Managing Criticism and Complaints

The following presentation was delivered by
His Grace, Bishop Demetri
at the 2001 Midwest Region Fall Clergy Seminar
Hosted by St. Matthew Orthodox Church – N. Royalton, OH
October 17, 2001

Good afternoon and welcome to the 2001 Clergy Seminar and the Midwest Region Fall Delegates’ Meeting. I always look forward to these God-blessed opportunities for us to gather together to listen and to learn. Indeed, this is a time when we can truly experience koinonia, working as one toward the goal that we all “hold in common.” I would like to extend to you the blessings and greetings of His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP as well as Their Graces — the other Auxiliary bishops.

The theme of this year’s Clergy Seminar is “The Person and Role of the Shepard in the Church”:

-The first session this afternoon will be “The Priest as a Man of Prayer”, presented by the V. Rev. Alexander Atty.

-This evening, the second session is entitled “Who Ministers to the Priest and his Family” and will be presented by the V. Rev. George Shalhoub.

-The third session will begin tomorrow morning and will have two topics: “The Priest as a Preacher and Teacher” to be presented by the V. Rev. Daniel Daly; and, “The Priest as a Confessor” to be presented by the V. Rev. Richard Peters.

-The fourth session scheduled for tomorrow afternoon will also have two topics: “What comes after the Coffee Hour” to be presented by Khourieh Joan Heifner and

-“The Priest as a Working Person” presented by Father James Ellison and Dn. David Betras.

-Tonight and Tomorrow evening after the regular sessions, The V. Rev. Nabil Hanna will be offering workshops on Liturgical Practice.

Please check your schedule for the times of these sessions and workshops.

Before we begin this afternoon’s presentation, I would like to speak on the subject of “Managing Criticisms and Complaints”.

In any normal and active ministry, criticism and complaints should be expected. Those who work towards a goal – whether large or small – subject themselves to criticism. The fact that criticism and complaints take place is not necessarily a sign that insurmountable problems exist.

Like many other aspects of the work of the Shepherd, the Pastor’s decision to react or respond to such situations that determine whether or not the outcome will be positive or potentially destructive. When a Pastor, in prayfulness, love and humility, responds to the situation, then positive results are most likely. However, those who react to criticism – whether from self-love, hurt, hostility, or mere frustration – set themselves and their people up for failure.

Answer this question: When criticism comes to you, do you view it as failure or opportunity?. Most so called “conflicts” in our parishes are not conflicts at all.. Rather, they’re complaints gone sour, resulting in emotional clashes by two otherwise reasonable people. They are eruptions of a unstable and emotional nature, and can be compared to the contemporary phenomenon of “Road Rage.”

Criticism often feels like a stab in the heart or back. Criticism often puts one’s self-esteem and self-confidence into a run-away state of emergency. This is especially true when the criticism or complaint is directed toward what we feel to be our areas of strength. It is also important to understand that when such situations arise in our parishes it is unwise to just “shrug it off”, or to declare that, “it’s nothing.”

There are tools that you can use when you are confronted with criticism and complaints. It’s not what you know that makes the difference in changing criticism and confrontations into opportunity. Rather it is how you apply what you know. If you are properly prepared, you will be able to take charge of the situation, making it possible that the complaint will be resolved in a way that is constructive for you, your parish, and most importantly, the parishioner who has brought the complaint.

The steps in managing criticism and complaints include understanding why they come to those who are in ministry and evaluating in advance how we react to criticism. . With this as a foundation, we can then construct a workable strategy for managing these “speed bumps” within our ministries.

Actually, it is not hard to examine the conditions that bring about criticism and complaints in the course of our ministry.. There is no doubt that complaining has been a fact of life for as long as people have been interacting for a common purpose. Too often people prefer to complain rather than solve their problems or concerns. Whether a complaint is well founded or not, they often arise from well-intentioned mistakes. Because of such mistakes, there is always something to talk or gossip about.

In today’s society, we find that complaints often come in response to life’s many stresses – at home, at work and even at Church. We must recognize that many parishioners care very much about their parish and what takes place there, often resulting in stress as a result of the depth of their caring. Complaints arise because these caring individuals do not react well to change — but as we all know, change is inevitable.

Finally, the consumer mentality that surrounds us invades all aspects of our life. We live in a service oriented society where people have an expectation that their own needs and wants will be fulfilled.

Such conditions, and many others like them, make up the environment in which criticism and complaints grow and multiply.

When criticism comes, a Pastor must keep in mind the following:

· A Pastor draws criticism like a lightening rod on the roof.

· Criticism expresses unmet needs rather than failure of the Pastor.

· As in any aspect of ministry, complaints must be taken seriously and acted upon with the pastor managing the outcome, and not ignored or overlooked.

Always remember that each of us have a choice in how we respond to criticism and complaints. Too often, we react, rather than respond.

There are three common ways in which we deal with complaints and criticism.

First, our reaction may be one of Avoidance – but this will only result in a perpetuation of the problem. In the cases where the complaint is unfounded, or the result of a misunderstanding., avoidance will in fact create a problem where none existed in reality. In any case, avoidance always makes the situation worse, making resolution more difficult than it needed to be.

A second reaction may be one of Confrontation, if the attack is highly emotional, or perceived to be personal. This reaction can also become an automatic reaction when criticism comes from parishioners who seem to only bring complaints to you, one right after the other.

The third possible way to deal with criticism is the proper way we should respond, unlike the reactions of avoidance and confrontation. This response is, of course, one offered in Love – This response allows love for the person who offers the criticism to guide and determine how we respond to them and their complaints. This response is the only possible environment in which we can manage the complaint.

Responding in love comes naturally when we realize that most parishioners are good people — a fact which must not be forgotten or taken for granted. Misunderstandings and irritations happen even to good people. We can choose love instead of avoidance or confrontation when we realize that we may not be able to choose unexpected criticisms,. but we can always choose how we respond when they come.

Knowing how to respond to criticism and complaints also requires that we must primarily see ourselves in the role of a criticism manager. If we see ourselves as a manager of the criticisms and complaints that are brought to us, we will be motivated to construct a strategy to accomplish this.

Being a criticism manager means that we do not react in a way that instead puts us in the role of being a victim or even worse, a bully:

· The victim feels powerless, is inclined to quickly assign blame, wants to change others, and prefers resentment to confronting issues.

· The bully feels threatened, blames others, needs to be right all of the time, and prefers intimidation to confronting the issues.

If we see ourselves in the role of a victim, we are immediately defensive, feel picked upon and singled out in a way that is undeserved and unfounded. Egos are bruised, making it impossible to consider the needs of the person who has brought the complaint. The focus is intently upon how the complaint has hurt our feelings, and nothing else can be considered with any clarity.

A more serious reaction is taking on the role of a bully when confronted by criticism. It is important to recognize if this is the way we react, because the result can be very destructive to your ministry, and the relationships in your parish. You can determine if you take on the role of the bully if one of the following statements describes your personal style of handling criticism:

· I use criticism to punish or put the other person down.

· I present criticism or complaint as the other person’s failure.

· I distort information or withhold it for whatever reason.

· I’m only trying to find fault.

· I attack with explosive and hurtful anger.

· I shoot from the hip, responding with the first thought that comes to mind.

These reactions usually are triggered by the perceived attitude of the confronter, the one who comes with the angry complaint or criticism. They usually bring a loaded verbal message that hooks the pastor into reacting in one of these negative ways. This results in a loss of emotional balance in all parties. What results are two people temporarily out of control of their emotions . . . two defensive people on a collision course without recourse. In this case, there is a critical need to regain balance so that the focus is on the complainer and his message, not on the reaction itself.

Managing confrontations requires that we not get caught up in the other person’s emotions. .

There are skills we can practice and apply to these situations. The criticism manager may feel threatened and off balance when criticism comes. However he chooses to practice good resolution skills, preferring resolution of the issues rather than resentment or intimidation.

You are manager of criticism if you can make the following statements:

· I MANAGE CRITICISM WHEN MY attitude toward the other person is respectful, even if I’m angry.

· I MANAGE CRITICISM WHEN MY attitude is to look for opportunities that may be presented in the situation.

· I MANAGE CRITICISM WHEN MY focus is centered on making certain that accurate information is delivered to the other person in a timely manner.

· I MANAGE CRITICISM WHEN MY focus is on problem solving.

· I MANAGE CRITICISM WHEN MY delivery is upbeat and constructive.

· I MANAGE CRITICISM WHEN have carefully prepared my delivery to communicate what I intend.

Stay the course with reminding yourself: “This too shall pass” . . . “I don’t have to lose control” . . . Or . . .

“I need to be quiet”.

Get some distance between you and the situation. The question is, “Do I want to react or respond?”. Reaction mostly comes out of instinct, without thinking, and with anger or fear.. On the other hand, to respond is to act out of choice. At least, I have a choice to either say something or not. It’s usually best to choose to keep quiet and take the other person seriously.

Remember a “key word” – When you hear criticism, think “Information.” When someone is unhappy with something, they are communicating information about you or them.

Now that we are prepared to react in love, and we see ourselves as criticism managers, we can construct a strategy that can effectively handle complaints:

First, we must listen to the complaint, letting the other person unburden and get rid of stored up frustration. This is why emotional balance is needed – we can only listen when we’re not defending our own position. We need to be able to extract the facts of the complaint facts, separating it from the anger.

Second, we can interject heartfelt expressions that will help to further diffuse anger or tension., assuring the person who has brought the complaint that you take their feelings seriously. We can provide genuine sympathy and concern by acknowledging what the person is feeling saying by making expressions such as:

“I wasn’t aware of that” . . . “I can see that” . . . or “I can see there’s a problem here”

We can offer genuine regret by saying:

“I’m sorry that happened” . . . “That shouldn’t have happened” . . . or “You’re right, this is a real problem”

We can demonstrate genuine empathy by saying:

“I can understand why you’re upset” . . . “I can tell you’ve had a tough time” . . . or “I can see why you’re discouraged”

Third, we can further gather information by asking honest questions, such as; “What action is called for in correcting this problem?” This question is based on “what” and not “why”. Remember that “Why” questions spoken in anger are really statements of complaint.. We cannot resort to such questions, or respond to them if they are asked of us. Rather than finding out the “why”, we must try to draw the person out so you can find out the real substance of the complaint.

Once we know what the complaint is about, and what is expected, we are in a position to work toward an agreement as to the course of action that will correct the problem. A parishioner who gives a complaint is giving us a chance to make things right.. The goal of our work to manage the criticism or complaint is to arrive at a point that both parties agree on a course of action.

Finally, we must follow up. Once a course of action is agreed upon, we must sincerely do our part to act upon it, and to keep in touch with the person who made the complaint, making certain that they know what we will do and when we will do it.

Although we know that unexpected criticism and complaints will come, we can still be prepared to anticipate some situations before they turn into complaints. One simple way to avoid unexpected criticism is to heighten our awareness by observing and asking questions, such as:

· “Do I know what is really happening in my parish?

· “Is it easy for people to tell me things?”

· “Do I reward people for telling the truth?”

· “What should I keep on doing?”

· “What should I do more of?”

· “What should I do less of, or stop doing?”

Being in control is only one aspect of bringing a constructive resolution to a complaint or criticism. Some circumstances, you may find that you must stand on principles that you are certain of, and say “No” to the person who is making the complaint. Although it may be uncomfortable, there are also constructive ways to say “no”.

When your parishioner makes impossible or unrealistic demands of you, they usually know it. They are angry – and probably feel they have been unfairly treated, and need to let off steam. Also remember these angry parishioners will usually pick the most inconvenient time to deliver their anger – during the coffee hour, for instance.

More than any other time, you must remember to keep your cool . . . and again, give the parishioner the opportunity to vent his or her anger in a constructive manner. Invite the parishioner to a private place when both of you can be seated, this will help calm the anger.

When you have heard the substance of the complaint, do not be too quick to say “No” or deny or dismiss the complaint. Remember that time is on your side.

If having to say “no” is based on spiritual principles or canon law, say so as clearly and firmly as possible without scolding or arguing. You can say, “on this matter there can be no variance.” . Try to educate your parishioner in a caring manner as to why your “No” means “No” – being aware that your parishioner may attempt to argue.

If your “No” must be the last word, say this up front and appeal to the parishioner’s sense of fair play. Try saying, “I know this is not what you want to hear, and I hope you will accept the answer we have to give”.

In extreme instances, you may have to manage abusive behavior when you are managing complaints or criticisms. . This is the greatest test of your ability to manage the situation and not allow it manage you. Keep in mind that verbal abusers who shout, rant, rave and call names are out of control. Do not in any circumstance join them in this behavior. … If the attack is in public, put up your hand in a STOP signal and motion the individual to follow you to a private place.

If the person continues to be abusive, you can try to use repetitive verbal interventions to constructively redirect the individual’s attention from his or her anger. For example, you can say: “I can see how strongly you feel, is there another way we can talk about this?” . . . “Shouting and name calling is not helpful. Let’s talk about this in a different way” . . . or “I’m sure you don’t mean to be rude. Now help me to more clearly understand the problem.”

As a last resort, you may be forced to end the confrontation by saying something like: “I’m offended by your behavior. When you’ve gotten control of yourself, we’ll talk again”. After this, you must end the confrontation by walking away.

Whenever there is an adverse incident of this type, it is very important to take the time reflect on what happened afterwards by writing down the other person’s words and your own responses and interventions. Consider carefully what, if anything, could you have done differently. You must always keep a record of abusive incidents, not only to help you seek a resolution, but also for your own protection. After the heat has cooled, always follow through with the individual to put resolution or closure to the incident. When you take the initiative, you strengthen your own ability to manage the situation, no matter how difficult it may be.

As you no doubt have discovered in the course of your ministry, no two situations are alike, as no two parishioners are alike in their attitudes and needs. By first understanding the nature of criticism and complaints, the proper ways to respond to them, and adopting a good strategy for managing criticism , you will be prepared for these special and sometimes difficult situations.

In this manner, you will have gained valuable insights regarding how to deal with such problems in a constructive way so that you can bring a resolution that is most beneficial for your parishioner, your ministry, and your parish . . . and in a way that is pleasing to God. . It is my hope that you will find this information useful as you shepherd the flock that has been entrusted to you.

I know that we have a packed schedule, but I am confident that you will benefit greatly from the presentations that are to be given at this clergy seminar. I ask that you be courteous to the presenters by being on time for each of the sessions, so that they can have the full time allotted to make their presentations.

We will now begin the first session, entitled “The Priest as a Man of Prayer”, presented by the V. Rev. Alexander Atty. Thank you and God bless!