By Chandler Vannoy
Over the past two months, tough decisions are being made by leaders in every space.
Church leaders in particular are having to navigate how to lead their church without being able to gather in person.
Now that shelter at home policies are lifting in many areas of the country, leaders are facing maybe the toughest decision of all in figuring out what their church’s re-entry plan will be.
And if you’re a church leader making that decision, I have bad news for you: No matter how much research and time you put into your decision, there will be some who completely disagree with it.
I know that’s a tough pill to swallow, but I think we should keep coming back to this quote by Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” I have a good feeling every leader needs to hear these specific words from Roosevelt right now: “It is not the critic who counts…the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”
Take a deep breath. Give yourself grace in the midst of preaching it to others every week. There was no seminary class for writing out a re-entry plan.
Because this is uncharted territory, there’s a good chance you’re going to make some mistakes along the way.
Unfortunately though, being the one in the arena means there will be critics.
So when someone offers criticism and disagrees with your reopening decision, how should you respond in a godly way?
Here are six thoughts about how to prepare for and respond to those who disagree with your reopening plan:
1. Listen to their feedback and see if there’s anything to learn from it.
After pouring hours into a well thought out decision, the last thing we want to hear is someone disagreeing with our plan. Oftentimes, we can even become angry.
In these moments, we would do well to remember the words of James 1:19 when he calls Christians to “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.”
When someone disagrees with our plan, let us not take a defensive posture, but instead let us take steps to follow up with them and allow them to be heard.
First off, some people just need to feel heard. Secondly, they may have something insightful to share that we can learn from.
In this season, we should be quick to listen to others and make sure we aren’t living in an echo chamber of our own thoughts and ideas.
We need others, even if it is hard to hear.
2. Your decision will not please everyone, so focus on the right group.
No matter how hard you try, there will always be people who are not pleased by your plan. This is where we can learn from Napoleon’s Rule of Thirds.
This might sound like a strange place to look for advice, but I think it can help churches as we navigate change.
In Napoleon’s army, he saw three distinct divisions of people. The first division was made up of those who were ready for change.
Anytime he wanted to conquer new territory or implement a new initiative, they were ready to leave the camp and join him.
The second division was made up of those who never wanted to leave camp and were reluctant to change. They wanted to stay right where they were.
Then the third division was made up of those who were playing the middle and were waiting to see who had the momentum.
In times of change, we can tend to focus on the wrong group of people. We focus on changing the minds of those who do not want to change instead of creating momentum with those who are ready to join us.
During this season of change leading toward a new normal, we should focus our time and attention on those who are ready to conquer new territory with us and create momentum.
3. Get a trusted friend’s opinion.
This is where we should remember Roosevelt’s words when he said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.”
Instead of letting the critics voice be the loudest, we should be talking to those in the arena with us.
Those whose “face is [also] marred by dust and sweat and blood” should be the voices we listen to the most.
So reach out to fellow pastors and church leaders and ask them how they are doing. Clear the air with them.
They’re walking in your same shoes and stumbling over the same things. Learn from each other. Encourage each other.
4. Write out your frustration. Then throw it away.
This advice is from another President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
Whenever Lincoln became frustrated with those who disagreed with him, he would compose what he called a “hot letter.”
He would write out all his angry thoughts and frustrations into a letter, then ball it up and throw it away.
This allows you to get your thoughts out while you are still emotionally charged in the moment but not let those emotions damage the relationship.
5. Anticipate criticism and proactively answer hard questions.
Some of the greatest leaders I’ve been around have the ability to sense the criticism that will come with their decisions, and they proactively prepare for it.
One of the best ways I’ve seen this handled is to provide answers to the hard questions before they’re even asked.
As you share your plan with your church, consider providing an FAQ section where you answer the difficult questions you know people are asking but may be scared to voice.
As you do this, you’re telling your people it’s okay to be asking these types of questions, and that their concerns are legitimate, especially in this high-tension season.
It also lets people see that you’ve wrestled with their questions and concerns in your decision making.
6. Trust that God is in control.
In this season, guidelines and policies are changing by the day, sometimes by the hour.
It can feel like every decision we make is wrong, and when we hear criticism from others, it seems to affirm our own fears that we didn’t made the right call.
Deep down you may be worried your church may not recover from all of this. But if this COVID-19 disruption has taught us anything, it’s that we are not in control of anything. Only God is.
If you currently feel like you are playing a losing game, remember that it is not our job to build the church. Jesus told us that was His job. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said, “I will build my church.”
He’s in control, and he will be faithful until the end. Even when it looks like the odds are stacked against him, God’s track record has proven that He will continue to build his church, even in the midst of a global pandemic.
As pastors and church leaders, when our face is marred and we feel downcast and defeated, let’s remember that in Christ, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.”
He too has had his face marred and felt downcast and defeated on the cross. All hope seemed lost. The critics were louder than ever. But God was in control. He was then. And He is now.
So when critics come our way and they disagree with our reopening plan, let us look to the cross as a reminder that He’s in control.
CHANDLER VANNOY (@chandlervannoy) serves as the brand manager for Lifeway Leadership. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and holds his Masters of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can read more at chandlervannoy.com.