Thursday, December 18, 2014

Save Your W(h)ine for Communion

Several people in my social media circles linked to a post by Thom Rainier, One Sentence That Pastors and Church Staff Hate to Hear. Here is the opening.

The moment they hear it, they feel the “cringe factor” throughout their body. Even as the first few words are spoken, the recipient feels his or her emotions plummeting. It is the one sentence that is uniformly dreaded by pastors and church staff. It typically begins with these words:

“People are saying that . . . “

The full sentence could say; “People are saying that you don’t visit enough.” Another example is: “People are saying that our student ministry is not doing well.” Or one more example is: “People are saying that you don’t have good office hours.”

The sentence might specify a group while maintaining anonymity for the individuals: “Some elders are not happy with you” or “A lot of the staff are unhappy.”

You get the point. It could be phrased a number of ways, but the meaning is still similar. “People” is never defined. The true complainer is never identified. It is one of the most frustrating and demoralizing sentences pastors and staff will hear. 

OK I get what he is saying but I don't think the problem is quite as cut and dried as it is being presented. In fact when I read it, the post sounds whiny and vindictive and the message being presented is more "don't critique your pastor at all" rather than "don't do it anonymously".

You can't have it both ways. You can't expect/demand the benefits of the employer-employee relationship (i.e. wages and other compensation) without getting the responsibility of being accountable to your employers. The rest of the church works for a living and pays you to perform certain tasks, tasks you signed up for when you applied for the job. As your employer,  the local church has the right and probably the responsibility to treat you fairly as an employee because that is what you asked to be, no matter what pious language you associated with it ("I feel called...."). In any employment relationship that is going to include performance reviews and critique of your work.

If I am doing substandard work or make a serious error at my job, I expect my employer to promptly and openly provide me feedback and corrective action, even if it is hard to hear sometimes. You can't do that in the religious employment setting though because it is impolite and perhaps even blasphemous. The employer-employee relationship is muddled in religious circles because people are not supposed to be critical of their employees, i.e. clergy and staff. This leads to a situation where an employee is not addressed by his employer with critical feedback because he is a "man of God" and above reproach. Instead of an open system of feedback on job performance (and make no mistake, it is a job), you get the behind the scenes whispering that often leads to sudden turmoil and firing because the very system itself serves to force employment feedback into the background.

But isn't it, to use Rainer's term that he repeats over and over, cowardly to hide behind innuendo when expressing dissatisfaction? Perhaps but again the skewed relationship between employer and employee makes direct feedback problematic. Who wants to be labelled the guy who is always being critical of the pastor in a group of people where many hold their pastor in an almost sacred reverence? Would anyone thank a mere laymen who tells a pastor that his sermon was poorly prepared, poorly delivered and substandard work right after the sermon and then suggests a corrective action plan to avoid more awful sermons in the future? I doubt it but that is what happens in the real world workforce. Why should religious employees be any different?

If you want open feedback from your employer rather than veiled critique, you should solicit it. Even better, stop demanding remuneration for serving in the local church and you go from being an employee back to being a brother. That would be better for everyone.

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