When you’re a leader, criticism goes with the territory. I get a lot of hate mail. I feel it every time. With the internet – it’s easy for people to take shots and hide behind a keyboard. When you lead in the church in any capacity, you will have to handle criticism and it is part of your ministry to care for people.
The past couple of years have been particularly difficult for church leaders. We’ve had to walk our congregations through political upheaval, racial unrest, conspiracy theories, COVID craziness, and a nation-wide mental health crisis. We made tough calls, statements, and decisions that were bound to alienate some certain group of people at all times.
Perhaps you’ve received criticism from staff members, board members, volunteers, congregation members, other pastors, people in your city, social media contacts, anonymous bloggers, community leaders, or even your spouse.
If you’re like me, chances are you’ve handled criticism poorly in the past. There have been times when frustration got the best of me and I fired off a brief seven-word email – “I hope you like your next church.” Other times when I felt less bold and more insecure, my tendency has been to schmooze…to kill them with kindness. Hoping to win them back over to my side.
Whatever your tendency, learning how to properly deal with criticism is important as a leader — both in stewarding the relationship with the person doing the criticizing, as well as taking care of yourself, protecting your heart, and not becoming a doormat.
Here are a few tips for better dealing with criticism:
1. Consider the Source
There is a difference between how David received Nathan’s criticism and how Nehemiah received Sanballat and Tobias’s criticism. The difference: one was a friend and the other was an enemy. I think every leader has to determine who the criticism is coming from and discern if these are the correcting words from a friend or discouraging words from an enemy.
Proverbs 19:20 – Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.
2. Be gracious
Everyone who comes after you is fighting a personal battle of some kind. Often their criticism is not actually about you – it has more to do with some insecurity that they are facing. As a leader you can bring a bucket of water or a bucket of gas to their fire. Graciousness will help to diffuse the situation.
Romans 12:18-21 – If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
3. Deal with it at the same level you receive it
If you receive private criticism deal with it privately, and to the level it is public respond to it at that same level. It is unwise to deal with private criticism publicly. It is also unwise to deal with public criticism within the church, privately. Whether the concern is raised at an annual meeting – or within a small group, deal with it at that same level. When Paul was being criticized within the ranks of the church – he addressed it by letter to the entire church.
4. Admit when it’s true and make changes
Our tendency is to defend ourselves or our position immediately, when typically there is a kernel of truth to all feedback. What is unknown to us may be well known to others. This goes for ministry and personal life. If something in their critique is actionable, communicate what action you are taking beforehand and then communicate a follow-up with them after the action is taken.
Acts 6:1-7 involves complaints and feedback of Grecian widows. Notice, the church leaders didn’t ignore their requests. They also weren’t sidetracked from the mission by the criticism. Instead, they listened and then the diligently responded to meet the needs of the people who were unhappy.
5. Allow it to bring clarity to your position
Criticism is an opportunity to help clarify your thoughts on certain matters. One of the reasons that criticism might be coming your way is your failure to clarify or communicate something that you do as a leader. Criticism provides the perfect opportunity to sit down and write out why you do it that way. I have benefitted from writing out responses to questions like, “why do we sing songs from churches whose theology we don’t fully agree with,” and “why don’t we allow groups to put political fliers on cars while we are worshiping.
6. Ignore it when it’s anonymous or social ranting
If criticism is anonymous, I delete or throw it away immediately every time. If someone doesn’t have the courage to sign his/her name, they don’t get to have a voice in my life or ministry. If the criticism comes in from someone I don’t know, but who signs their name, I will read it. I will usually give them an abbreviated response like “I appreciate your input.”
You can only COUNT anonymous input, you can’t WEIGH it. – Larry Osborne
7. Delay before responding but always respond when it comes to you directly
Usually if you don’t delay your response, it will include too much raw emotion or defensiveness. It’s appropriate to let people know that you received their feedback and will respond when you have a chance to consider their remarks. Delaying also gives you time to run your response by some trusted advisers (minus the names involved to maintain anonymity).
Responding in-person is better than phone, phone is better than email, email is better than texting, and texting is better than social media banter. But no matter what, always respond. Our goal timeframe on staff is a response within 24 to 48 hours.
8. Defend the gospel and not your reputation
You protect your character by weighing your response, and let God protect your reputation. One of the ways your character is revealed most clearly in how you react to opposition.
I appreciate Carl Trueman’s thoughts here: The answer is simple: for myself, I do not believe that it is appropriate that I spend my time defending my name. My name is nothing—who really cares about it? And I am not called to waste precious hours and energy in fighting off every person with a laptop who wants to have a pop at me. As a Christian, I am not meant to engage in self-justification any more than self-promotion; I am called rather to defend the name of Christ; and, to be honest, I have yet to see a criticism of me, true or untrue, to which I could justifiably respond on the grounds that it was Christ’s honor, and not simply my ego, which was being damaged. I am called to spend my time in being a husband, a father, a minister in my denomination, a member of my church, a good friend to those around me, and a conscientious employee. These things, these people, these locations and contexts, are to shape my priorities and my allocation of time. Hitting back in anger at those who, justly or unjustly, do not like me and for some reason think the world needs to know what they think of me is no part of my God-given vocation. God will look after my reputation if needs be; He has given me other work to do.
As a leader, one of the ways you best demonstrate your level of maturity is in how you handle criticism. My prayer is that God will use the principles above, along with the grace of his Spirit, to help you if this is an area where you need to grow.