I’ve been a vocational pastor for over 25 years now. I started when I was 18. Boy oh boy do I wish I could go back in time and talk to my younger self. If I had the chance to do this, one of the topics of conversation would DEFINITELY be how to handle criticism. Why would I choose that topic in particular? Because my natural inclinations make me overly-susceptible to discouragement from criticism.
Why Is Criticism Such A Big Thing For Me?
First, it’s a personality thing // In Myers Briggs terms I’m an ENFP. The F stands for “feeler” which means I more frequently tend to express myself based on how I feel rather than how I think. So when someone criticizes me, my natural tendency is to respond emotionally rather than rationally. And by “respond” I’m not referring just to the words I say back to critics; I’m also referring to how I respond and react to criticism behind closed doors. Because I respond emotionally, I feel down when I’m criticized. It makes me fee like less of a leader, less of a man or less of a Christian. Let’s face it, that’s not healthy.
Maybe you’re not a feeler. Maybe you’re a thinker and you respond differently to criticism than I do. If that’s the case ask yourself, “How does my personality un-healthily affect my response to criticism?” Your personality is the source of your natural reactions to critics. Are those natural reactions healthy and productive? For example, a person who is on the extreme-thinker-end of the thinker/feeler spectrum is very logical. Let’s give this person a really original name like…oh I don’t know…How about Spock? While Spock is rational and doesn’t lose sleep over criticism, he also doesn’t care one iota about the critic. He could care less what other people think because he really doesn’t care about them. That’s just not healthy.
The bottom line is that our personalities weigh heavily in our responses to critics. If we are not careful, our responses will be unhealthy. This can result in depression, division, anger, resentment and much more.
Second, it’s a sin thing // I’m deeply flawed. I am a sinner, and a well practiced one. My sinful nature makes me defensive, and causes me to be easily-offended. This in turn causes me to fear what people think. And when they tell me they don’t like something I’ve done, I often become angry. Even worse, because I’m a sinner, I can easily cross the line from “I don’t like that critic” to “I hate that person.” Turns out Yoda was right when he told Luke Skywalker, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to the dark side.” If I’m not careful, I can let criticism take me to a very dark place.
I’m pretty sure you’re deeply flawed too. After all, God tells us as much when He says, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NIV). How does your sin nature affect the way you respond to criticism? I guarantee you that it doesn’t take you to a good place.
Third, it’s a spiritual-warfare thing // Satan hates me and wants me to be ineffective. That’s why we works overtime trying to twist my inner dialogue and my feelings. He loves to bring up old criticisms and then shame me. I’ll hear that inner voice saying, “Sure enough, you’re not good enough. You’re a failure. Look at how many people don’t like you; you’re unlikeable.” That inner voice is not my voice and it’s certainly not the voice of the Holy Spirit. It’s my enemy! Satan really relishes it when he can bog me down and keep me from being my best because of criticism.
News flash: Satan feels the same way about you! When he twists your emotions, your inner voice and your response to criticism, he finds ways to bring you down and make you feel like garbage. What’s garbage good for? Not much. That’s why he wants you to feel that way!! But guess what? Although Satan makes us feel like garbage, his power stops there. Satan can’t change who you are…he’s not God. If you are in Christ, you are a new creation. You are forgiven and made clean. You are not just seen as perfect in the eyes of God…YOU ARE PERFECT. Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin for you on the cross so that you would become the righteousness of God. YOU ARE NOT GARBAGE and no amount of criticism can ever change that truth!
You may be wondering at this point, “Okay, you’ve written about how criticism affects me, but how am I supposed to handle it? After more than a quarter of a century in ministry do you have any practical advice for handling criticism?” As a matter of fact, I do.
5 Principles For Handling Criticism
If you’re a leader or a pastor, criticism comes with the job. Get used to it. Better yet, learn to handle it in healthy ways. Here are five principles I’ve learned about handling criticism in ministry.
First, Know Who To Ignore // Knowing who NOT to pay attention to is the first step in handling criticism. Generally speaking there are two groups of people whose feedback you should automatically discount: your biggest critics and your biggest fans. Even if you’re new to a church, it won’t take you long to find out who the biggest critics are. They reveal themselves fast! These are the people you dread seeing in the lobby after church. They’re the ones whose email addresses you’re tempted to block. Let’s face it, even if you went so far as to let these people write your sermons and plan your strategies for you, they’d still find a reason to complain!! You know what you should do with their feedback? Ignore it. Love them. Shake their hands. Smile at them. Greet them. But don’t let their opinions affect you at all.
Your biggest fans surface quickly too though, and you should discount their feedback too. For example, there’s a wonderful couple who tell me every week how wonderful the sermon was. They never say a discouraging word! I really like seeing them coming in the lobby each week. But can I really trust their feedback? To answer that question, I just need ask, “Do I really hit a home run sermon every time I speak?” The honest answer is, “No.” Sometimes I hit a triple, a double or a single. Let’s face it, sometimes I strike out. So while this couple is sweet and I’m grateful for their encouragement, I can not base how I feel on their feedback. Their feedback is not realistic so I must discount it.
Second, Know Who To Listen To // It’s not enough to know whose feedback to discount; as leaders we must know whose feedback to give careful attention to. So hear goes: listen to those who know your heart, love you, and have your best interests in mind. These people will tell you when you’ve bombed, but they’ll also tell you when you’ve done a stellar job. They are kind and balanced in their honesty. They won’t always tell you what you want to hear, but they will always speak to you in love. These people are not your fans. Rather, they are friends.
I immediately think of two people in my church who fit this category. First is my wife. She loves me deeply, but she’s not impressed by me. More than 20 years of marriage has given her ample time to become aware of my glaring weaknesses and my extreme strengths. She tells me honestly and kindly what she thinks about my leadership of the church. I have learned that I NEED her feedback because it makes me better. Second, is one of our former elders. He rotated off the board a couple of years ago because his term of service was up and he was tired. But since that time we have remained close. He tells me whenever he has a concern, but he also tells me when he has something to praise. He’s only a few years older than I am, but he has somewhat of a fatherly-vibe to me. When he talks to me he somehow shows his pride in me even when chastising me. This guy is truly a friend. Of course there are more than two people like this in my church, but these two are my two favorite examples.
Find a group of these people in your church. Spend time with them regularly. Ask them for feedback. They don’t want to inflate your ego and they also don’t want to discourage you. They just want what’s best and that’s why they’re the best people for you to hear.
Third, Don’t Take It Personally (even if it’s personal) // Most critics don’t mean to hurt you on a personal level. So don’t take it on a personal level. Shake it off! Occasionally though, there are extra mean people who make criticism personal. They may attack your family or insult your character. My advice when this happens is the same: don’t take it personally. Shake it off! Why? Remember, wounded people wound people. Hurt people hurt people. You’re in a business that insures hurt people will be around you, so for your own longevity in ministry and your own sanity, you have to learn NOT to take criticism personally.
Fourth, Know When To Answer Critics // Some criticisms are worth answering and some are not. We have one man who drops a note in the offering every single week saying that the music is too loud. That feedback is not worth Answering. But sometimes there are criticisms from people where a response is necessary. There’s no hard-and-fast rule for knowing which feedback to answer and which not to answer; you must navigate each criticism prayerfully and respond as you think necessary. However, there is a general rule for every one of your responses: answer critics ONLY if you have information that will change their perception AND if they are open to change. To do otherwise only causes conflict and/or stress.
Whenever a critic wants to talk to me about a subject, I make one statement and then ask one question before scheduling a meeting: “I promise to be as open as I can to your feedback. But before we schedule a meeting, do you believe that your perception might change in this matter?” If I’m wrong I must be willing to change, but the other party must also pledge a willingness to change before I will agree to with them. Why? Two reasons. First, it prevents a waste of my time and theirs. Second, it immediately sends a message that only flexible and constructive people will have a voice in this church.
Why is that important? Shouldn’t we value everyone enough to let everyone have a voice? Look in the Bible and ask yourself how Moses would answer that question. What happened when Moses gave in and let the grumpy Hebrew people have a voice? First, he allowed them to delay their own entrance to the promised land by 40 years. When they took the advice of the 10 negative spies rather than following the faith of the two positive spies, God punished the Hebrews with a 40 year walk in the desert. Second, Moses allowed the complainers to stir his anger to the point of sin. This caused his own exclusion from the promised land. When Moses gave ear to the complainers and let them get to him, it lit a fire under his anger. Then, in a fit of rage, he hit a rock rather than speaking to it, as the Lord had commanded. Moses’ infraction was brought on by his own willingness to listen to the grumblers, and it resulted his own punishment. Perhaps your own church has not entered its own promised land because you have been willing to listen to the wrong voices.
I want to let you in on a secret: One of the biggest reasons many pastors are miserable in ministry is not because of complainers, but because the pastors have allowed the complainers to have a voice. Help silence destructive-negativity by insisting that people with complaints must promise to be open to change before you ever agree to listen to their concerns. If overly-negative-grumpy-complainers know they don’t have a voice, they’ll eventually be quiet or they’ll leave. And if those people leave, your church has grown by subtraction!
Fifth, Never Forget The Truth // This point is last, but that does not diminish it’s importance. In fact, this point is probably the most important. No matter what anyone says to you, you must know the truth about yourself. The truth is you are flawed, but forgiven. You don’t always make the right decision but God is sovereign, meaning He uses all your decisions for His glory and for your good. People will not always like you, but the LORD always loves you. People may leave the church over your preaching, your decision-making, or even your mistakes, but that does not change the nature of your own calling; God called you to ministry regardless of what others might say. People change, but truth does not, so NEVER FORGET THE TRUTH. Criticism may affect your emotions, but it has no bearing on the truth, so NEVER FORGET THE TRUTH! Never, never, never ever forget the truth!!! It will get you through even the toughest of criticisms.