The Difference between Helpful and Useful Information

I had a strange moment before church yesterday. A person decided he needed to tell me a few things about what I should be doing at the church. Next he shared what he thought of my sermons thus far. Finally he added that he did not know why I had not contacted him yet for help. He then looked at me and said, "don't cry."

Just then, the service began. I tried not to burst into tears and bolt from the building into the streets of the city of New Orleans. I tried to think about the situation logically. I have tried to put aside my ego and feelings and listen to what this person was sharing with me. Frankly, I am really ticked off.

I am ticked off because this was an attack. I realize that now. I am ticked off with myself because I did not call him on it right then and there. Instead, I let him offer his helpful two cents, and I barely made it through the service. I questioned every move I made throughout the service, and throughout the last month at the church, and I realized he was wrong. He was just attacking me.

I find it can be a very fine line between being willing to hear constructive criticism and being open to an attack. One might say you should not listen to people who do not care about you, but I think that we still need to be willing to listen to what someone has to say. The information might not be helpful, but it might be useful.

That might sound strange, but this is how I distinguish between the two. Helpful information is letting you know that you have spinach in your teeth and handing you a toothbrush. The person who shares the helpful information cares about you and wants you to succeed. He or she does not force their opinions or ideas on you, he or she asks first. You know that the information comes from a kind and loving place. Non helpful but useful information is letting you know that you look terrible. This type of information tells you more about the giver of information. He or she is coming from a place of hostility, but he or she is using a piece of useful data to express that hostility. It might not hurt to look in the mirror and check.

Still, I can be as logical and understanding about yesterday morning's attack, but I was attacked. My feelings are hurt. I have looked in the mirror, and I realize it was not helpful information. I believe that many of us open ourselves up, and allow others to offer their "helpful" advice. Perhaps because we believe that person really has something important to teach us or we want to be easy going or we feel unsure. We might even think that everyone wants to help us, so we need to listen, right? Well, we can listen, but we do not have to accept it. We do not have to accept being attacked.

We absolutely should seek help and advice, but that is point, isn't it? We need to seek the help and advice we need. That is up to us, and it is not someone else's responsibility to "set us straight" or "teach us the ropes."

So, my work is cut out for me. I have parishioners to visit and call. I have a sermon to write, translate and check. I also have a conversation that needs to happen- after church. Maybe the most important part is I need to stay open, willing to learn from others and listen, but remembering the difference between helpful and useful information.


Ruth said…
Same thing happened to me in the first few months of a new parish. I've since discovered the person in question is bipolar and off his meds. But it took a while for me to figure that one out. In the meantime I felt bullied and unsure. I remember it as being a horrible feeling.
Be strong and prayers ascending for you.
Unknown said…
I feel you, as a writing instructor. For some reason, however successful the semester has been, a handful of students feel the need to give me a full-on nitpicked analysis of me, my teaching skills, and how I never was clear about anything like due dates (even though everything is in writing in several locations). And it always makes me crazy for awhile until I can get my sense of perspective back.
Unknown said…
Good for you for naming this as an attack. I still get sick to my stomach when I remember a similar encounter, and that one was in a prior church, almost five years ago. It's helpful to have colleagues to talk to when these things happen; I appreciate the wisdom with which you told the story here.
Anonymous said…
Great post! Being in ministry myself, I have grown accustomed to this kind of ....uh....helpfulness. I recently spent most of a service trying to remind myself why I was there, and for Whom I was serving. Easy to say, tough to do.

I hope the process of reconciling goes well for you.
hikerrev said…
The first day I was at a new parish, as I was shaking hands after the liturgy, someone told me that I was a disgrace to the pastoral office. I was (I think understandably) taken aback, and hurt, and offended; and I ended up questioning myself and my call to this place for well over a year.

As I've gotten to know the person who said this, I understand that he wants the best for the church and for this congregation ~ he just doesn't have much of a filter. We have since, more or less, reconciled.

Obviously I don't know your situation or the person who talked with you just before liturgy that day, so I don't intend to equate our situations. What happened to you is not ok ~ and at the same time, there must be a lot more going on with this person to cause him to perpetrate this kind of attack. It took me a long time to be able to bring myself to a civil conversation ~ I hope healing for you happens more quickly than it did for me.

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