A few years ago I got blindsided. It has been almost four years now, I am at a different church, and I now have a strong relationship with the family the incident involved (the father passed away a few months ago, and I did the funeral.) Nevertheless this still sticks with me as one of the strangest and eyeopening experiences I’ve encountered in about 15 years of ministry…
I offended parents, I lost a volunteer, and I had a student leave the church. The hard part was, I didn’t even know anything was wrong. I left church on a Sunday afternoon feeling pretty good about myself. We had just had a successful student ministry event that weekend, our Sunday Morning Bible Study (who are we kidding, it was Sunday School) was well attended and a lot of fun that morning, and we had a group of students presented to the congregation as new members. The specifics are long and boring, but to sum it up, a family was upset that at the end of our several month confirmation process the students being presented did not receive more careful and individual attention in the service. It would be easy to point out that that the other 7 families had no issue and thanked me profusely, that this family was upset over the last 3 minutes of something that I had spent months working on, or that whatever they perceived went wrong wasn’t even my fault. But they were right. The ball got dropped on the presentation. There was a miscommunication between me and our senior pastor, and a few other element in the service got in the way. It was an oversight, but I didn’t think it was a big deal. Monday morning I came in to the office and had an ear full waiting for me. I got everything from “it looked like you didn’t even care about them” to the favorite criticism around here “it was nothing like the way it used to be.” What I got on Monday night was worse. The husband/father in this family had begun commenting on a facebook link I posted in memorial of a recently deceased seminary professor. There were multiple inflammatory comments made about my character, the one that hurt most was something like “I wish you cared as much about your students as you do about people on the other side of the country.” The next morning I received an email from the wife/mom resigning as a youth ministry volunteer and telling me that the older of the two students in their family had to decided to leave the church.
It was rough. I loved this family. Their kids are and were among my favorites ever. But strangely enough it turned out to be a really good and affirming week. Here are a few reasons why I think the week turned around.
1.) I had the support of my pastors. When the first wave of criticism came, one of the other pastors at our church stepped in and defended me. I just got to stand there and listen as he reasoned on my behalf. The critical email was sent to me, with the senior pastor cc’d. Instead of having the dreaded “Hey, I should let you know that someone is mad at me and may be calling you…” talk, he came to me with a list of why he thought they were off base and apologized to me for having to deal with it, as well as his part in our miscommunication.
2.) I apologized. I sat down with the wife/mom and apologized for the way the morning turned out and asked what I could do to fix the situation with the older student who was leaving the church. The thing about falling on your own sword is that it causes people to admit that you really shouldn’t be falling on it after all. It always amazes me how fast an apology, for something I couldn’t control, turns into a “well it wasn’t really your fault.” It is way easier to assign blame to someone not willing to accept it.
3.) I did nothing. The incident that started this was an oversight. The reaction from the husband/father was malicious. The moments after I read his comments I started a facebook message to him, a text to my associate pastor, and an email to my senior pastor defending myself and reprimanding my accuser’s immature and hurtful behavior. I prayed for peace, and then I deleted them all. By Wednesday evening more than dozen people in the church, who had seen his comments, approached me to apologize for his behavior and contradict his comments about my love for the students here. By not responding emotionally, I went from being attacked by one to defended by several.
I wish I could say that this was a carefully though out strategy, but it just kind of happened. I am so thankful for what I learned from it, and hope that these principles are as effective the next time there is unfair criticism or conflict in the ministry. Have you ever been blindsided? How did you get through it?
Andrew Larson – After 15 years in student ministry, I was recently demoted to senior pastor. My friend Tim and I use DYM as an excuse to hang out during office hours and to fund our families’ Disney addictions. My wife and I have 4 boys. No, we are not trying for a little girl.