Don’t Take No Answer For An Answer
What should you do when you ask a question of someone in a position of
authority and you get something other than an answer? What should you do
when you communicate a legitimate complaint and there is no reply? What if
your question or complaint is met with silence (i.e., no response) or with a
‘response” that actually is a non-response. (Definition of non-response: a
string of words which may constitute an answer to some theoretical question
or complaint but which has little or nothing to do with the question or
complaint you submitted.) What should you do? Given that your question or
complaint is important to you, since you made the effort to raise it, you
Too often, especially when we are questioning someone in a position of
leadership, we accept the absence of a response as an indication that the
question or complaint does not merit one. In circles characterized by some
degree of civility, that rarely happens. To ignore completely another
person’s sincerely-posed question or complaint is an egregious breach of
common courtesy. Communications among members of the body of Christ
generally are characterized by civility and mutual respect, so a question or
complaint usually is afforded the courtesy of a response of some sort.
All too often, however, and even within the realm of communications within
the Church, individuals in positions of leadership offer responses to
legitimate questions or complaints that are, for all practical purposes,
non-responses. So what should the sincere questioner do? Be persistent!
Persevere! Ask again. And again, and again, if necessary.
When the ‘answer” you receive does not address the question you asked or
the complaint you registered, you may feel it is reasonable to give the
non-responder the benefit of the doubt. ‘It seems you may have misunderstood
the gist of my question. Please allow me to clarify…”
Amazingly, however, there are times when the person being questioned
deliberately ‘misunderstands” your specific question or complaint.
Obviously, this tactic is a ploy to avoid accountability, and such tactics
certainly have no place in communications among workers in Christ’s Church!
When this kind of behavior occurs (and, sadly, it sometimes is resorted to
even by those in positions of leadership in the Church), then you must not
accept it. How genteelly you are able to correct such an obvious attempt to
evade accountability will depend on how charitable you can be with someone
who has deliberately misrepresented your complaint. With or without
gentility, you must correct the misrepresentation. With or without pointing
out how ridiculously your question or complaint has been misrepresented, you
must insist on a response that is relevant to the issue you have raised.
It should be noted that all of this questioning and, if necessary, repeated
questioning can be done without escalating anyone’s emotional barometer.
Calmness, civility, respect, patience…each of these virtuous
characteristics is completely compatible with perseverance and persistence.
Leaders can be held accountable in a non-emotional, rational, civil way.
Even the most serious complaint can and should be raised with the attitude
of equanimity and loving-kindness that we are called to practice as sisters
and brothers in Christ. Certainly, leaders in the Church can be held
accountable without anyone having to become agitated or emotional, but, just
as certainly, they absolutely must be held accountable!
Another ploy that frequently is used to sidestep accountability is for the
person being questioned to shift the focus from your question to some other
(usually related, often debatable) issue. When this happens, it is
reasonable for you to suspect that your actual area of concern is being
deliberately avoided. What should you do? You should not allow the other
party to redirect the focus and engage you in debate (unless you are
interested in debating that secondary issue). If you wish to debate, forge
ahead, but then immediately bring the focus back to your area of concern. Do
not allow the other party to ignore your original question or complaint.
Persist! Ask again, and redirect the other person’s attention to the actual
issue at hand.
As an example of the deliberate avoidance of legitimate concerns, it seems
that all too often some individuals in positions of leadership in our
denomination simply recite policy or procedural guidelines in response to a
question or complaint instead of responding to the specific area of concern.
Again, this is nothing more than a ploy to avoid accountability. Instead of
responding to the specific question or complaint, the other party responds
with some sort of recitation of guidelines which are somehow relatable to
the topic but which are themselves peripheral to the actual issue at hand.
What should you do if this is the kind of response you get to a sincere
question or legitimate complaint? You should not accept it. You should
persist! Ask again for a specific answer to your specific question. Insist
on a specific response to your specific complaint.
What if you have asked and asked again, and still you have not received a
meaningful response? Then you need to redirect your question or complaint
one level up to the next-in-command. Find out who is the first individual’s
immediate supervisor and go over her/his head, being sure to make it clear
that you already have made repeated attempts without success to get a direct
response from the underling.
When I began writing this article I was considering a title having something
to do with ‘Perseverance” or ‘Persistence”. As I worked, however, I
realized that the actual topic is ‘Accountability” — specifically,
accountability as it applies to people serving our denomination in positions
of leadership and authority.
A final observation: There are two gantlets that need to be thrown down as I
conclude this article. The first is a challenge to all those in positions of
leadership and authority within the PC(USA) to be good and faithful stewards
of the denominational resources under their management. Nothing you publish,
nothing you endorse as resource materials should in any way conflict with or
encourage defiance of the stated guidelines of our denomination as set down
in our Constitution and Book of Order.
The second is a challenge to every one of us to live up to our individual
personal responsibility for holding our leaders accountable. When something
that has the endorsement of our national offices and committees doesn’t seem
right or consistent with our denominational standards, don’t just accept it,
trusting blindly that those in charge must know more than you do about these
matters. Ask your questions. Register your complaints. And then be prepared
to follow up as many times as necessary to get an answer that actually
addresses your concerns. Don’t stop asking until you see results that are
completely consistent with what our Biblical, Confessional, and
Constitutional guidelines declare to be our definition of who we are as
Presbyterians in the U.S.A. and how we are to live as that part of the body
Persist! Persevere! Insist on accountability! It is a vitally important part
of your charge as a faithful member of the body of Christ.