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.