Exactly a year ago I wrote a post called ‘7 Ways Not To Complain To Your Youth Worker’. As a result I received comments and messages from other youth leaders that had gone through the same things. Some of the stories they shared were just heartbreaking.
This made me realise that we’re not done with this topic yet.
Critique is vital to health; it’s so important to have an objectivity about the work that we do, and a humble perspective on the difference between ‘God’s’ work and ‘ours.’ We need to keep ourselves accountable to trusted, godly men and women who will feedback with clarity and gentleness on our ministries. We need to be open to challenge so that we can truly grow as teachable and dependable ministers of the gospel.
Without an openness to healthy critique, we are just asking to fail.
What do you do when the feedback is poorly given, ill-conceived, spiritually dangerous, or just personally stupid?
I don’t mean what do you do if you don’t like or agree with the feedback. There’s lots of stuff that we won’t like or agree with that will contain nuggets of truth that we need to listen to. This is a post, however, on how to identify feedback that needs to be left by the door.
I recently (ish) received some ‘feedback’ that was hurtful and – frankly – just wrong. As a result I spoke to some friends that I genuinely trust for their perspective – trying to find out if there was some truth that I couldn’t hear because of my upset. One of these guys said to me that he believed some feedback was a form of abuse, and needed to be disregarded quickly before it stuck.
Some critique must not be allowed room to breath.
So I’ve called this ‘5 forms of criticism that I’ll always ignore.’ A more honest title however, would be ‘5 forms of criticism that I’ll try to ignore’ or ‘5 forms of criticism that I really really should ignore.’ The truth is I’m human, and if you get punched to the gut, it hurts!
Hopefully, however, we can all team up on this, and support each other by identifying some kinds of criticism that really don’t need to be taken seriously. If there are nuggets of truth, we need to pray and ask God to reveal those to us in healthy ways that we can action unconditionally. Some feedback, however, needs to be named and shamed, and not even given time of day.
1. Hostage feedback
This is feedback that won’t let you off the hook. It’s forceful, repetitive, and needs very specific agreements. Feedback that holds you hostage usually comes in the form of a conversation that’s impossible to leave. ‘Thank you very much, I’ll go away think about it’ just doesn’t work.
When someone holds you hostage to their feedback, they’re expecting very particular agreements to what they’re saying, and very specific and immediate appropriation of their suggestions. It’s all on their terms. The ransom is only paid in complete submission and total surrender to their opinion.
If the person giving you feedback doesn’t respond appropriately to your need to go away and process it, then – rudely if necessary – turn and walk away.
2. Delivered via gossip
Thirdhand, or ‘gossip’ feedback, is when someone is hoping you’ll hear their criticism without getting their fingerprints on it. Criticism via gossip means they have spoken to everyone but you. The most hideous form of this is when it arrives on your doorstep via your wife, your husband, or your kids.
Gossip is an issue that needs to be tackled at the pastor level; however it is worth identifying the source, approaching them directly, and getting them to tell you their problem eye-to-eye. It’s always important to call gossip out, otherwise it festers and continues.
3. Without proper examination
I recently received feedback from someone I’ve never spoken to before that questioned my very relationship with God after they walked out of my session three minutes in. Not only did they leave with the exact opposite point that was delivered, but they made huge assumptions and bold assertions with very little information. There was no questions, no listening, and no attempt to understand. It was an attack – quite literally – on nonexistent content.
This particular feedback was given in anger (which isn’t always a problem) and was fuelled by significant misunderstanding. In this case I really struggled to let it go as it called my faith in God to account. So I sent my recorded talk to several friends who are theologically solid and not afraid to challenge me. They left with the opposite impression than the person who left early. Their feedback suggested a personal trigger, rather than a problem in the content.
If any feedback given doesn’t flow from the information that was available, then it’s probably fuelled by something else – something that’s personal to the individual. Don’t digest it – it’s probably not about you.
4. Overgeneralised and unspecific feedback
‘You’re always doing this’, or ‘you’ve never been like that’, or even ‘that project you run is total shambles!’ I’ve had all three of those.
Feedback, and especially criticism, needs to be given in love with the hope of edification and correction. This means it needs prior thought and careful steps before delivery. Usually overgeneralised and unspecific feedback means there is simply a difference of opinion – maybe they just don’t like you!
My response is usually ‘sorry, I can’t work with that, can you bring me a particular circumstance or tell me a specific example.’ If they can’t – leave it behind.
5. Overreaching feedback
2+2 equals a sack of bananas, right? Overreaching feedback points to a problem, then makes a totally inappropriate conclusion. Like someone saying you need to rethink your relationship with God… because there was a broken window at youth club.
In a previous position, someone complained in our eldership meeting that I didn’t want to go on their suggested safeguarding course. Their conclusion was that it was inappropriate for the church to hire a youth worker who wasn’t trained in safeguarding. Of course I had done lots safeguarding training, I just didn’t like the particular flavour of the course they were suggesting.
Feedback should flow between problem, consequence, and solution. If there is serious disconnect, then disregard.
But what if they’re right?!?
And here is my big problem! I don’t disregard a lot of feedback that comes in these various ways because I want to be open to change and growth. I don’t want to be a feedback snob! And there could be valid criticism buried beneath all that goop!
However, I have my whole life the work on problems, and I know that my work is held accountable to people who’ve earned the right to speak into it. I’ve regularly got things to work on, and all of my work is held accountable to a manager, a board, a team, good friends, and committed mentors. This affords me the space to be discerning about when feedback is given inappropriately.
So don’t be afraid feedback – surround yourself with people who love you, are smarter than you, and are not afraid to hold you accountable. If you have a system in place for healthy criticism you won’t need to jump at every wagging finger.
In a future post we will consider these five areas again, but in reverse – and talk about more appropriate ways to give feedback.
Thanks for reading!