Many of the personalities that populate our parishes seem to come out of central casting: the community historian, the pious worshiper, the issue advocate, the reliable worker … the list goes on and on. When priests seek advice from other preists about how to best lead, manage, and serve them, all it takes is a quick game of “name that tune” (i.e. “I can name that personality type in three notes!”) and understanding is achieved, sympathy is offered (when required), and advice is shared.
Today I want to defend an oft-maligned personality: the reliable naysayer. Here are three notes to get you on track:
- [Pick-up note one] Rarely has any specific agenda or goal
- [Pick-up note two] Is active in many ministries/activities
- [The payoff first chord] Is always pointing out shortcomings and problems with how things are being done and with plans being made
Despite the familiarity of the tune, jaded (and wise!) priests will then ask for a couple more notes to determine whether this particular manifestation of the type is a parish/priest killer (i.e. an antagonist or narcissist that has/will poison the parish) or not. Unfortunately, too many will skip this step, assume the worst, and either begin looking for ways to isolate and/or remove the perceived threat or just slip into the sympathetic despondency of “oh great… this again”.
This is tempting; even good naysayers are hard to deal with. They are challenges to our egos and (seemingly) to the kind of unity (“one mind”) that we are trying to foster. But the very fact that we find the presence of naysayers (and their challenges) offensive is a red flag: not about them but about us.
The fact is that every leader needs to have someone that is going to challenge them. Committees and boards need this, as well. The psychological literature is full of warnings about the perils of ego and group think and how they impair discernment and rational decision-making. In the intelligence world the danger is so great that specific “red cells” are set up with the specific job of naysaying (i.e. playing “devil’s advocate”; although this name suggests how ego affects our moral judgment of this role!).
In other words, if you do not have a (committed and Christian) advocate, then you should ask someone to take on the roll (joke warning: perhaps this is why the wisdom of Orthodoxy has married clergy serving parishes?).
Yes, there are caveats: negativity can become chronic and poisonous. In addition, naysaying can be an indicator of some deep-rooted problems and habitual sins. Moreover, things are rarely black and white and I suspect that most naysayers live in some kind of curmudgeonly shade of gray (“for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”). But I would rather have even a flawed (but not completely narcissistic or antagonist!) naysayer serving with me on the parish board than an entire board that fell quickly into step with every new marching song.
Does it make things harder? In the short-term: do doubt. Defending actions and plans gets old very quickly and managing naysayers takes intention and energy. But the pay-offs are huge (not the least of which is the role they play as “holy sandpaper” in our own salvation).
Hail the naysayers – may they serve for many blessed years!
Yours in Christ,