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Was that a compliment?

I have learned over the years, not to get too excited by every compliment I receive. There was a time I believed each one was about me and my greatness. Then something strange happened that had me looking at both my compliments and critiques differently.

I regularly preach in the congregations I serve, sometimes as the primary speaker at an alternative worship service, other times to fill-in when the lead pastor is away, and other times as part of the regular rotation. At one church, I would receive compliments after I preached about the way I told stories in my sermons. I heard how I connected with people where they were, and made the gospel easily applicable. I was beginning to think I might be the next Billy Graham. Then, suddenly, the compliments started to change. I started to hear from other people about how good I was at preaching the Bible – sticking to and expounding upon the text. No more would I be Billy Graham, but now I might be the next N. T. Wright. What changed?

I hadn’t attended a seminar or read a book to change my preaching style. When I went back and read sermons from both periods, they seemed very similar to me. It was clear that I had not changed. Something else did. Between the sets of compliments the congregation had received a new lead pastor.

During the first set of Billy Graham compliments, the lead pastor preached in a scholarly style. He referred to the original languages and the historical context. He communicated profound theological insight from his study of the scriptures. The next lead pastor, when I was receiving the N. T. Wright compliments, was a storyteller. He seemed to have a warm, emotionally evocative, and/or funny illustration for every sermon. Both were fantastic preachers with vastly different styles. Each time I was being complimented for being a different voice.

It was then I began to understand that some of the compliments I receive are not so much about me, as they are about a comparison between me and the lead pastor. For example:

“I love it when you preach” may mean that you are a gifted orator who handles God’s word well. It also may mean, “When you preach the senior pastor isn’t preaching and I’m not a fan of her style.” Or it may simply mean, “Your sermons are shorter than hers.”

“Your meetings are always productive” may mean that you excel at allowing people to voice their opinions and help a committee effectively arrive at a decision. It may also mean, “When you lead a meeting I don’t feel as much pressure to perform as I do in front of the lead pastor.”

“I love that you are humble” may mean that Christ shines through your humility. It may also mean, “Our lead pastor is quite full of herself. Isn’t she?”

“You’re so warm and friendly” may mean that the love of Jesus flows from you and makes everyone feel welcome. It may also mean, “You are so nice, I think I can win you to my side in my dispute with the Christian Ed Director.”

I’m sorry to burst your bubble. I realize that I have just ruined every compliment you will receive from this point forward, and maybe some you received in the past. Now, whenever you receive a compliment, you will be wondering in the back of your mind, “Is this about me, or something else?” This may sting, but it is helpful, I promise.

It all boils down to the adage, “Never believe your own press.” You are not nearly as wonderful as your compliments would lead you to believe – nor are you as incompetent as your critics might make you feel. Keep this in mind before you begin to get so full of yourself and how you could “run this church” if only given the opportunity, or so down on yourself you start scouring Craig’s List for a new career. Remember, you were not called to that congregation, or to ministry in general, to build your fan-base. Your calling is to serve and further the Kingdom of God.

Checking out the compliments and criticisms will help you own your ministry. A sign of maturity is when the compliments don’t boost us up too high, and the jabs don’t sink us into the depths of despair. I know it is cliche, but if you remember your call, you are doing this for an audience of one, and that one is not you.

So when you receive a compliment, try to respond in a way that is beneficial to the whole body. That will go a long way to furthering your career in your current ministry, and keep your ego in check for a long, productive life of service for the Kingdom.

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