As I sat in a sticky booth at IHOP, talking with a pastoral colleague over pancakes and scrambled eggs, I heard a familiar story. A Sunday morning service just finished. Pastors standing at the door greeting parishioners. Some folks always have comments about the service, usually good, mostly generic. And then comes the occasional verbal hand grenade, set to detonate right there in the line out of church, just after the service. In this case, my colleague had done the prayers of the church and had prayed for peace, for an end to the war in Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine, Syria, and other places around the world. And one of the congregants assailed him in what my colleague characterized as harsh language and a harsh tone of voice, “Why aren’t you praying for our troops? We’re working trying to bring democracy in places that have only known tyranny, and you’re praying for peace. Why don’t you try praying for. . .”
For now, I’m not interested in the substance of the comments. But I do have something to say about that kind of harsh criticism immediately after a service, even when the message has a modicum of truth.
Years ago, I heard a seasoned and highly respected pastor say at a workshop about building a cohesive church staff, “On Sunday everything is perfect. Not until Monday do you even think about addressing what went wrong or what could be improved.”
The truth that stands behind his sound bite is this: every professional church leader and every lay volunteer who is involved in Sunday morning worship pours his heart and soul into what he does. There is no professional detachment. It’s personal. What she does and what she says comes from a deep place of her own calling, her picture of God and how God has called her, and her best efforts at using her gifts and talents in God’s service. Because it comes from such a deep place and is expressive of something so closely tied to our very identity, and because we’ve worked hard and are just now taking a relaxing breath, any criticism, even if constructive, will likely be heard as a personal attack in the few minutes after a service. Those few moments are moments of vulnerability.
I have tried to follow my wise colleague’s principle in my own ministry with both staff and volunteers. In those moments immediately after the service, I try be effusive in sharing my gratitude for those who have contributed to Sunday morning. I try every week to thank my professional colleagues, trying to mention something specific they have done that I have appreciated. I have attempted to thank all the volunteers, from ushers to altar guild to lectors to assisting ministers to acolytes. “Thank you for your service” or “Thanks for sharing your gifts” or “I really appreciated the way you read that second lesson this morning.”
Because worship always involves human beings and always is messy and always includes mistakes and other distractions, it’s never perfect. So, there are always things to address that could be improved. And I always, I mean ALWAYS, refuse to even mention them on Sunday, but address them during the week that follows. When both staff and volunteers have had a chance to sleep on it and are a little more detached, they are much more able to hear criticism as constructive and not personal. We can acknowledge the good things they did. And we can talk much more calmly about what went wrong or what was a little weak and how to make it better next time.
So, if you are a person sitting in the pew Sunday after Sunday, and you have some thoughts about what went wrong or what could be improved, file it away. Don’t lose track of it. Make sure you make time to offer your feedback. Just don’t do it on Sunday. On the way out of the service, you have no idea what a world of good you will do even if all you can say is “Thank you for sharing your gifts today. I’m grateful for you.”