Managing Perceptions as a Leader (Pt. 1)

A fellow pastor recently related to me a series of events that had surprised and disheartened him. He has been laboring two years in a small-town church, which has more than doubled in size in that time. His relationship with the trustees, church council, and flock had been thoroughly cooperative and pleasant. However, recently, he discerned that people were upset with him, and when he inquired why, he learned that a few of his actions and comments, while utterly innocuous to his mind, had been the cause of offense and resentment among a small but vocal group in the church.

Another pastor friend told a similarly frustrating tale. Two years ago, he took over a nearly dead church that had less than a dozen congregants remaining, and has since seen the attendance in worship climb into the thirties. He has been working with the elders to increase the church’s outreach into the community and find ways to attract a younger demographic (the church’s median age when he arrived was over seventy-five years of age). Recently, he has been dismayed to learn that his efforts have been interpreted as a lack of care for the current members, “who built this church and have remained faithful all these years.”

It is often said that "perception is reality." Indeed, most leaders can attest that once a person—or a handful of people—come to think and convince each other of a thing, then whether it is true or not becomes irrelevant; it becomes, at least in some ways, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Take a pastor who cares deeply for the flock, spends himself (or herself) tirelessly for them, prays passionately, sacrifices, strives, and strains in a hundred different ways for the benefit of the people. But along comes a person who says, "The pastor doesn't care." All it takes is for a handful of folks to begin believing that lie, and soon the pastor's actions come to be viewed suspiciously at first and conclusively at last. He takes a day off to spend with his family—“and couldn't be bothered to visit Edna in the hospital." He refers a distraught parishioner to a counselor—“rather than taking the time himself." And on it goes, until the truth or falsity of the perception is irrelevant, at least to people who—for any number of reasons—are inclined to believe the thing.

So what can a leader do? What might those pastors have done to prevent inaccurate perceptions and destructive reactions? As one who has been frequently befuddled by people’s perceptions of me and my actions, it’s a question I’ve pondered for a while. So tomorrow, I will share eight possible contributing factors to misunderstanding and misperception, and then Friday I will suggest eight ways I hope to avoid such misperception in the future.

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