By Rory Noland
Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is.
Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark.
Justin is the sound technician at Southport Community Church. He puts a lot of hours volunteering at the church. For most every service or major event, he’s the first one there and the last one to leave. He sets up the sound equipment for the service, mixes drama, band, and vocals, and runs the lights. During the week he maintains the church’s sound and, gear, and he’s been doing all this for well over ten years. The church doesn’t pay him and he’s okay with that, even though he could easily spend more than forty hours a week there. He knows how rare it is for a church to hire a technical director, so he teaches physical education at the grade school every day and then runs over to the church by late afternoon. He enjoys what he does at church, but lately he’s been at odds with Sam, the new programming director. Sam’s got all sorts of new ideas that put Justin on tilt every time they talk.
When they first met, Sam gave Justin a long list of changes he wanted to make. First of all, he wanted to lengthen rehearsal time, which meant that Justin would have to be at the church even earlier. Justin was already stressed out from all the hours he was putting in. He couldn’t help but think, “What’s wrong with the way we were doing things before?” Sam wanted new monitors, he wanted to move the speakers in the sanctuary, he wanted to mic the drums differently, and he wanted to go stereo with all the keyboards. Justin thought, “Who does this guy think he is to come in here and change every thing?”
One of the changes that has been especially difficult for Justin has been the evaluation meeting he’s now forced to attend very early every Monday morning. The key leaders involved in putting the service together with the pastor at a local restaurant and critique the previous days service. This is hard for Justin. Every time anything negative comes up about the sound or the lighting, he gets very defensive. One time the pastor asked why his lapel mic sounded as if it were on the verge of feedback during the sermon and Justin snapped back saying, “Well if I had some decent equipment to work with we wouldn’t have this problem.” No one knew what to say. The conversation moved on but Justin wasn’t really listening during the rest of the meeting. He was lost in a series of negative and defensive thoughts. “They have no idea how hard I work. I’m doing the best I can. They’re lucky to have me. No one else would put up with all this…. I don’t get paid to do this…”
Sam has made several suggestions about the band mix and the vocal sound that haven’t set real well with Justin. One time Sam was onstage and asked for less reverb on the group vocals and more “warmth.” This made Justin angry. “I know what I’m doing. I don’t need anybody to tell me how to run sound,” he thought. But he complied and even he had to admit that less reverb gave the overall sound more clarity. To add insult to injury, several people complimented Justin on the mix as they left church that morning. Many people said they could hear the lyrics better. Justin appreciated their innocent encouragement, but he still didn’t like the idea of that new guy Sam telling him how to do his job.
The communication between the two men has seemed like a tug-of- war. Every time Sam makes a suggestion, Justin asks why and then grudgingly complies. As a result, there is tension at every sound check, every meeting, and every service. People feel as if they have to walk on eggshells when they’re around Justin, because he takes even the slightest bit of criticism so personally. He seems angry all the time.
To make things worse, the two men clashed over a moral issue that came to the surface in Justin’s life. Justin and his fiance, who wasn’t a believer, had been living together for several months. When Sam confronted him about it, Justin at first denied it. Sam persisted, and Justin accused him of being judgmental, pointing out that the decision to live together was a financial one.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, may have occurred last week. More singers than usual were to perform during the service. As microphones were being handed out ten minutes before the service was to start, someone discovered two bad microphone cords, and no spares. Justin had been meaning to buy some new cords, but he just hadn’t gotten around to it. He had dropped the ball. When Sam anxiously questioned him about it, Justin became defensive and angry, finally telling Sam, “If you want mic cords, get ’em yourself!”
During the service Justin could hardly concentrate. He was seething inside. He was angry at Sam, he was angry at everyone onstage, and he was angry at the church. His thoughts outpaced his emotions. “What right does this newcomer have to make such outrageous demands all the time? And where does he get off, telling me how to do my job? Doesn’t he think I know what I’m doing? If it wasn’t for me, this service wouldn’t even be happening. I deserve to be treated better than this.” The anger burned hotter and hotter until Justin couldn’t take it anymore. He got up and left, right in the middle of the opening song. He turned the board off and everything went dead. There was a loud boom throughout the auditorium, and the entire congregation turned and watched Justin storm out of the booth, down the hail, and out the door.
After the service, Sam tried several times to call Justin at home, but Justin was screening his calls and never picked up the phone. In his own way he was trying to punish Sam. He had everyone attention now and he wanted to make his point. He sat home alone, sulking in front of the TV.
1 Why do you think Justin reacted negatively to every suggestion Sam made?
2 Why do you think Justin took everything so personally?
3 What would you suggest Justin do to patch up his relationship with Sam?
4 What should Sam do next to try to patch things up with Justin?
5 Do you think Sam was right in confronting Justin about living with his fiance?
6 Is there any way the tension between Justin and Sam could have been avoided? What could they have done differently that would have enabled them to work together more harmoniously?
7 How does a defensive spirit affect rehearsals?
8 How do you think an artist should handle criticism?
9 What happens to an artist when he or she is not open to constructive criticism?
10 What is the best was to give feedback to an artist?
The Dangers Of Defensiveness
Sometimes those of us with artistic temperaments get defensive when we’re criticized. We can be overly sensitive, and we let the least little thing hurt us. Sometimes we’re offended even when no offense was intended, and we take things more personally than they were meant to be taken. We may have a defensive spirit due to pride, fear, insecurity, or a dysfunctional upbringing, but whatever the reason, it can really stifle a person relationally and spiritually. And it can have devastating effects on your ministry and on the team with which you serve. Very often the person who’s overly defensive doesn’t realize it. You may think this is not a problem for you, but believe me, if you’re a sensitive artist; the potential is always there for you to take something more personally than it was meant to be taken. Artists can also be the most stubborn of all people. We want to do things our way, and when anybody challenges that, we get angry.
Scenarios like the one I described with Justin and Sam are all too common, especially among artists. I’ve seen instrumentalist get defensive about intonation: “I’m certainly not out of tune. My instrument was pitched at 440 at the factory, and it never goes out of tune.” I’ve witnessed vocalists getting defensive when they’re having difficulty learning a part. I’ve observed defensiveness in the actor or actress who responds to a well-meaning suggestion by snidely saying, “I was just doing what the director told me to do.” I’ve seen writers and other creative types get defensive about their work, as if to say, “How dare you criticize what I wrote. This came from God; I’m not changing a thing. It’s fine just the way it is!” With some of us artists it’s like this: “You can criticize anything you want, but don’t you dare criticize my work!
A defensive spirit can hurt you and your art. We can’t grow as artists until we deal with this character issue, which can be such a blind spot for us artists. Let’s start by looking at some of the dangers of defensiveness.
Defensiveness Alienates Us From Others
Being defensive cuts you off from other people. It leads to bitterness and resentment. It stifles communication. It alienates. People who are always quick to defend themselves are not very approachable When others feel as if they have to walk on eggshells around you, you end up alienated from others, and that can be very lonely. I’ve often seen situations in which everyone feels as if they have to be extra sensitive around a certain individual, and they start avoiding that person because it can be very draining to have to deal with defensive spirit. If you always feel as if you’re hurting someone, you tend to avoid them after a while. Sometimes we get defensive to avoid getting hurt. We can’t stand rejection or the thought that someone might not like us. Yet inevitably the very thing we’re trying to avoid happens. People reject someone who’s chronically defensive. The irony here is that the overly sensitive person eventually becomes insensitive to others because they’re so self-absorbed. What starts out as a defense mechanism against being hurt turns out to inflict an even greater hurt: loneliness and alienation. This isn’t good for the artist who’s trying to experience community or trying to build meaningful relationships in his or her life.
Defensiveness Keeps Us From The Truth
Honesty is a sign of integrity. The person who recognizes truth and speaks honestly is a person of high moral character. Being defensive, on the other hand, is a serious character flaw. It keeps you from the truth about yourself and the world around you. People tend to shy away from being honest with overly sensitive people, because they don’t want to hurt them I have walked away kicking myself numerous times after talking to someone who’s being defensive with me, because I either said too much or too little. I stretched the truth a bit to make the person feel better, or I held something back because I was afraid of hurting the person. What I should have said was no doubt more needful, but I let the person’s hypersensitivity keep me from being totally honest.
Because I lead a team of artists, I take my responsibility to shepherd them very seriously There are times when I need to speak honestly to someone about his or her work or about certain character issues in his or her life. Whenever I have anything especially difficult to share with some one, 1 go into it with the attitude that the truth helps us be better people. Most people want me to be honest with them, but I occasionally run across an artist who can’t handle constructive criticism of any kind. They don’t want to hear the truth. How sad; they don’t realize how liberating the truth can be.
We choose defensiveness to protect ourselves from self-doubt. Yet the very thing we’re trying to prevent happens. People who put up walls to protect themselves from the truth encounter more self-doubt than those who face their weaknesses squarely and grow from them. In an effort to protect our self-esteem, we open ourselves up to something more dam aging than a bruised ego, and that’s deception. Believe me, being deceived about your abilities is far worse than knowing and accepting your strengths and weaknesses.
Defensiveness Keeps Us From Being All We Can Be
Being defensive keeps us from being the artists we can be. It stifles us artistically and creatively because listening to feedback, critique, or suggestions is one of the ways we improve. We can learn so much by being open to feedback. As a music director at a church, I’ve been burned numerous times by songwriters who requested my honest feedback about songs they wrote. For some reason I get demo tapes sent to me from writers all across the country. On occasion, after trying to be sensitive and affirming, I’ll make a few suggestions and a songwriter will get angry and defensive. The writer didn’t want my feedback. What the person really wanted was for me to say that we’ll use his or her music at our church. It definitely makes me wary of giving feedback to the next writer who comes along.
When we allow ourselves to be defensive, we stop growing as people and as artists. Sometimes we get defensive because we feel threatened. We think we have to protect ourselves and our art. But the very thing we’re trying to protect suffers the most from our defensiveness. That’s because we cut ourselves off from that which can help us flourish as artists: constructive feedback.
Because many artists are sensitive people, our egos bruise easily. Sometimes too easily We’re good at picking up signals from people, things that others might not even notice. Because we’re going to pick up a lot of things like that, we need to be careful that we don’t pick up something that’s not really there. Our intuition is not infallible. Don’t be easily provoked (1 Corinthians 13:5). Proverbs 3:30 warns us not to take offense when none was intended. Proverbs 11:27 says, “He who seeks good finds goodwill, but evil comes to him who searches for it.” Don’t go looking for trouble. Don’t walk around with a chip on your shoulder. Ecclesiastes warns us not to take everything people say so personally that we become easily offended (7:2 1). Don’t make a big deal out of a comment that was not intended to be a big deal. Don’t blow someone’s feedback out of proportion.
When the elders of Israel approached Samuel and asked him to appoint a king over them, he was offended. He took it as an indictment against his leadership. He took it as a slap in the face, because he was old and his sons were doing a poor job of leading the nation. The Lord, how ever, told Samuel not to take it personally: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king” (1 Samuel 8:7). In other words, God said to him, “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill, Samuel. This isn’t about you, so don’t take it personally.”
We artists don’t hold a monopoly on becoming easily offended, but we sure own a major franchise in the business. Often without ample evidence, we can become convinced that someone is trying to undermine us. It’s not always true. The problem might be a simple misunderstanding, or perhaps we’re being overly sensitive. The nation of Israel went to the brink of civil war because of a simple misunderstanding (Joshua 22). In the end cooler heads prevailed, and when they sat down and talked, they realized it was much ado about nothing.
When in doubt, check it out. If you’re taking offense because of some thing you heard secondhand, go to the person and ask about what was said. If you’re taking something personally but are not sure it was meant to be taken that way, check it out. I don’t know how often I’ve been offended and have gone to the person only to find that I took what was said more personally than was ever intended, that I misunderstood what was said, or that I misinterpreted something the person did. So be careful not to take offense if none was intended.
Keeping Up The Facade
Many of us work hard at keeping up the impression that we have it all together. This is a trap that a lot of performers fall into because we always have to put on our best face when we’re onstage. When we audition, we have to look our best and do our best. When we perform, we want to be “on” and put on the best show we can. We have to appear confident, even if we’re not. So we learn to put up a facade to sell ourselves. This facade, this self-generated confidence, then causes us to be defensive toward any one with constructive criticism.
Likewise, if anyone tries to point out one of our character flaws, no matter how loving the person tries to be, we gear up to defend ourselves. We must appear to have it all together. “How dare he suggest that I have a problem in that area!” we fume. We go to such great lengths to keep up the facade that we cut ourselves off from the one thing that will help us grow spiritually, and that humility.
By the way this is one of the biggest differences between performing and ministry. I’ve seen many professional entertainers try to approach ministry the same way they’ve always approached performing. Performance is entertainment. You have to own the stage. You have to appear self-confident and enthusiastic. It doesn’t matter if you’re going through a deep personal crisis. The show must go on. You have to put it all behind you and step onstage and wow everybody one more time. Ministry on the other hand, is not entertainment. Instead of pretense, there is authenticity: we need to be real onstage. Instead of working hard to whip up confidence, we need to be humble. Ministry demands that we allow the Holy Spirit to own the stage.
Responding To Feedback
I understand where defensiveness comes from. An artist can be extremely vulnerable. If you’re a performer, you stand onstage (sometimes all alone) pouring your heart out and giving complete strangers a glimpse into your soul. To be vulnerable is a price every performer pays. If you’re a creative person, you too are vulnerable. You pour your heart and soul into creating something, and you hold it protectively in your hands. When it comes time to show it to the world, you open your hands up slowly hoping no one will kill your brainchild before it has a chance to become something. Because art is such a personal thing, it’s difficult for us to separate ourselves from our work.
Another reason we feel vulnerable is because we are constantly being evaluated. We evaluate ourselves, wondering how our audience liked what we did. As a result, whether we perform or create, we can often feel as if our work is always “out there” for people to evaluate. Some times it feels as if whether we’re gifted at all depends on how people respond to our latest endeavor. “You’re only as good as your latest outing,” is not true, but sometimes that’s how it feels. Artists often feel as if their validity is at stake whenever they step out on the stage. And it doesn’t help that critiquing the arts is, more often than not, very subjective. One very respected person may love something we do, and another well-respected individual may hate it. So how do you overcome all this and respond to feedback without being defensive? How can you be sensitive but not overly sensitive?
Greet Feedback As Your Friend
First of all, consider constructive criticism to be always in your best interest in the long run. The Bible says that it’s foolish not to be open to feedback (Proverbs 1:7). David was an artist who realized the value of constructive criticism. In Psalm 141:5 he says, “Let a righteous man strike me; it is a kindness: let him rebuke me; it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it.” Greet feedback as your friend. Have a teachable spirit. Be open to critique. Realize that it can be God’s agent to bring growth into your life-spiritual growth as well as artistic growth.
Someone who is honest with us truly loves us. Proverbs 27:5-6 says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” I know a musician who’s chronically defensive. Everyone walks on eggshells around this person and is very careful about what they say. It’s like the elephant in the room. It’s there, it’s creating a huge problem, but no one wants to talk about it. Everybody knows there’s a problem except the person with the problem. Don’t we love others enough to tell them that they are only hurting themselves with their constant defensiveness? There is often some degree of genuine love and concern behind most constructive criticism. That’s why feedback can be greeted as a friend, not an enemy.
There is a character in the Bible who has been a quiet example of this for me. His name is Apollos, and his story is recorded in Acts 18:24-28. It seems Apollos was a gifted teacher and leader, but his theology was a little off center. Two people, Priscilla and Aquila (one of the great wife-and husband teams in Scripture), pulled Apollos aside and confronted him about his theology. We don’t know exactly what was said, but we do know that Apollos was faced with a choice. Either he was going to listen to truth and gain from it, or he was going to take offense and ignore the truth. It’s obvious that Apollos was open to the truth and greeted feedback as beneficial, because after he listened to Priscilla and Aquila, his ministry flourished. “He was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (vs. 27-28). Apollos went on to do great things for God because he was open to constructive criticism.
Apollos knew that it is better to hear the truth, even though it might be hard to hear, than to be soothed by a lie that makes us feel good. I shudder to think what major impact for the kingdom would have been lost had Apollos been defensive and refused to listen to honest feedback. I also cringe when I think about what a setback it would have been for the early church if there hadn’t been people like Priscilla and Aquila around. Those two loved the bride of Christ, and Apollos, so much that they were willing to risk a confrontation for the ultimate good of all involved.
My fellow artists, we don’t have to be defensive when someone offers us suggestions about our work. If you’re a performer, be open to suggestions that can make you a better performer. If you’re a creative person, don’t be narrow-minded about constructive criticism. Don’t hesitate to solicit honest evaluations from friends. “In abundance of counselors there is victory” (Proverbs 11:14 NASB). Greet feedback as a friend, not an enemy. The real enemy is our own defensiveness.
Respond With Grace
Even if we’re convinced that constructive criticism is good for us, it can still be difficult to know how to respond to suggestions or criticism with grace instead of anger. James 1:19 shows us how to do that: “Every one should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”
Be Quick To Listen.
Instead of being quick to justify yourself, listen first. Listen without being threatened. Listen as a beloved child of God, secure in His love, someone whom God loves intensely You are a person God cares deeply about, not someone who has to have his or her giftedness or worth validated every time something negative is hinted at. Listen to what’s being said, without blowing it up to be bigger than it is, Sometimes we’re too busy being defensive to really listen. Negative feedback triggers all sorts of negative self-talk. That’s what kept happening to Justin in our opening scenario. He couldn’t hear accurately because of all those defensive voices in his head.
Be Slow To Speak.
Don’t be so quick to defend yourself. When some one offers us feedback, our first response should not be a defensive one. Our first response should be to ask ourselves, Is any of this true? Proverbs 18:17 says, “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” We shouldn’t be quick to defend ourselves, because someone could come along and corroborate the criticism. When someone offers constructive criticism in a loving way, we need to express appreciation for his or her courage, concern, and love. It’s not easy to speak the truth. Even if you may doubt the person’s care and concern, you’re usually not in the best position to judge the person’s motives.
It’s a very wise person who cultivates an environment of honesty surrounding everything he or she does. I’d hate to get to the end of my life knowing that I was deceived about certain things about myself simply because I wasn’t open to the truth, because I was too quick to defend myself. Neil T. Anderson says that “if you are in the wrong, you don’t have a defense if you are right, you don’t need a defense” (emphasis in original).
Be Slow To Become Angry.
Take a step back. Cool down. Sometimes we get angry and defensive and take things in ways they were never intended to be taken. If you’re hurt by someone, it’s your responsibility to confront him or her about it as Matthew 18 instructs. Letting anger fester and stew is never a God-glorifying option. Chances are, if you’re quick to hear and slow to speak, you’ll be slow to anger.
When you invite constructive criticism, you may get conflicting opinions that’ll make your head spin. How do you know what’s from God and what isn’t? In Proverbs 15:31 we learn that “he who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise.” If you are open to constructive criticism, it’ll make you wiser. You will grow in your ability to understand what’s from God and what isn’t.
You should listen to feedback, but you don’t have to take eve you hear as being the absolute truth. “A simple man believes anything, but a prudent man gives thought to his steps” (Proverbs 14:15). This is especially important for those artists who find themselves in situations in which many people (sometimes too many people) are putting in their two cents’ worth. In film, for example, a script might get edited and rewritten by dozens of people along the way, to the point where the finished movie only faintly resembles the original screenplay For those of us who are under the microscope of many who constantly offer us feedback, it’s essential that we be discerning. Not all feedback is given with sensitivity, but we can still learn from it. This is important because you’re always going to run into the tactless individual who speaks without thinking. We need to learn to listen to what those people are saying and overlook how they’re saying it. Not all feedback is given with good intentions, but you can take what is helpful and leave the rest. Even if the criticism wasn’t offered in love, you can turn it into something beneficial by asking yourself, What can I learn from this criticism that can maize me a better artist? That’s a sure way to make constructive criticism work for you instead of against you.
Sometimes creative people can get married to an idea or a line and can’t let go of it, even though it’s hurting the overall piece. For example, we songwriters can become too attached to a lyric line. It may be our favorite line in the song, but if someone points out that the line doesn’t work, our inflexibility can cause us to lose our objectivity A friend of mine, Judson Poling, is a writer, and on the subject of receiving feedback I once heard him say, “All my little darlings must die.” Don’t be so obsessed with an idea or a line that you can’t hear constructive criticism.
Have A Teachable Spirit
When you begin to be open to feedback, another very healthy thing happens: you swallow your pride and realize that no matter what age you are, you always have something to learn. You realize you can always improve. Every critique has some kernel of truth. Take what’s true and let the rest fall by the wayside. When you have trouble identifying the truth or validity of someone’s feedback, run it by someone who knows you well. See what he or she thinks about the criticism. Ask what parts of it are true. Ask how you can grow in the area that the constructive criticism may reveal as a weakness. In so doing, you’ll learn what feedback to take seriously and what you can basically ignore. You’ll be secure enough to say to yourself, Yeah, that’s true. I could really grow in that area or I’m grateful for feedback, but I don’t think that fits with what others have told me about my work. The result can be a very healthy response to feedback. Although not all feedback is from God, He can definitely speak to us through others. We never know when God might be the one who’s trying to speak to us and help us grow.
For some reason I used to think that if someone has to give me constructive criticism, I must not be very good at what I do. Somebody would point out something he or she didn’t like in one of my songs, and I’d be thinking, Oh no! There’s something wrong with this song. I must not be a good writer I have since learned that even the best writers solicit feedback, and they’re constantly rewriting and reworking their material. They have a teachable spirit.
Learn How To Fall Graciously
It’s okay to fail. No one succeeds every time. You and I will make mistakes, so we need to learn how to fail graciously. We need to own up to our mistakes, not run away from them or pass responsibility on to some one else. No one’s expecting perfection (except maybe us), so we don’t need to defend ourselves every time we fail. When we mess up, let’s swallow our pride, admit it, learn from it, and move on. Just because we fail doesn’t mean we’re failures. And you and I will never know success unless we fail. We need to learn to say, “Yeah, I blew it. I didn’t do it on purpose. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. It doesn’t mean God loves me any less. It doesn’t mean my friends are going to love me any less, and it doesn’t mean others on the team are going to love me any less. It simply means I’ve got some work to do to improve for next time.”
Verdi wrote fifteen operas that bombed before he wrote Rigoletto, which he didn’t write until he was thirty-eight years old. From that point on he was famous the world over as one of Italy’s best opera composers. He didn’t consider himself a failure just because he failed. He didn’t give up. When you and I learn to fail graciously, we can learn from our mistakes and then go on to become better artists. If your mistake is due to a lack of preparation, build more preparation time into your schedule. If you need to brush up on some technique, do it. If you need to go back for a few lessons, do it. If you’re having a mental block with lyrics, memorize those words until you’re sick and tired of them … and then memorize them some more. If you had some rough spots in rehearsal, work them out before the next service or performance. Learn all you can from your mistakes.
How Easy Are You To Work With?
The stereotype with artists is that we’re difficult to work with because we don’t take suggestions very well. Is this true at all of you? Would people say you are easy to work with or difficult to work with? I’ve worked with difficult musicians before. It’s no fun. When I make a suggestion, they’ll say something snide like, “I was playing what you wrote” or something caustic like, “You told me to play it that way last time.” Even if I try to explain that I’ve changed my mind, defensive people still have a tough time being gracious or flexible.
One of my favorite pianists to work with is a friend of mine named Brian Clark. Brian works in the field of advertising and serves faithfully at our church. The most common thing I hear from others about Brian is that he is so easy to work with. In all the years I’ve worked with him, that’s been my experience, too. Brian is a hundred times the piano player I’ll ever be, yet he is always open to doing things another way and graciously listens to any suggestions 1 make. I don’t think Brian has a defensive bone in his body Because of his demanding job, he doesn’t have time to play as much professionally. Yet he’s so talented-the consummate pro-he could if he wanted to. He’s not only an excellent musician but is extremely flexible to changes-even last-minute changes. He doesn’t get all bent out of shape when a non-musician, such as one of our drama directors, makes suggestions about how he should play behind a drama scene. He doesn’t belittle the vocalists for wanting to take liberties with tempo. Indeed, Brian is a dream to work with.
My hope is that we would all become more open to constructive criticism, but what about those giving the feedback? Can they learn how to give feedback better? I’m talking about pastors, program directors, friends, and spouses who give feedback to artists. Is there a way to critique the art without destroying the artist? Many of us evaluate our church services to improve the quality, and that’s essential if we’re going to grow in excellence, but we’ve got to do it in a way that truly edifies. The longevity and the joy level of our musicians and creative contributors depends on how well we do this thing called constructive criticism. I’ve seen musicians shaken so badly by a poorly communicated critique that they wanted never to go onstage again. I’ve seen drama people, dancers, and other artists near tears because of criticism that was communicated without sensitivity. I’ve also known writers who completely lost their desire to write because of ongoing feedback they received that was not constructive but hurtful and damaging. No one really means for this to happen, and I think it’s more a matter of ignorance than anything else.
What makes criticism constructive is the way it’s delivered. If it’s not offered in a loving way, it can do more harm than good. The truth must be spoken in love (Ephesians 4:15). Constructive criticism must be truthful. Don’t lie about the quality of someone’s work. Be honest. Don’t say some thing you don’t mean. But speak the truth with love. Say it with tenderness and sensitivity Say it in a way that builds the artist up. You can criticize one performance or one aspect of a person’s work constructively without tearing down that person as an artist. Trust is a major ingredient here, and it needs to be developed over time. Artists need to feel that the people giving them feedback believe in them and have their best interest in mind. Feedback that’s given and received in an environment of love and trust is extremely valuable and God-honoring. “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).
I believe that every artistic community should have its own ground rules for critiquing. These things need to be brought out into the open and discussed if you’re trying to build a community of artists. I have a few suggestions, and following is a list that I’ve shared with some of my friends who give me feedback.
Give Your Overall Reaction First
Let’s say I’m a gifted carpenter and I build a quality piece of furniture, such as a table, and I bring it to you for your opinion. Let’s say you think it’s an excellent piece of work, but you don’t say that at first. You might even think that this is the best table you’ve ever seen. It might be so obvious to you that it is excellent work that you assume I know it, and you don’t say anything right away because you’re too busy admiring my table. Then you notice a small flaw at the base of one of the table legs; nothing major, and it certainly doesn’t detract from the beauty of the table. You might even be proud of yourself for finding a little flaw that most people wouldn’t notice in such a fine piece of work. You say something about it, so the first words out of your mouth are a negative reaction to a minor detail. Since I’m eager to hear your opinion, I’m immediately drawn to that little flaw you’re pointing out. You might be thinking, Wow, what a great piece of work. But because the first thing you said was about that little flaw, it’s no longer a little flaw to me. I conclude that the flaw was so big that it ruined the entire table. Remember, to the artist who’s excited about what he or she is working on and seeks your opinion, your first words represent your overall reaction. The flaw at the base of the table was not your overall reaction; it wasn’t even your first reaction. Your over all reaction was that you were very impressed with the table, but you never said that. If your overall reaction is positive, communicate that and then go on to the negative. The negative is usually easier for the artist to take if he or she knows you generally like the work in question.
This holds true when evaluating a ministry experience. How do you really critique a worship service? Should you critique worship? It’s okay to critique the band and vocalists, but the bottom line is whether worship happened or not. Were people brought into the presence of God? Did we worship in Spirit and in truth? That’s what is most important. Don’t miss the big picture. Answer those kinds of questions first, then move on to ways you can improve the band and vocalists.
Try To Say Something Positive
When giving feedback, always start by saying something positive. Even if your overall reaction to a performance or a piece is negative, try to find something positive to say. Artists need encouragement. Give them feedback in a way that shows your love and respect. Treat them with dignity. Don’t make something up just to have something positive to say Be honest.
I have to practice what I preach when I preside over auditions at church. No matter how bad the audition goes, the first thing out of my mouth has to be something truthful and positive. Tell artists what you enjoyed about their audition before you tell them what bothered you. Mention their strengths before you discuss their weaknesses. Even if the only positive thing you can say is, “Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to come and audition,” say it with love and sincerity. Don’t jump into the negative without saying something positive.
Acknowledge Effort And Hard Work
Express appreciation for any extra effort that was put forth. It’s demoralizing to work especially hard and feel as if no one noticed. Most people have no idea how many hours an artist has invested in a performance or in a work. If the performance doesn’t turn out as well as everyone would have liked, it feels as if all that hard work was in vain. That can be a very discouraging experience for an artist. Even if something didn’t work or fell apart completely, express appreciation for any extra preparation or go on to the negative. The negative is usually easier for the artist to take if he or she knows you generally like the work in question.
This holds true when evaluating a ministry experience. How do you really critique a worship service? Should you critique worship? It’s okay to critique the band and vocalists, but the bottom line is whether worship happened or not. Were people brought into the presence of God? Did we worship in Spirit and in truth? That’s what is most important. Don’t miss the big picture. Answer those kinds of question first, then move on to ways you can improve the band and vocalists.
Try To Say Something Positive
When giving feedback, always start by saying something positive. Even if overall reaction to a performance or a piece is negative, try to find something positive to say. Artists need encouragement. Give them feedback in a way that shows your love and respect. Treat them with dignity. Don’t make something up just to have something positive to say. Be honest.
I have to practice what I preach when I preside over auditions at church. No matter how bad the audition goes, the first thing out of my mouth has to be something truthful and positive. Tell artists what you enjoyed about their audition before you tell them what bothered you. Mention their strengths before you discuss their weaknesses. Even if the only positive ting you can say is, “Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to come and audition,” say it with love and sincerity. Don’t jump into the negative without saying something positive.
Acknowledge Effort And Hard Work
Effort appreciation for any extra effort that was put forth. It’s demoralizing to work especially hard and feel as if no one noticed. Most people have no idea how many hours an artist has invested in a performance or in a work. If the performance doesn’t turn out as well as everyone would have liked, it feels as if all that hard work was in vain. That can be a very discouraging experience for an artist. Even if something didn’t work or fell apart completely, express appreciation for any extra preparation or rehearsal. No one means to fail, and working in the arts takes a great amount of effort. Be sure to honor the effort even if it falls short.
Nehemiah didn’t take all the credit for rebuilding the wall in Jerusalem. In chapter 3 of his narration, he mentions by name seventy-five people who labored diligently throughout the project. He even recorded for posterity the role they played, and described exactly what they did. A wise leader will always acknowledge effort and hard work.
Avoid extreme statements. Whether they’re positive or negative, they do more harm than good. For example, “That’s the best song we’ve ever done!” or “She’s our top vocalist!” I feel sorry for anyone who has to per form right after something or someone has been crowned “the best ever.” One time we were playing a song at church and the band was very notice ably out of sync for about eight measures. Later that week someone told me that our little journey into poly-rhythms made the person feel very uncomfortable sitting out in the congregation. I was told that it was the worst experience the person had ever had musically at our church. Need less to say, this was an extreme statement, and it made me feel terrible. I take full responsibility for the music I lead. I arranged it. I rehearsed it. I was part of performing it. No one messed up on purpose, yet I felt responsible for this person’s “worst experience” with the music at our church. I suggest we all avoid hyperbole when giving feedback to artists. Extreme statements usually draw extreme reactions.
Avoid Negative Comparisons
When we don’t like something, it’s tempting to emphasize that by com paring it to something that’s, in an artistic sense, obviously unfashionable or mediocre. At the music school where I studied composition, it was quite common to call something “warmed-over Tchaikovsky” if you didn’t like it. That drove the point home that someone’s music was pass”. In the past, certain names in pop music conjured up the same kind of scorn and ridicule, names such as Barry Manilow or the Bee Gees.
We need to avoid making those kinds of negative comparisons, because they can be very hurtful to an artist. One time someone com pared a musical number that I had arranged to something that sounded like the singing group Up With People. No offense to those of you who are fans of Up With People, but he didn’t intend this to be a compliment, and in all honesty I felt put down. We use negative comparisons like those to make a point, but they do more harm than good. There’s always a better way to get the point across than resorting to negative comparisons. Avoid them.
Forgiving Those Who Have Hurt You
Have you ever been hurt by someone’s harsh criticism? Have you ever fallen victim to someone whose insensitive and negative words about your art still haunt you? Artists who are chronically defensive are usually harboring bitterness and resentment toward people in their past who have said disparaging things about them and their work. We’ve discussed earlier that when you’ve been hurt, the scriptural thing to do is to go to the individual who hurt you and talk about it. I know that’s not always possible. Maybe the incident happened long ago, and the person who stung you with their words has moved out of state or you’ve lost contact with him or her. Perhaps the person has even passed away. Whatever the circumstances, somewhere along the line you need to forgive that person. I say this more for your sake than for the person’s sake. Harboring bitterness and resentment can do more damage to you than negative words ever did. I know people who are in bondage to bitterness because they auditioned for something and didn’t make it. It might have happened years ago but it still hurts. Every time they think about it, they feel tense, because that memory triggers one of the greatest fears every artist faces: the fear of not being good enough. They can’t free themselves from the tyranny of those negative words until they extend forgiveness.
You can’t control what people are going to say about your work, but you can control how you’re going to respond. Scripture says that no matter who it is, no matter what that person said, if we have anything against anyone, we need to forgive that person just as God has forgiven us (Colossians 3:12-13). If it’s hard to forgive, ask the Lord to help you. Tell Him you want to forgive the person who wounded you with negative words. Ask the Lord to free you from the hold this negative opinion has had on you. If you absolutely can’t bring yourself to say that prayer yet, ask the Lord to work in your life to get you to the point where you can say that prayer with all sincerity Forgiving the person who hurt you can set you free from those negative words that hold you back as an artist. It’s a major step in the process of undoing the hurt. Let the power of forgiveness restore your heart and soul.
Being Open To The Truth
Are you open to the truth about your giftedness? When I came on full-time staff at Willow Creek, there were a few musicians who I could not in all honesty affirm as having musical ability. I conferred with some of my colleagues to make sure I wasn’t missing something and found that they agreed with me. I invited this handful of musicians to re-audition, because I wanted to give them every opportunity to succeed, but the auditions further confirmed my opinion that they didn’t have what it takes to be in our music ministry. So we had some difficult conversations. First of all, I thanked these dear servants for their ministry to the church and for the important role they had played, but then I told them that I didn’t see them as having the abilities we needed for the next leg of the race. Understandably, this was hard to hear, and there were lots of angry tears. (Before I go on, let me reiterate how important it is to be serving in an area for which you’re well suited. If I put somebody in a position they’re not cut out for, I’m depriving that person of experiencing true fulfillment some where else in the church, someplace that’s in line with his or her giftedness.) A few years later I received a note from one of the women we had let go. This is what she said:
When you told me that I didn’t have the ability I needed to sing at church, I hated you. I had been singing in church all my life, and no one had ever told me that I couldn’t sing. lour words were some of the most difficult words I had ever heard, but they forced me to face the possibility that maybe I wasn’t a singer after all. So for the first time in my life, I got down on my knees and asked the Lord to show me what he wanted me to do with my gifts and abilities. He led me back to school and into counseling. Today I opened my own counseling practice and I owe it all to you. Thank you!
Not all situations like that have such happy endings, but this sister had a life-changing experience because her willingness to be open to the truth about herself caused her to seek out God’s wisdom for her life. The truth, no matter how hard it is to hear, will always set you free (John 8:32).
I’d like to share a more personal story with you. The reason I know something about being defensive is because I’ve struggled with it. I was in my early twenties when someone in my ministry lovingly pulled me aside and said, “Brother, we all feel like we have to walk on eggshells around you. You get so defensive whenever anyone says anything remotely negative.” Well, at first I was shocked. I had no idea I was coming across that way, and I felt bad. To think that people were withholding valuable feedback from me, and maybe just outright avoiding me, because 1 was a defensive person really shook me.
I spent the next week meeting with all the people with whom I worked closely in my ministry, and I apologized. I was so sorry that I had alienated them and had not listened to their input. I promised that from that day on I was going to be open to any and all constructive criticism. I gave them the freedom to speak truth to me. I then invited them to point out any shred of defensiveness that they might see in me.
That person who pulled me aside and pointed out my defensiveness is someone to whom I owe a great deal. I hate to think of where I’d be now had he not risked our friendship and spoken the truth in love. I certainly don’t think I would be in ministry today had that friend not con fronted me. Several years later when, as a songwriter, I entered into a relationship with a publisher, a woman in the business expressed appreciation and surprise at how open I was to feedback. “You’ll go far as a writer,” she said. If she only knew how I used to be.
I certainly can’t take credit for any growth in this area. God’s the one who’s been working all these years to keep this defensive spirit of mine in check. Praise Him. Much of that growth was initiated by me friend, who had the courage to confront me about my defensiveness. I am forever grateful to this brother who acted courageously out of love for me.
Being Defensive About Sin
One last area we should discuss is our defensiveness about sin. If there is an area of habitual sin or willful disobedience in you life, I hope you will be open to he truth when be open to the truth when confronted by a brother or sister. Living in denial only makes it harder on yourself, because no one can help you if you don’t think there’s a problem or if you’re lying about it.
God is not pleased when we live in denial concerning sin: “You say, ‘I am innocent; he is not angry with me.’ But I will pass judgment on you because you say, ‘I have not sinned.'” (Jeremiah 2:35). Living in denial can be exhausting and draining. David tried to cover up his sin with Bathsheba, but when Nathan finally confronted him about it, to David’s credit he caved in. He probably said something like, “Yes, no more living in denial. I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13). He repented and got right with God. But listen to how agonizing it was for him to try to live in denial: “When I dept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:3-4).
I once spent two hours with a man who dept denying he had a serious problem with lust until he finally broke down and confessed to being involved with pornography, prostitution, and phone sex. It took us two hours to cut through the denial and he deception about his sin. If there’s a sin problem in your life, it you fall, don’t go into hiding. Bring it to the light (Ephesians 5:11). Take ownership of your sin, and experience forgiveness and healing. Trying to cover up your sin is a waste of time and energy, because Scripture teaches that “your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23). Remember, it takes more energy to cover up sin than it does to confess it.
In closing I’d like to ask you, What stands in your way when it comes to being open to the truth about yourself? if being defensive is a problem for you, what’s behind the problem? It’s usually pride. Pride nearly kept Naaman from being healed (2 Kings 5:1-14). He couldn’t be helped until he was able to swallow his pride. Pride keeps us on the defensive, too. it keeps us in the dark about the truth. Don’t let pride rule your spirit. Humble yourself before God and before others, and put an end to being defensive. Greet constructive criticism with an open mind We artists need to be open to the truth about ourselves if we’re going to grow spiritually, relationally, emotionally, and artistically.
Article “Handling Criticism” written by Rory Noland is taken from The Heart Of The Artist written by Rory Noland.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”