One of the hardest things in the ministry is dealing with criticism. It’s bound to come at some point or another, regardless of how skilled or effective the minister is. One of the best resources I’ve come across to help deal with this is CJ Mahaney’s The Pastor and Personal Criticism. It’s on my Kindle and I’ve come back to it several times over the years when I’ve faced criticism and needed reminders of God’s grace and my need for humility.
It’s painful enough to receive criticism, but worse than hearing the critic is the anxiety of the unknown critic who does not approach the minister. It’s the weight of constantly feeling like your ears are ringing from people talking about you behind your back. You’ve probably been there, you walk into a room and people stop talking and look at you, you get cold responses when you say hello to people, and people say odd comments about sticking up for you. It can wreck a ministry because of a crippling fear of mistakes, rob a minister of his joy to serve by building walls of fear and paranoia, and in some cases cause good servants to walk away dejected and defeated. Sadly, I’ve seen all of these before, both personally and in guys I know and love. To that, I want to write some encouragement during those times of known and unknown criticism.
- Not all criticism is bad – I have to remind myself of this often, that criticism can be a tool to increase effectiveness and bring out a better result. Many times the negative aspect of criticism is all we see, but good criticism helps expose faults, flaws, areas for growth, and potential improvements.
- Your critics aren’t always mean spirited jerks – There are a few out there, that’s true, but by and large when people give criticism most of the time they’re not seeking to destroy you, your family, your ministry, and your legacy. They are hurt, concerned, or need to express something to you that they feel is wrong. That said, there are a few out there who will do that, but that’s typically the exception rather than the rule. Either way, take it in stride, recognize humility is a virtue, learn 2-3 things from the criticism, and press on.
- The unspoken criticism is probably not as bad as you think – Unless you’re the POTUS, it’s doubtful people spend much time talking about you. People are too busy and to be honest, you’re probably not that important to them if they don’t like you. There are probably not as many back-hall conversations as you think are happening, and not everyone in the church is out to get you fired. Relax. Continue to show grace, smile, talk to people and don’t let your paranoia rule you. If there is that much going on, don’t be naive about it and play the ostrich; you might want to get out of there friend, that’s toxic.
- Don’t play critic’s math – Yesterday Jon Acuff had a blog post about critic’s math. Basically, that’s the math where you can receive 100 compliments but all you remember is the one person who thinks you’re an idiot. Don’t play that game, celebrate the positives far more than you dwell on the negatives. I keep personal notes, emails, and texts from students as a safeguard against critic’s math, because that’s a big struggle for me. Critic’s math can destroy a minister from the inside, don’t let it. Don’t let the critic’s math cause you to move or give up, sometimes these periods of tension and pain are designed to make us more like Jesus.
- Build a coalition of allies on the front end – Build bridges when you go somewhere, don’t immediately start using your flamethrower. I wish that was something I had done more of, and I still pay for it 3 years later. It hurts, but lesson learned. These allies can be some of your best gifts of grace during criticism, because they can encourage you, build you up, share the load of despair, and offer to pray with you.
- Your critic isn’t always wrong, they just may approach it wrong – I have received some great criticism from people who showed me some faults and pointed them out. It took a while sometimes to realize that, but they were right. I have learned so much more from the receiving end of the critic’s pointed finger than I have from the praise of supporters. That said, your critic’s point may be right, but their method may be difficult. My encouragement during that: stay calm, don’t over-react, listen more than you speak, don’t let their words rob your joy (even when they say they want you fired or don’t trust you or think you’ve royally messed up), and take some time to really reflect before responding, lashing out, or resigning.
- Your identity is not found in your critic’s remarks or in your supporter’s praise, it’s found in the person and work of Christ – Perhaps the biggest thing to remember during periods of criticism, known and unknown, is that you as a Christian are a child of God, blameless on account of Christ’s work on the cross, and sealed with the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:28 never promises things will go smoothly, but that all things, even being criticized behind your back, are ultimately for your good. In the same vein, don’t let people’s praise get to your head either. Again, your identity isn’t found in how wonderful they think you are or how great a teacher or minister you are. That can be a trap, because you can trust in something else besides God’s grace and end up disappointing people (which you will). Find yourself in Christ, rest in who He is, and trust Him.