6 Ways to Deal with Criticism in Ministry
This past week, I was privileged to speak at a Preacher's Retreat in Kosciusko, Mississippi. I love preachers, but especially those in my native Magnolia State. One afternoon, I participated in a panel discussion on dealing with criticism as a minister, and here is the advice (good or bad) I passed on to those present. If you are in ministry, receiving criticism is inevitable. Some of it is healthy and must be heeded. Some of it is worthless and must be ignored. I think the vast majority of it comes from people who mean well in their own way. When it was my turn to share my thoughts, I jokingly passed on these four tips:
Invest in a torture dungeon. Surely brethren will be more reluctant to criticize you if they know you are heavily invested in battle axes, chains, whips, and water-boarding apparatus
Resist the installation of new deacons. In my experience, a disproportionate amount of criticism comes from deacons. So let's just get rid of them all.
Post a sign that all critics will be required to chaperone the next youth lock-in. Surely, this will make some brethren think twice.
Drop hints that your spiritual predecessors summoned fire from heaven and bears out of the woods to maul their critics. So what if we live in a non-miraculous age with a new covenant? Why let a little theology get in the way of a good threat?
Obviously, these are offered in good fun. Here are six tips I think will be of greater help to you, a minister, in dealing with criticism.
Don't ever read an anonymous letter.
Never ever ever never. To send an anonymous letter full of criticism is among the highest forms of cowardice. They leave me enraged. I imagine that some anonymous letters have had valid complaints, but I have an understanding with the Lord: if he needs to send correction my way, I've asked him not to do it with an anonymous letter. Such do more harm than good. And it helps to set a precedent for others: criticize me through an anonymous letter, and nothing will improve. Find another way to voice your concerns to me.
Don't complain about criticism to the church.
I made this mistake one too many times, and I'm ashamed of it. I did so out of hurt and frustration, but that's not much of an excuse. Complaining to your brethren about criticism will only foster a culture where no one is ever willing to come to you even with valid criticism that could make you a better person or minister and an unhealthy dynamic will follow. Instead, take criticism to the Lord. Pray over it. If bitter and frustrated, let him know how you feel. Ask that you learn to forgive and find the kernel of truth in the criticism that might need to be heeded.
Invite your harshest critics to the table of fellowship.
One of the most important principles of life I believe in is that it is hard to stay mad at someone with whom you break bread regularly. Have a tough critic in your congregation? Invite them out to lunch or dinner regularly. Better yet, invite them into your home. Allow God to prepare a table in the presence of your enemy. And over a meal, listen. Don't talk. Listen. And as you listen, learn. Some of your critics will never accept your invitation, but let that be on them.
Seek counsel from a mentor.
I'm blessed to have several older ministers (older, not old!) in my life who serve as mentors in various ways. To them, I often brought criticism that had recently been leveled at me. Part of this was me venting to a confidant. But the other part was a request from me to help me separate the valid criticism from just old-fashioned griping. Like ancient wheat threshers, I wanted to get to the kernel of truth embedded in the criticism while allowing the chaff or husk to blow away in the wind. Mentors can help you with that. Such a mentor needs to be someone who is older, wiser, more spiritually mature, and someone you are convinced has your best at heart. Proverbs claims the wounds of a friend are faithful, and mentors can demonstrate the truth of such a statement. Listen to them.
Don't ever criticize another minister.
I haven't kept this perfectly, but that doesn't mean it's not valid. There had better be a REALLY good reason if I criticize another of God's servants, and since I seldom find a good reason (especially with the perspective of hindsight), I often conclude it's best if I just keep my mouth shut. No one knows what it's like to be criticized unfairly like a minister, so we should pay the same respect to our brothers in arms. Employ the golden rule. And when you do criticize another minister, do so in private, face to face, man to man, and perhaps while sharing the table of fellowship. Do so with remarkable love and compassion. Ministers deal with enough griping and complaining from all fronts to suffer such from their fellow vineyard laborers.
Go out of your way to be extraordinarily gracious.
When dealing with critics, it is always more satisfying in the short term to fight back, to "let them have it," or "put them in their place." But this will virtually never prove prudent long term. A better piece of advice once given to me is to go out of your way to be extraordinarily gracious. You will never regret doing the gracious, kind thing. The Lord's servant is not to be quarrelsome. Especially in the immediate aftermath of being terminated from your ministry position or being asked to leave, etc. (church leaders have come with a long, embarrassing list of phrases to sugarcoat being fired). When fired, go out of your way to be gracious to everyone. If you feel you have been mistreated, leave room for the Lord's wrath and opt for love instead. If you believe the church is in grave spiritual danger, remind yourself you aren't emotionally neutral enough to raise the warning. Pray to God that someone else is raised up for that task. The greatest legacy you could perhaps leave in such a circumstance is to show your brethren how to respond to mistreatment with the spirit of Christ.
Father, help us deal with criticism in a way that glorifies you. Help us to learn from our critics, to look past the unpleasant way we are criticized to the truth we might need to heed. May we become powerful examples of grace and truth, knowing that love can cover a multitude of sins. Help us to be more like Jesus. In his Name.