Whether you are a paid staff member, a ministry leader, an elder, deacon or ministry volunteer, there seems to be one conversation everyone dreads and avoids if possible. It’s the “complaint” conversation. It may be an email, a text, a rumor even, but no one likes to hear someone is unhappy… much less why. Most of us work really hard in our ministries, often going far beyond the time, energy and money spent that is expected. So when those complaints come, it hurts. It feels like a personal attack and sometimes, unfortunately, it is.
So what happens when we feel attacked and are in pain? It depends on your personality. Some shut down emotionally and mentally. Others cry. Some become defensive. Others lash out right back. It’s our way of protecting ourselves. While it’s understandable, it’s only causing us more pain and quite possibly hurting our ministries as well.
Why? Because no one is perfect. Even the best ministries have flaws or could be even more effective if they made a few changes. The problem is most of us are blinded to our flaws and that ignorance quite often means the negative impact of our flaws multiples over time. Suddenly, the flaws become obvious to everyone because something implodes. When that happens things can go downhill very quickly.
Maybe the flaws in your ministry go unnoticed for decades. This can be even worse, because who knows how many souls were eventually lost (or had to the potential to be won and weren’t) because of these issues? It’s heartbreaking, because from the outside it looks like no one cares – especially to those people brave enough to complain.
The solution? Make an effort to regularly seek out negative feedback. Honest negative feedback. Hearing that everything is great is more harmful to a ministry than the risk of unleashing the complainers of the world to have their say on a regular basis. Find a format that works best for you. Initially, although it’s more time consuming, private conversations with one or two people will yield the most helpful information. It gives you the opportunity to encourage honesty and ask follow up questions. If people are reluctant to be honest, consider asking them to name one thing they would change about the ministry if there were no limitations placed on them. Or one idea they have been thinking about, but have been reluctant to share.
You will have to be encouraging and receptive to get honest responses. You don’t have to agree or implement every idea. You do have to be open and willing to consider them though – no matter how “wrong” the idea seems to you initially. Our brains are wired to discount anything that doesn’t fit into our view of ministry. You will be tempted more than once to quickly reject an idea that could be transformative for your ministry. Don’t forget Satan has a vested interest in your ministry languishing. He will provide you with all sorts of excuses to reject all of these ideas and criticisms.
Once people know you will actually listen, seriously consider and allow implementation of ministry changes and additions, you should be able to establish some regular feedback cycle. You want one that allows for immediate feedback and one that asks people to think seriously and share their thoughts a couple of times a year. Make it part of your culture that “everything is great” hurts your ministry and that ideas may only be a seed of a great idea, but those seeds are valuable, too.
What do you do if you know an idea will actually hurt your ministry efforts? Do your research. Then share it with those who want it to happen. If you can’t find research, explain in detail why you feel the way you do. Sometimes people ask for things that make their lives easier, but hurt the spiritual growth of the kids or teens to whom you minister. Lovingly, explain why those young souls need to come first in your ministry. Remember, though, ministry has trends that are not always in the best interests of young people. Just because a mega church does something, doesn’t make it the best.
Will you have people who take this as license to criticize anything and everything? Possibly, but truthfully the reason complainers appear to be so loud and negative is that they are used to being ignored. They believe to be heard, they need to be louder than the noise saying everything is perfect. Once they feel heard, eventually they will relax into the new culture you have created. If not, put them in charge of implementing one of their changes. Let them field any feedback that is given. Sometimes empathy is created by actually experiencing what someone else has to experience.
Try it for a year and see what happens. Don’t be afraid to empower people to try and accomplish their ideas. The fear of your plate becoming too full is often realized because we are too quick to control and to slow to empower. Listening to and empowering volunteers, parents and young people may just help you create the ministry God always meant for it to be.