It is amazing what a worship leader finds in his church inbox on a Monday morning. Over the many years I have served as a worship leader and worship pastor, several ministries encouraged feedback comments on the prayer cards. Against everything holy, the most valued person that ignited the insecurities of leadership was a person named Mr. or Ms. Anonymous. While some ignore this person, others put these above an email, note, or conversation with a live person that we can name and follow up with face to face. In one fantastic anonymous comment, a prayer card came with an attached note and artwork, to boot. This person took the time to draw a baby Jesus crying! “The music is so loud that it makes Jesus cry!” The stapled note attached included instructions on how to design a worship service with exact decibel levels prescribed.
Dealing With Invisible Critics: What To Do With Anonymous Comments
Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
– Luke 6:28 (NIV)
I love creativity, so I understood that drawing the baby Jesus might have been more effective than explaining the scenario and directives in person. I have never been hard to reach as I kept my cell phone public. My email was available. Access, however, did not seem to deter an anonymous note. I worked for the church full time, so I was never too busy to respond. Still, Jesus crying made a statement. After I had chuckled with the thought that I may have been pranked, I sank inside with a question. “Why would people share their feedback anonymously or in the most awkwardly unhelpful ways?” It is one thing to be told to your face, but “hints” and gossip hurt. The Mr. or Ms. Anonymous doesn’t usually unleash their wisdom-as-a-weapon to you directly. Even compliments are filled darts flying in your direction. Be sure to duck.
A worship leader leads a ministry that is in front of the whole church community, visible and judged by all. While this may seem like a win in a culture that favors fame and popularity, there is an emotional cost that we sometimes forget to talk about. No matter how many opinions you hear, you are likely to feel the burn of a nasty letter still–even if that message or email or comment on a prayer card is anonymous. A sad fact is that it is entirely possible that damage to you is the motive behind the feedback. People who may not know who you are behind the scenes easily ascribe qualities based only on their own bias, knowledge, and experience. When you are new in a faith community, starting out will have land mines: guaranteed! While we must listen to feedback to learn and be humble and teachable, it would be foolish not to address the disruption caused by words delivered in a less-than-kind way.
If you don’t believe me, I want to help you see what a worship leader experiences. So, I thought I would ask my worship leader tribe to share with me and each other what some of these comments are. Here is what was actually written or said to worship leaders.
“Please turn up the volume, we can barely hear.” AND “The volume is way too loud…and many people are saying this too.” Both comments were on the same Sunday.
What cracks me up is almost every time there is a complaint, it is followed by “and it’s not just me saying this… there’s a whole group of us blah blah blah”… !?!
A note on my desk saying, “No one likes any of the songs you sing. Sing something we like.”
I have been called a poser. A phony. Someone even told me once that I wear costumes to church (I wore a bow tie once).
My name is Joseph. So someone accused me of pushing my agenda with the conveniently named, “the Joe show”
Appearance seems to be a hang up to some of our church people.
I have been told by a senior pastor that I was too fat to lead worship.
An offering envelope with 2 cents in it talking about how they didn’t like all the modern music we were doing.
When a friend covers worship. “Why do we have ‘______’ when we could’ve hired this guy???”
“You need to dress nice every Sunday, so I won’t be ashamed to bring my friends to church.”
And when you think it cannot get any worse, racism and sexism can end up in a comment.
That our church needed a man worship leader. Not a female…. I’m the worship director annnnnd a female.
After my first Sunday at a church the anonymous card said “Truly you have a beautiful God given voice…now please remember not to sing too much of your people’s music.”
Some of these complaints cut deep into gender and race biases as well, but most are simply immature behavior. Physical appearance, age, and any other visible attribute are fair game to people who feel unchallenged and who shy from being accountable for their words. These examples are not made up and make a decent sample of what worship leaders face all over the nation. Our pay grade as worship leaders means we don’t make all the rules and cannot always fend off the worst of people’s interactions–especially the ones with no faces or names attached. So, I hope the following points offer encouragement to both us worship leaders and those we love to serve. The goal is to offer some insights into making the role of worship leader successful for our local churches.
We Must Be Honest With Our Own Emotions, First
When trolled by our critics, the emotions of being ostracized or demeaned powerfully hits us. If we are not self-aware, we potentially are mowed over by what is going on inside of us. Hurt is hurt. Don’t deny your feelings and learn to read the signs.
There is this newer science that goes beyond personality called “Emotional Intelligence” which asks us to learn the skills of reading not only the emotions of others, but what’s going on inside of us. When you combine those together to practice interactions, you basically have the skills a good policeman or checker at the department store acquires. You cannot de-escalate others, or defuse a toxic atmosphere without learning first to de-escalate yourself. This skill of seeing when you boil over and how wounded at the moment you are will aid you and me in addressing the critics we have. Ask yourself, “How do I really feel about this?” The research shows that successful people have higher emotional intelligence, not higher IQs. So, your emotional skill is more important than the talent or smarts you have in music or leadership.
If our emotions are churning with hurt and frustration, we must learn to manage them. What is a good time to have a difficult conversation? Only stepping back to assess the emotions will allow room for a strategy to develop. People who are misbehaving at times revel in getting us out of balance, tripping us up over our own reaction. The kid in the schoolyard who reacts to teasing is an easy target. Don’t be that kid! That wisdom-as-weapon I mentioned earlier has the potential to keep us off balance. If that happens, we may lose a potentially helpful lesson in the information from the feedback. If you deny that it hurts, you are not doing yourself or your ministry a favor. Learn to be savvy and self-aware when it comes to your feelings.
Our Public Image Is Potentially Different Than Our Character
In other words, people project things in public that are oftentimes an incomplete picture—magnifying them as better or worse than they actually are.
People ascribe their own baggage to any person in public—as if our own baggage wasn’t enough, right? When we perform our role very well, we may be praised beyond what is deserved. If our ministry has challenges out of our control, we can end up as a scapegoat. When a parishioner comes into the church, and they feel frustrated, a worship leader is an easy target. If he or she wears a funny hat on a Sunday, says something awkwardly, sings an unfamiliar song, or even simply shows up that day, critique will happen. Scrutiny is the price of public life. We cannot stop this nor should we. It is important, however, to acknowledge this reality to ourselves as we filter feedback.
Some of the feedback will be very useful. However, much of it is filtered through the lens of the emotional bias of people who have not spent the time to get to know you beyond stalking your Facebook or Instagram feed. Physics also determines a limited time and space we have to get to know, at a personal level, all the people we serve. It is simply impossible. This expectation must die. That fact that those of us in worship and music ministry are higher on the artistic spectrum already makes us inexplicable to most people. While being misunderstood doesn’t make you an artist, if you are one, then you will be misunderstood. It is not fair, and we must embrace that fact to thrive in any public ministry.
One other thing to note is that there is a danger in seeing our personal character as the public sees it. If people come to church and God uses us to minister to them, it does not mean that our heart is in the right place at that moment in time. I do not want to beat us up over this, but we have to be humble and realize that it is the gifts that God has given us that are moving people, not our amazing character. The character we develop will indeed allow us a staying power, but don’t let how people are touched by your skill gloss over areas of weakness.
What People Think Matters, Whether We Like It Or Not
Leaders have to learn to manage both their internal life, as well as the troops they lead. While we don’t follow people’s whims, we must be self-aware as well as people-aware.
We already talked about Emotional Intelligence, especially learning ourselves. To succeed, we must also read the people we serve and learn to listen. Emotional Intelligence goes two ways. After we learn to know what we feel, we must also read the emotions of those we serve. This does not mean the feedback itself is always what we listen to. For instance, in one church I served at, a disproportionately large number of seminary students attended. They would meet with me and school me on the theological issues with the songs I chose. When I learned that theology was a secondary issue, I began to see the hearts of these particular critics. I would ask them this: “How are you doing, really?” Often, their internal and external issues in life ended being a ministry opportunity. I could be a brother in Christ and pray for them, often with the theology question being a non-issue or simply a hook to hang the emotions on.
What has your church been through, recently? Sometimes a pickup in negative comments is a message to the overall leadership that there is dissatisfaction in general. People may have a hard time articulating that they are not feeling well led or that areas of weakness in the ministry exist. This does not mean the worship leader isn’t doing the job, necessarily. Worship and music are what our people all see and what they can use to express their emotions in worship with. I was twice in a church that had suffered a church split. What was clear was that there were many unresolved issues. More than the issues people identified, unresolved emotions were percolating under the surface of the ministry. The collective emotional hurt of these churches needed a rallying point to move on. Church leaders, including the worship leader, must listen to the emotions of the people.
Our Reaction To Critics Determines Trust Level
If we are overly defensive, we might create a culture where our church walks on eggshells around us. Or, if we brush off every slight, then we might be seen as distant. Determine the appropriate response.
How we react to critics matters in our survival as leaders. How many artistic people are defensive? Well, how about 99%! There perhaps is that 1% that are pathological liars in this metaphorical survey of worship leaders and music leaders in the church. Admittedly, we have a slight disadvantage because of our emotional expressiveness. This same liability is also what makes us often excellent at what we do. We can help others express because we are skilled and internally wired to express ourselves. When hurt, we can either withdraw into a moody fog or lash out like a prima donna. In our highest highs, we are loved. When we are down, people are not so forgiving. Regardless, our reactions have to be practiced as leaders—not as artists. Ask this: “How is my reaction sending the right message to my church and fellow leaders?”
If we become callous, we appear arrogant. The brush-it-off strategy will fail, as it sends the message we care more about ourselves than those we serve. The sulking act will perhaps receive an even worse response. What happens when we react poorly? Our church people will themselves withdraw and walk on eggshells around us. We then will get more secondhand feedback as people manage our emotions. This is a vicious cycle we must be aware of. It is better to hear things in person and in real-time as much as possible. People need to trust us to manage what they give us. They don’t necessarily have to see us agree with them, but they should trust us to care for them and lead them well. How we react then determines trust.
Create A Culture Of Open Dialog, Diminishing Need For Anonymous Notes
Even when complaints are not presented anonymously, people can with ease send Facebook posts or emails that sting. Here is a principle to build a new culture around: If someone cannot meet face to face about an issue, then it should not be public before it has been private. Sometimes, the anonymous note should end up in the circular file and never be dealt with. That trash can may at times be your best friend.
Some churches breed whining by how they have dealt with church member feedback over the years. Others may have habits that cause contentious interactions. Whether it is a passive-aggressive culture or a confrontational culture, most churches will have patterns that determine how complaints are managed. What is the communication culture like in your church? Learning this will greatly aid you in helping shape it. I must admit that if your environment is toxic, you may have to exit it! Don’t let a paycheck, ministry status, or fear allow yourself to stay in a place that will damage your soul and future ministry. You can, however, influence those around you. Part of this culture shift is expecting people to act like adults.
It is a grown-up activity to experience conflict and come out the other side of it better. If you perpetuate this kind of interaction, you will be a hero. An adult should own their mistakes, so this starts with us. What did we do to contribute to people not approaching us? Am I available and do I go out of my way to be one who listens well to the feedback from others? Immaturity comes when we do not expect people to act any other way. Have we backed our church people into a corner? Have we empowered gossip and anonymous comments? Instead of throwing them all away, do we know what the underlying issues are?
In time, we can assist in shaping the culture. However, this is not entirely up to us. We inherit what our church is, even though we potentially shape it. Time is our ally in shaping culture. The longer we behave a certain way, the more likely that behavior is copied and acquired by others. If we use the Matthew 18 principle, it may catch on. In Matthew 18, we find a process where an offense is dealt with in private. Social media has almost killed our ability to give dignity to people when they have differing opinions. Think about this. An individual’s opinion about worship is a deeply personal issue. If we learn to respect that, we have a chance at changing the culture in our churches.
The Encouragement File
The last thing I want to leave you with here is a practice a leader shared with me that helps more than you may realize. I call it the “Encouragement File.” Every time a positive note comes to me, I put the card or sheet of paper in a file labeled “encouragement.” If I am having a bad day, I randomly choose a note to read that is encouraging. All the birthday wishes and happy notes over the years still matter. If I take an anonymous comment seriously, it does me no good to not value the ones that encourage me,
On top of saving encouraging notes, writing them is also important. When is the last time you said “thank you” in a text, email, or note to a person in your church or team? Mr. or Ms. Anonymous will become lower in status the more that you are a grateful person. There is no better shield to wield as a leader than a spirit of gratitude. To counter the painful comments from nameless churchgoers, try putting out the opposite. Try blessing those who persecute you and see what happens.