The Art of a Loving Rebuke
When it’s necessary to confront and correct someone, do it in a way that puts a priority on the relationship.
For several years I earned my living as a small business owner. I liked to call myself a “marketing mutt” who tackled all sorts of communication projects for business clientele. What I couldn’t handle, I’d subcontract and mark up. Wearing so many hats, I often found myself in the midst of moments that taught me a lot about myself—where I was competent, and where it turned out I’d had delusions of adequacy.
One of those moments occurred while working on a project for a local roofing company. It was led by a reputable and talented CEO, Rick Steinrock. Rick’s team did high-end work and I considered it a privilege to work directly with him on a new website for his company. The same qualities you wanted in your roof, he personally embodied: he was reliable, sound, and dependable.
There was another side to Rick: With all this high confidence and utter competence, he was humble and easy to work with. The stereotype of someone in his kind of work would be that he’d be the gruff and demanding alpha dog. Instead, he was calm, unassuming, and self-controlled.
As a man of high character and integrity, Rick expected full accountability from those with whom he worked. His word was his bond, and if you engaged with him, he expected the same from you.
At this point in my career, I was more talented than I was dependable. I had a nasty habit of overcommitting myself and then allowing projects to flounder.
While working on the website for Rick, I became overloaded. I had made too many commitments to too many clients, and I fell way behind on deadlines. I don’t recall intentionally pushing Rick’s project to the bottom of my list, but for whatever reason, I allowed it to suffer the most. When some deadlines were missed, I began receiving calls from Rick asking for updates. I compounded the problem of being behind by trying to dodge Rick’s calls, and I failed to return a few of them.
Bracing for impact
One day, as I exited our church sanctuary, I spotted Rick in the hallway. Before I could duck behind a trash can, he spotted me. It had been about three weeks and a few unreturned phone calls since we talked. Rick calmly headed toward me. I knew this would not go well, and I braced for impact.
I wouldn’t have blamed him for tearing into me with some degree of wrath. Instead, he shook my hand and said, “Hi Kent. Do you have a minute to chat?” I nodded sheepishly and we headed back into the now empty sanctuary.
I quickly checked out his garb—no tool belt or claw hammer, so I might live through this.
As we found a couple of seats and sat down, Rick looked directly at me and quietly said, “Kent, I get the impression you’re avoiding me. I’ve called you a few times, but you haven’t called me back.”
He paused, giving me the chance to acknowledge his assessment. My mouth was dry. “That’s true, Rick,” I said. “I’m sorry for that.”
He continued, “Kent, you’re not only a marketing vendor to me, you’re a brother in Christ. Therefore, when it comes to our relationship, I expected better from you, and I’m disappointed.”
This wasn’t going according to plan at all. At least in the back of my mind, I had figured on the veins standing out in his neck; clenching fists; glaring eyes; ear steam; snarled insults. Then I’d have something to work with. I could redirect the discussion toward his unseemly loss of composure. But this was a sly move! He cut off all my escape routes with one deft roadblock. Gentleness!
All I could say was, “You’re right, Rick. I have overcommitted myself and have gotten behind on a lot of things. I apologize that your project is one of them.”
He responded, “Okay, Kent. I understand. So, here’s what I expect. I expect you to find a way to regroup and get back on track. I know you’ll figure it out. I look forward to hearing from you soon.” He rose, shook my hand, and slowly walked out of the sanctuary.
That was it. He made no irrational demand. He did not insist that I give his project the highest priority. He took no next-step responsibility upon himself; clearly this was my problem to resolve. Most importantly, he assumed the best in me, even amidst this obvious failure.
A powerful display of maturity
I stayed in the sanctuary for a few minutes and wrestled with conflicting emotions. On one hand, I was ashamed and highly frustrated with myself. How could I be so unreliable? How could I let a brother down like that? Actually avoiding a man I so highly respected? What an idiot.
On the other hand, I was inspired. I knew even then I had experienced a loving rebuke intended to help me. Something inside me assured me that this is how the body of Christ was supposed to work. This guy was not out to shame, ridicule, or belittle me—he simply pointed out my mistake and suggested I man up. It was a powerful display of maturity and loving correction.
As I reflected on Rick’s handling of this situation, two Scripture verses came to mind.
The first: “Don’t rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you. Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning.” (Proverbs 9:8-9, NIV).
The second: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1).
I learned a lot that day. First, I learned a key lesson about myself: I have the propensity to agree to too many things, which only leads to stress, frustration, and broken promises.
Second, I discovered I can handle a loving rebuke. And here’s the interesting thing. Handling gentle correction has actually helped me handle the not-so-gentle variety. I’ve been on the receiving end of a few blunt deliveries, and I’ve redoubled my efforts to take the best of the message and be gracious about the package it came in. I’m not responsible for someone else’s tact—just for what I do with the subject at hand.
I learned a good bit about Rick, too, and more importantly, the art of the loving rebuke.
First, Rick came to me. I’m ashamed to admit this, but in that first moment in the hallway, I probably would have ducked into some doorway or hid behind the lady with the big hat if he hadn’t clearly spotted me.
Second, Rick didn’t exhibit anger. There must have been some emotion there, but he didn’t telegraph it. Gently but frankly, Rick got to the only real issue: my lack of accountability. Without a fog of heavy emotions, we could see clearly to face and solve the problem.
Third, Rick focused on the core and most important relationship we have—brothers in Christ. That’s a factor that should change everything. And if it doesn’t, we have some serious questions to ask ourselves.
Rebuke and correction are all about helping someone align to a missed standard. We can’t do that unless we agree on what that standard entails. Ours was biblical. Yours may or may not be so, but let’s always keep in mind that there has to be an accepted common ground.
Fourth, he had facts (unreturned calls), which led him to a reasonable conclusion (intentional avoidance). He stated his view and waited for me to respond. He was gracious enough to leave open the possibility that I’d somehow missed his calls. He didn’t open our discussion with, “Hey pal, you’ve been avoiding me!” Most people skip this step and rapidly move through a machine gun volley of facts, interpretation, offense, and remedy.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, while Rick certainly wanted the marketing project back on track, he placed a priority on our relationship. I’d go so far as to say that he placed a priority on helping me become a better person.
A heart of redemption
This speaks to the heart of the one bringing the correction. The heart of the effective rebuker is to improve the other person. It’s a heart of redemption, not ridicule. When we rebuke in love with the intent to help the other person, we can actually improve and grow our relationships.
In the end, I regrouped and finished up the project for Rick to the best of my ability—and did so with a certain touch of gladness rather than shame, simply because of how Rick had handled things.
Our relationship became better than it had been in the past. This guy is the real deal when it comes to leadership and the building of solid, loving relationships. And when there are issues, he turns stumbling blocks into stepping stones. Everyone wins.
Excerpted from Wise Guys © 2016 by Kent Evans. Published by City on a Hill Studio. Used with permission.
Listen to author Kent Evans on FamilyLife Today® as he encourages men to unlock the hidden wisdom of others by seeking them out as mentors. And in his book, Wise Guys, he wants to show men how to gather life-enriching truth from the guys in their own circle.