Criticism. For many of us it’s a “four letter word” that evokes worry, doubt, and at times fear. It makes us question everything we are doing and worse still, in some cases we question if where we are serving is the right place and if our calling is actually true.
Criticism has and will take many forms during your time in ministry. It could be when the facility director chastises you for marshmallows in the carpet and how ministry shouldn’t involve destroying the church. It may take the form of a parent talking about you and your philosophy, or claiming you haven’t connected with their student. Perhaps it is an elder who openly asks you if you even care about students growing in their faith. It may be a volunteer who stops by your office to offer “help” by telling you how great the old pastor was and how you should go back to the old way of doing things. Or maybe it is your senior pastor who tells you that fun shouldn’t be a part of your ministry and you need to change or look elsewhere.
If you’re like me, you’ve been on the receiving end of criticism more than you’d care to admit. It may be easy to brush some of it off by saying “oh, that’s just Karen” or “they don’t get student ministry…no one calls it youth ministry anymore.” But I would assert that just brushing it off or dismissing it isn’t the appropriate response in all circumstances. In my years of serving in ministry I’ve handled criticism both well and poorly, and I’d like to offer some thoughts on how to respond to it.
So often our knee-jerk reaction is to throw up defenses, to take a stand, to answer with a quick retort. Much of this is a defense mechanism because we take criticism personally. How dare they attack a ministry that God has called me to, that I have poured blood, sweat, and tears into?! But the reality is that we need respond humbly, and be willing to process what has been said.
We are called to be representatives of the Gospel in all moments, even the hard ones. How we respond will show people Jesus, and we must be aware of that. I am not advocating for you to simply take punches, but to not lash out or respond in kind. It is okay to explain yourself, but don’t become defensive or angry. Instead hear the person, love the person, and look to respond as Christ would.
Be willing to listen and have conversation.
When critique happens, let me encourage you to listen to the person and engage in conversation. I know there are times that won’t happen because it could be a passing comment from a parishioner, or an anonymous note left in your mailbox (What you don’t get those? Guess it’s just me.), but when you are able, engage with the person. So often it is because someone doesn’t understand, isn’t sure how to ask, they don’t know any other way to do ministry, or just want to be heard.
Instead of getting upset and talking about the person and their remarks, engage with them and take them out for lunch or coffee. Ask them to share what is on their heart, and then share what is on yours. I find within conversation you can care for the person, explain your mission and vision, and rally support as they see who you are and what you are about.
Acknowledge growth areas.
This is a hard one because it forces us to think through what is said, and admit that we don’t have it all figured out. But that is the truth; we are all in process which means there are areas where we can grow. Instead of becoming defensive about that, be willing to say “you’re right, and I am working on that.” I find that showing humility and acknowledging where you need to grow actually brings in people who want to champion you and your ministry. Sometimes people want to support you, and they just need to know how. By acknowledging your growth areas, you open up opportunities to be poured into and stretched.
Invite others in.
This one is huge, and something that took me a long time to understand. I think for many pastors it is easier to be a maverick, to stay on an island. But we aren’t called to do life alone. We champion this to our students and leaders, but so often we act in an opposite manner. Let me encourage you to find a mentor, to let people speak into your life and ministry, and be willing to listen even when it is hard. Those are the moments that will grow and stretch you. As you listen and hear from those who have done this and those who care about you, you will find yourself becoming a better pastor and shepherd.
As ministers and as people we should actively be engaged in self-evaluation. This process will help you grow and mature, and prayerfully become a better leader and minister. Some questions to consider after receiving a critique are:
- Why does that comment upset me?
- Is there any truth in what was said?
- What do I need to do if there is truth here?
- How did I respond?
- What should I change about how I respond in the future?
- How did my heart feel during and after the conversation?
- How can I approach, minister to, and love the person who said these things to me?
- What is God trying to teach me in this moment?
- Who is pouring into me and speaking truth about this moment?
Find a safe place to decompress.
Decompression and processing are necessary things to do after receiving criticism, but I believe there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to do them. Speaking to a mentor, a ministry partner, close friends, a supervisor, or other trusted confidantes is a great thing to do. They allow you to be open and honest, they don’t mind letting you process and work through emotions. And they will also give you direct and honest feedback to help you grow and mature.
However, I do not think social media is a healthy place to to decompress or seek out support in these matters. I’m a part of many Facebook groups where people come “seeking input and support” only to be met with “that’s so unfair,” “walk away,” “you’re better than they are,” or thousands of other thoughts and opinions. And arguably what it turns into is a critique-fest of a person or church no one knows about. Feelings of hurt and frustration grow within the original poster, and the community spirals downward in the chaos of bitterness and resentment. Social media can be used in great ways, but it isn’t a place to go to for healthy decompression as not all of the “support” or comments will be biblical, nor will they be able to respond impartially as they only hear one side of the conversation.