I have a plaque hanging in my office that I picked up about 25 years ago, it reads: “To Avoid Criticism: Do Nothing. Say Nothing. Be Nothing.” It’s true. A life of any real impact at all will attract criticism of one sort or another; and the greater the impact, the broader and deeper the criticism. The dictionary definition of criticism is: “1) The expression of disapproval of something or someone based on perceived faults or mistakes; 2) The analysis and judgment of the merits or faults of an artistic work.” Christian pastoral work is very intimate and personal, and it is also an art. To enter this work unprepared for criticism is to walk naked into a hurricane. Jesus wasn’t just criticized—he was crucified. Paul’s enemies routinely and viciously attacked him both physically and verbally. Probably the first and most important thing to settle on in this regard is the inevitability and acceptability of criticism as part of the “cost of doing business” in the kingdom.
Before I continue I need to explain that our church has treated me with grace and generosity. I get criticism of course, but it is usually kind and well meant. Yet, there are some experiences that blindside us as pastors. Unfair, caustic, or hurtful critiques are what make pastors look for other work. When they have come my way I have found a few actions helpful. But they don’t come naturally. I must concentrate and pray to implement them. And don’t think that I have always accomplished this. I’m struggling forward with this, like most pastors.
Douse the internal fire.
I need to sift personal feelings out of the mix, especially anger. Anger is a major tool of Satan and must be subdued decisively and quickly, like dousing a kitchen grease fire (See Eph.4:26-27; Jas.1:19-20; 3:13-18). Responding to anger with anger almost never results in anything Christlike. I try to express some honest sorrow over the thing immediately, even if a longer response must come later. A gentle answer does reduce wrath (Pr.15:1). I also try to remember that ultimately it doesn’t matter much if people disagree with me. My validation is not grounded in their opinion (Or is it? Maybe that’s the source of my anger.) (See 1 Cor.4:1-5). It’s nice to be around people who don’t mind being disagreed with. I should be one.
Appreciate the pain.
When I’m unfairly criticized it helps to remember that the pain indicates a key component of my pastoral skill set. Sensitivity to feelings is crucial to the art of spiritual direction. If I were a sociopath nobody could hurt my feelings because I wouldn’t have any. But then I’d be like a surgeon with no sensation in his hands. The nature of pastoral work requires emotional intelligence and sensitivity, which in turn creates a certain vulnerability to pain. So, the fact that the criticism stings indicates that I have true emotional commitment to the ministry, without which I could never be a good pastor in the first place.
Enter the other person’s world.
A harsh critic is probably responding to hurts of their own, enflamed by something I said (or didn’t say) or some negative experience they had with the church. I need to let the complaint cool long enough (often for a couple of days) for me to enter their worldview and sympathize a bit. Only then will I be able to respond constructively. Even if my response does not at all satisfy the critic (in other words, I can’t or won’t change the situation to meet their expectations) I must have peace about how I answer them. For that, I need to try to understand it from their point of view.
Evaluate the criticism
To evaluate something means to judge it carefully and assign value appropriately to it. There is real value in some criticism, but of course some is just venting by ill-informed or angry people. This means that I need to sift the critic’s points to see if a serious spiritual issue is at the heart. To evaluate a serious criticism I usually ask some simple questions.
First question: Does the critique require a lengthy response? Some don’t. Perhaps an apology is in order, just an expression of sorrow for hurting someone or for misstating something. Many criticisms dissipate if you respond with compassion and give the Spirit time to bring peace.
Second question: Is the critic a balanced and trusted member of the fellowship? If they are, they get my attention and some sort of reasonable answer, even if I disagree with them. The closer they are to the infrastructure of the church, the more concerned I am that they find resolution. Very often I am able to change or improve something so that the trusted critic realizes they are valuable and that I will address the problem.
Third question: Is the critique theological, spiritual, or otherwise of eternal significance? If it is, then the answer will have an impact on the spiritual growth of the questioner. I must give a thoughtful and balanced response so that even if they reject it (and many do or they wouldn’t have asked in the first place), at least they have heard my best shot at a biblical piece of wisdom. I owe this to people in our church. If the critique is not really spiritual, but cultural (music style, attire, aesthetic issues and the like) I need to be less worried and more relaxed in my response. But even here I try to develop a rational answer that somehow points the person on to spiritual maturity.
Criticism is actually vital to us as pastors because it hones our motives and skills, keeps us sharp spiritually (by deflating our pride) and forces us to think and respond clearly. It also makes us dependent on the Lord, which is what we preach to everybody else, right?
Just a Thought,