Thursday, August 09, 2007

Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary?

I'm at that point in the week of Eliot where I'm looking forward to going home. It's Thursday, I've been having a bit of a sinus headache every morning, and I'm missing my own bed. There's nothing wrong with Eliot or Seabeck; it's me and my homebody tendencies.

I was moved, yesterday, to discover that PeaceBang had blogged about my post entitled 'We Bleed, Oh How We Bleed", from July 26. (I give you chapter and verse here because I don't have my handy-dandy cheat sheet that reminds me how to make it a link.) Because of her linking to my post, I had a remarkable number of visitors to the site, which tells me that many people are interested and compassionate about clergy who are hurt by thoughtless congregational behavior.

The subject came up here at Eliot yesterday, when in my small group discussion, someone criticized something a speaker had said and seemed on the verge of turning against the person because of that one small remark which seemed to cast the speaker in a negative light. The familiar pang came in my heart and I spoke up, asking the criticizer to go directly to the speaker with his concerns, rather than let the issue fester and negate everything good the speaker had to say, rather than talk negatively about the speaker behind his back.

This is exactly the kind of thing, I said, that results in a great deal of unnecessary pain and anguish for public figures---the tumbling from the pedestal of a favored person because of his/her moment of weakness and then, instead of being helped up and dusted off, being kicked and pummeled on the ground. I am glad that the criticizer said he would go directly to the speaker and tell him, rather than let him hear it second hand or letting it fester.

Later in the day, another person talked to me about a situation where the longtime minister of his church wasn't satisfying some of the person's friends: So and So is a little distant, doesn't do enough outreach, isn't personable enough, according to the criticizers. Again I felt the pang in my heart, because this minister is a dear guy, competent, intelligent, loving, caring. But he isn't everything and somehow that's not enough. Where is it written that a minister must be everything to everyone and if s/he's not, s/he can be hounded out of the church?

My watchword has become not only the "is it kind, true, necessary" mantra, but "is it illegal? Is it unethical? Is it immoral?" as legitimate concerns for people to have. That feels a little over the top, yes, but frankly it seems unreasonable to me for people to criticize someone seriously for anything but serious concerns like these.

It concerns me a lot that congregants have so little understanding of how the gossip mill works, how negative parking-lot talk can ruin the relationship of a minister with his/her flock, that they don't see that a casual negative remark can turn into an excuse for getting rid of the minister. Do they not understand how it would feel if it happened to them?

Criticism of a public figure is legitimate, but it must be done properly. It must be done kindly, it must be about something that is true, it must be necessary. If it can be done personally, it must be done personally. It is not okay to gossip about the person's failings behind that person's back. There must be an understanding of the consequences of the criticism, if it is carried out: that relationships can either be irreparably damaged or altered for the better; that the person criticized may lose his/her career unnecessarily or may improve his/her skills markedly; that the person criticized may have real, negative health consequences because of the stress or may be relieved of huge worries by a direct approach.

Unkind, untrue, unnecessary criticism has taken many a public figure to his/her doom. It seems to be endemic in our society. Some of it we can't do anything about--"swift-boating" has become a cottage industry during election season. But some of it we can change.

When it's our minister, our friend, our teacher, or other person we care about, we can do something. We can say "talk to the person directly". We can say "that's not true". We can say "let's not gossip". We can say "let's be kind". We can say "let's be forgiving, reasonable, understanding". And we should be saying these things every single time we hear negative remarks about others.

And if, on the rare occasion when the behavior is unethical, illegal, immoral, it must still be dealt with kindly. Truth must be determined. Necessity demands it.


Miss Kitty said...

I think this could go for public figures in areas other than ministry: academic department heads come to mind. Thanks, Ms. K.

uuMomma said...

Thanks, MsKitty. As a layperson unhappy with many aspects of our ministry, I really needed to hear this, be reminded. Best,

Ms. Theologian said...

I think people just don't know private suffering behind public personas. This seems like a really good sermon topic, btw.

Chance said...

"...we should be saying these things every single time we hear negative remarks about others."

This is really what it comes down to. If folks do this, everything changes.

Joel said...

I can agree with this, with the caveat that people in political office are fair game. It comes with the territory, and lambasting public officials is part of what makes America great. But I do think that a certain amount of gentleness is called for in speaking of someone you have differences with. We're all flawed (sinful, in my lexicon), and so not in a very good position to sneer.

As a reminder, BTW, you make a link by typing inside the greater-than/less-than brackets:
a href=""

and then your text, and then (again in brackets):

Use the quote marks just as I have them here. In fact, if you stick it in brackets, you can just copy and paste. (I couldn't put the brackets in the comment, or it would have disappeared altogether.)

juffie said...

You can see how much this needs to be aired by how much traffic and comment it has engendered. And I love what you've had to say Ms. Kitty, as I always do.

I just want to add that we may need to do more than just watch what we and other say. We need to examine our attitudes.

We have become consumers ... choosing stores by how well they provide what we want. Most of us now treat church, and our minister, the same way. And as UUs often misinterpret "the inherent worth and dignity of every person" to mean "if I ain't getting exactly what I want here, someone is to blame" usually the minister. Sigh.

And I know all too well the heartache, no, destruction felt by the recipient of one of these growing balls of acid.

Jamie Goodwin said...

While not taking anything away from ministers who frankly I believe have one of the most difficult jobs in all of jobdom.

This type of thing effects all leaders in a church or congregation. The sad fact is if you are willing to step up, you must accept that you will aslo be knocked down.

You can read My Blog entry about something that is currently happening to me. I have found my skin growing quite thick in recent months but not everyone is so equiped

Mile High Pixie said...

I like that series of questions. Ethical/immoral/illegal helps us put things in perspective, and then kind/true/necessary helps us format how to deal with the complaint. It's a good way to stop gossip/kvetching in its tracks.

I do have the caveat about "kind"; some people will hesitate to say something because they think it's unkind when really saying something to that person is extremely necessary, like "you need a therapist" or "you've got to work on the way you talk to your employees/children/whoever." It seems unkind on the surface to say something, but in truth it's kind to enlighten someone about how they're sabotaging themselves.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, all of you, for your thoughts and encouragement. Ms. T, I am going to work it into a sermon for Aug. 19. Good idea.

Comrade Kevin said...

Human beings prove themselves to be very hypocritical. And it is an unfortunate fact of human nature to be able to be hyper-critical so long as it doesn't effect someone personally. This goes for all issues that are matters of the heart.

I worked for a year in customer service and had to deal with extremely rude people who, had they taken the Golden Rule to heart, would have never dared spew forth such venom. We have a way of de-personalizing strangers so that we don't feel guilty when we tear into them so viciously. I've been guilty of it as well.

I don't think it's something we'll evolve out of anytime soon, but it's good to be reminded of it often. I certainly have to do so in my own life.