication patterns that are destructive.   As part of that overall strategy, the following components may help the Church grasp the importance and the value we place upon constructive, loving criticism.      


a. Speak to the whole Church about this matter.  

Teach the Biblical principles of speaking the truth in love. Teach about the high priority that the Word of God places upon authentic relationships and the need to "walk in the light" with each other with transparency. We also need to expose the enemies of that kind of relational living in the Body of Christ. The Bible has a lot to say about gossip, slander and falsehood. Let's be open about these truths. Speaking openly, clearly & lovingly about these dynamics is also modelling integrity & authenticity to the Church.  


b. Be practical in the application of these principles

Explain how you, as a leader, are more than willing to listen to people who have concerns. Of course, you need to be able - with integrity & truthfulness to assure them that it is "safe" to approach you; that there will be no recriminations that flow from such openness. On the contrary, you welcome their initiative and you are more than willing to explore their concerns.


c. Lovingly identify the negative communication patterns that will not be tolerated.  

For example, not all faceless criticism is verbal. Anonymous negative mail is not unheard of in ministry circles!! Over the years I have had only one or two occasions (thankfully) where I have had to say publicly that I do not and will not read anonymous mail. I have publicly stated that when I open a letter the first thing I do is check the name of the person who wrote it. If it's anonymous, I immediately tear it up because I will not allow myself to be victimised by manipulation and control and that's what the author of anonymous mail is seeking to do to manipulate & control.  


 I believe that, when it comes to faceless criticism (or any kind of criticism), putting in place a specific strategy and setting healthy boundaries is vital to the relational life of the Body of Christ.   Equally, I believe that creating a safe place for people to share their concerns will go a long way to minimising indirect criticism. Approaching this whole issue with a positive anticipation and a godly determination to free the Body of Christ from destructive communication is the first step to a new level of true fellowship in the local Church.                  

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