My feminist strategy for dealing with criticism as a Christian leader

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What do you do when you’re called shrill, hysterical or bossy? The executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches responds by feeling deeply and sharing her pain. Reprinted from Faith and Leadership.

Christians say awful things to one another. I wish I hadn’t had to learn this as the leader of a Christian institution.

In my ministry, I’ve been called all sorts of cruel things: shrill, hysterical, bossy, manipulative, emotionally unstable. I’ve been likened to farm animals. I’ve had Christian colleagues repeat untrue rumors. I’ve had Christian colleagues stand in the sacristy and “joke” about cutting my mic when I speak. I’ve been called a name that is not printable here.

And this is not even counting what people have said about me online, anonymously or without my knowledge.

Navigating these particularly gendered criticisms is especially problematic for women in public Christian leadership. Our gender already puts us in a position of being perceived as overly emotional. Others will presume we’re additionally weak, volatile or angry based on their biases about age, sexuality, perceived abilities, class, educational status and race.

I’m not the only one, or even the most maligned. Yet the more visible my ministry has become, the more pointed people’s opinions have become about how I’m leading.

Most days, this vocation is gratifying and joyful. Sometimes I can barely believe it is my job to meet diverse Christians and amplify stories of grace and reconciliation. I would not trade it for the world.

And yet I’ve struggled to withstand the thousand cuts of public Christian leadership and the verbal assaults intended not for edification but for wounding. I attempt this complicated work of figuring out how to faithfully respond to criticism because I ultimately believe in truth and grace, not just in my institution, but in my own life.

I am trying to find my own particular way to deal with the hurtful things that are said to me and about me, in a manner that aligns with my deepest convictions about the vocation of public Christian leadership and my God-given dignity.

The two most common recommendations I’ve heard: “get a thicker skin” and “ignore it.”

I’ve ruled out both as unhelpful; neither has solved my struggle to put painful words in proper perspective. Moreover, I don’t want to perpetuate the coping mechanisms of prior generations that created the “lone cowboy” model of ministry for women and men alike.

Instead, I have stumbled into a paradoxically feminist strategy for dealing with the pain and isolation of criticism: not “get a thicker skin” but “feel deeply”; not “ignore it” but “share your pain.”

The counsel to “get a thicker skin” has some obvious drawbacks. First, how do you even do that? Do you grow it or train for it? Do you put on more and more layers to distance yourself from all that might harm you, like a New Englander heading outdoors in January?

I have not wanted to bundle myself up against the words of others; a shell keeps out both the cruelty and the delight.

Feeling less is not the answer for me. Instead, I’ve found some solace in feeling more. Principally, I’m indebted to friends such as the Rev. Dr. Theresa Latini, who teaches and models nonviolent communication.

Nonviolent communication calls for “practicing self-empathy”; it means, for example, that in a meeting where I was called shrill, I tried to reach under that accusation to my deepest convictions. I tried to recall my bedrock belief that we are made to be in right relationship with God and one another. I tried to notice how much I longed for a collegial relationship with mutual affirmation and mutual accountability, and how far short of that the present instance was falling.

Trying to unearth my deep need made me feel awkward and self-indulgent at first. Like any change, it took practice. Yet I’ve found that this discipline refocuses me on what I treasure instead of whatever is being thrown at me.

“Ignore it” has drawbacks as well. I try to view criticism in the manner of an Olympic gymnast, throwing out the high and low scores. But ignoring the negative judgment serves only to push it down deeper, where it can fester and become internalized.

Latini describes this as a sort of “lashing in.” She writes: “Rumination like this fosters exhaustion, an inability to make decisions and even depression. It also isolates us from each other.”

Ignoring painful words also forecloses the possibility for edification by legitimate criticism. I have to be spiritually mature enough to own my part in a conflict. Doing so affirms that I can be a woman of dignity, strength and hope, whether or not another person decides to behave in the same way.

When I can see clearly my own belovedness, I can see more clearly what is legitimate and even helpful criticism and what is just nutty.

Rather than ignoring it, I am practicing sharing my pain. I aim to share it in ways that do not replicate the gossip and slander I deplore.

Before a recent meeting where I suspected I was going to be berated, I asked a group of trusted colleagues to pray for me during that time and check in with me afterward. I did not share the details or the person involved but simply asked to be supported in bearing the attack. When the meeting became difficult, I knew that those colleagues were with me at that moment in prayer. And I knew that they would hold me accountable afterward for how I had behaved.

Another time, when the conflict was especially pitched, I brought a colleague with me to witness the accusations. As we sat down, I focused my eyes on my notebook, where I had written, “I can be a woman of dignity, strength and hope.” The toxic words still came, but I kept returning to my affirmation, and I tried to behave accordingly.

I also practice sharing my pain as an intentional strategy to resist the isolation of ministry. I share it with trusted colleagues. I share it with Jesus.

And Jesus shares his pain, too. He resists bearing his grief alone when he says to Peter, James and John, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me” (Matthew 26:38 NRSV).

I have learned through my ecumenical ministry among Roman Catholics about devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in which Jesus’ physical heart is depicted as exposed, crowned with thorns and often pierced. Christ’s heart is not protectively shrouded but rather vulnerably laid bare.

I’ve taken this image to set before my eyes in times of trial, a reminder that my Savior knows the depths of our very human suffering.

I want my leadership to be a reflection of the deep empathy I believe God has for the struggles of human life. When I come to God with all that weighs on me, I’m grateful that God feels deeply. And I’m grateful that Christ, with his tender heart, shares his pain. Should I not live in the same way?

Laura Everett is the executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Everett, an ordained UCC minister, previously served as associate director of the council. She is a graduate of Brown University and the Harvard Divinity School. She serves on the advisory council of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

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