07.21.2023 – If You Don’t Have Something Bad to Say…

The old adage reminds us “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” But what if they don’t want to hear something nice?

I’m still thinking about a request I received recently from an organization for a personal reference for someone seeking to serve in its work.  The request named the individual and the nature of the work they might do, and then said, “If you, as a church leader, have any concerns about the individual listed above, …please respond to this email and share those concerns. If the individual is an active participant in your church and you would, indeed, recommend them…, there is no need to respond.”

Serving as a personal or professional reference, completing recommendation forms, or verifying application details go with the territory.  They are some of the things a pastor just does.  And typically, happily so.  My guess is that I have offered references, recommendations, and verifications hundreds of times over the years.  From candidates for ministry or mission positions, to scholarship applicants, to, recently, someone wanting to be a prison guard, I have been honored to be asked to offer a word or two about friends, parishioners, and proteges.

Most of the time when I have been asked to provide a recommendation for someone, it has been a happy task.  I have good things to say – sometimes so good as to advise the asking organization not to pass on the opportunity the applicant represents.  But I also take seriously the challenges/weaknesses section most reference forms have.  I try to offer honest and candid assessments. Occasionally sitting on the other side of the table, I have found no weaknesses, walks-on-water/turns-water-into-wine recommendations to be mostly useless.

And yes, rarely, I have hoped the people reading or hearing my recommendation pick up on the subtle ways I have tried to say, “avoid this candidate at all costs.”

I was taken aback, though, by that “if you don’t have anything bad to say” request. The applicant had told me to expect a reference call or email and I had already begun to think about all the nice things I could say.  I thought the organization was fortunate to have received the candidate’s application.  Then they told me to forget the nice things I wanted to say.  “Don’t answer unless you have some dirt,” they said.  I didn’t have any dirt. Not a speck.

In some ways I admire the efficiency and the honesty of the organization.  Again, when I have been on the other side of the table, I have often scanned a recommendation or listened to a reference with eyes and ears open for a cause to reconsider – the proverbial red flag or even a yellow flag.   This group did not want any red or yellow flags to be obscured by a sea of green flags.

Over the years I’ve ignored some yellow flags and paid the price a few laps later.

I am not sure I’m ready to endorse the “if you don’t have something bad to say” approach for an HR department, but I get their point.

I am a little sad, though, about this recent request for a recommendation because I had some really nice things to say about the person who asked me to serve as a reference.

If you’re ever asked to offer a personal recommendation for someone, be honest. If they will let you, say as many nice things as possible. If they ask if the candidate has any weaknesses – and all candidates do – say so and tell them what you think they are.  Integrity demands no less.

But then there’s this thing about life in the church.  Paul tells the Philippians “…in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3, NRSV/UE) In a world that loves dirt, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” can be part of the discipline of life together.