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Facing Criticism and Questions

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Sean Chow

In the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “I’ve told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakable and assured, deeply at peace. In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world.” I’d like to take a bit of liberty and translate the last part of that verse this way: “In ministry, you will face questioning and be criticized, but take heart! I’m not afraid of the questions and I have overcome the criticism.”

Face it: in ministry there will be criticism. We will be criticized. Especially when we’re at the forefront of what God is doing “next” in the church. Realizing that does not, however, make accepting criticism or having people question our ministry, motives and work.

More than 20 years ago, when I first started ministry, I had a question that still haunts me. “When are you going to get a real job?” That question, from a family member, stunned me. Was my work and effort and ministry as a youth pastor not worthy of being considered a “real job?” Thankfully, the question forced me to consider what I was doing at the time and even today, the question is cause for reflection.

For 6 years, I served a church on the East Coast. The congregation decided it was interested in being more involved in the community. At least, they said they wanted to be more involved in the community. The church hired an “evangelism coach” to help the pastoral staff and congregation understand what it would take to be truly outwardly focused. But, like most churches, what they really wanted was for the community to come into their doors, and they wanted them to enter on their terms.

As the leadership team began to chart a new course and unveil it to the congregation, tension began to rise. Pointed questions began to filter in. Questions such as:

“When are these new people you are working with going to sit next to me in church?”
“We are paying your salary; you should be spending more time with us instead of them.”
“When are they going to be contributing members to this church?”

I had a deep love for the congregation and through the years we had walked through the complexity of life together. But their criticism of the ministry God had called us to became a real challenge for me. I did not know how to deal with criticism from people that I respected, people I loved and people with whom I had forged great relationships. Yet, in the midst of the struggle, I knew that we were part of something greater—something far beyond ourselves and the four walls of that “church.” The endless criticism and constant questioning wore me down. It caused me to question if God had actually called me to that place and that ministry. I internalized the criticism and it changed me. It caused me to go down dark holes of despair and I found myself being passive aggressive. I became someone I did not want to be.

Recently, I was watching Brene Brown’s Netflix special and she raised up a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that gets to the heart of the matter:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. I look back and reflect on those 6 years of ministry with a clearer understanding. Today, I wonder if those who offered critiques of my ministry had an adequate understanding of what we were doing. I wonder if I could I have helped them have eyes to see and hears to hear. Perhaps I failed to make space for them in the arena.

As we engage in ministry, as we discern what’s next for the church and as we walk into that vision, we will be criticized and there will be questions. Here’s my wisdom on the matter after 20 years in ministry. Be confident in who God has called you to be and steadfast in the work before you. Don’t fear the questions or the criticism and do not let those who criticize chip away at who you are. Rather, invite them into the arena; make space for them to walk alongside you and invite them into the thick of the discerning process.

Dare greatly as we participate in God’s mission on earth to journey into what is “next” for the church. And remember the words of the one we follow, “In this world as you answer God’s call on your life, you will face questioning and be criticized, but take heart! I’m not afraid of the questions and I have overcome the criticism.”


Rev. Sean Chow lives with his family in the San Francisco area and is the Western region associate for 1001 New Worshiping Communities.

Deeply Moved by Grief

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Jarrett McLaughlin

It was a rare moment of thinking ahead when I submitted my bulletin information for Sunday, February 18th, a full NINE days ahead. True confession though – it wasn’t actually me thinking ahead but rather the fact that our administrator was out of the office at the beginning of the next week and so the deadline had shifted.

At the time, all I knew was that I was preaching on the story of Jesus raising Lazarus in John 11 and that in my initial reading of the text, I was particularly struck by the emotional journey Jesus takes. As I would later observe in the sermon to come, John’s portrait of Jesus shows us a son of God who is so confident, so unflappable, so maddeningly divine. He never seems to get angry or sad but rather floats above those human emotions. At the beginning of the chapter he even speaks so mechanically about the death of his friend. But then he comes to Bethany and Mary is weeping and everyone is weeping and he’s face to face with real death and real grief and something inside of him breaks. John then gives us the shortest verse in all of the New Testament: “Jesus wept.” Christ’s tears are so important that they receive an entire verse just to highlight this moment of extreme pathos. It’s almost as if John shows us a Jesus who is learning what it means to be human and this scene is pivotal.

I hadn’t articulated all of that when I submitted that bulletin information, but even a cursory reading of the story shows Jesus in the midst of a profoundly emotional encounter. And yet he is not simply one who grieves and wallows in that grief. Instead he is moved by that grief – John specifically tells us that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” He was moved to act – and this is when he performs his seventh and final sign – the raising of Lazarus and his haunting command to his disciples and to the Church in every time and place: “unbind him and let him go.”

What I didn’t know when I sent the bulletin in was that the next Wednesday, seventeen students and educators would be shot and killed at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School. What I didn’t know is how profoundly I would be affected by that shooting, especially as I sat with this text where Jesus is deeply moved by real death, moved to act. What I didn’t know is how I would be haunted by this Jesus who – when his disciples are standing speechless before Lazarus who is literally tangled up in the trappings of death – says to them “unbind him and let him go.”

What I didn’t know was how poignant the words of the Sarasota Statement would be – chosen nine whole days before they were spoken aloud, five days after another deadly mass shooting.

We are people of hope who confess Jesus is Lord over a kingdom in which no one is hungry, violence is no more, and all suffering is gone.
So strong is this hope that we lament any and all instances of its absence. When we witness hunger, injustice, discrimination, violence, or suffering, we grieve deeply and repent of our sins that have enabled such brokenness to persist.
Furthermore, we are incited to act and to be vehicles of change through which God’s kingdom breaks into the world and our earthly lives. Our commitment is to acts that feed, clothe, instruct, reconcile, admonish, heal and comfort – reflecting the power of God’s hope and an eagerness to see the Kingdom made manifest.

There are days when I am so tired of that kingdom’s absence. I’m tired of the flags flown at half-staff and the endless debates about guns and mental illness that never go anywhere. I’m tired of looking at pictures of tear-streaked mothers, fathers, siblings, and friends discovering their loved one is no more. I’m tired of flowers and ribbons and candlelight vigils. I’m tired of this kingdom’s palpable absence and I do feel moved. A statement of faith is just that – a statement. But at least it tells me and this community I love that when we are greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved – maybe we’re not so far off from the Christ whose love is stronger that death, whose passion is as fierce as the grave.


Jarrett McLaughlin serves with his wife Meg Peery McLaughlin at Burke Presbyterian Church in the suburbs of Washington DC.  This is a blog post about the Sarasota Statement, but it’s also a blog about a mass shooting in an American school, so perhaps this background is worth sharing: “During my first year of high school in suburban Raleigh, NC, a fellow student was shot and killed in the park next to my school – a student not even involved in the altercation but who came over to ‘watch a fight.’  That story and the trauma to the student body that followed forever shaped my views on guns and their place in society. As you read this post, you should understand this about me, because all of our stories shape who we are and how we react to any given situation. This is my story and these are my reactions – nothing more, nothing less.”