Dealing with Criticism in Ministry

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Dealing with criticism is a common challenge facing all pastors and an especially difficult one for many of them.  If you are a pastor, you know what it is to be criticized.  If are not a pastor but have one (or more), I can assure you that you are being shepherded by a man (or men) who has dealt with the challenge of criticism.

Last week I gave a message at a small pastors’ conference for the network our church is a part of (check them out!) on this very issue; dealing with the challenge of criticism.  It was a good subject for me to work through, since for me personally, the steady flow of criticism has been the challenge that has most frequently led me to question whether I can endure as a pastor for the long haul, and whether I even want to do so.  And, based on what I have read and heard from other men in pastoral ministry, I believe it is safe to say that there are others who might feel the same way.

Joel Beeke, for instance, made the claim a few years ago (in a talk I highly recommend, entitled “Coping with Criticism”) that 85% of pastors in the United States report that criticism is the biggest issue that they face in ministry.  I assume that claim is based on some research, but if it is anywhere close to the truth it is highly significant.

So, in my recent talk, I tried to answer three questions related to the challenge of criticism and I’d like to share some of that material with you here.  If the audio is ever made available, I’ll update this post to include it.

Question 1:  Why can it be so hard to deal with criticism? 

Why do so many pastors report / admit that this challenge is among the most difficult ones to deal with?  There are at least 5 reasons for this.

  1. Criticism is inevitable and inescapable.

In his Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon makes the comment:  “Public men must expect public criticism.”  If you’re going to lead, you are going to have your share of critics.

Even a casual survey of Scripture demonstrates this, doesn’t it?  Can we find any leaders in Scripture who received criticism?  Leaders like Moses, Nehemiah, the prophets, and the Apostles (Paul in particular) come to mind, not to mention the most obvious example; Jesus himself (see 1 Peter 2:21-23).

Criticism is inevitable and inescapable, and for many reasons.  We are still sinners in practice and are severely limited in our skill sets and leadership abilities, and have obvious weaknesses, which means we have some criticism coming to us.  The people we serve are still sinners, and they (just like us) can be very proud, judgmental, and unloving.  And, God has promised to use pain and difficulty to sanctify us, which makes criticism simply one of the tools in God’s toolbox for sanctifying us as his adopted sons.

But because it’s inevitable, that means you can go nowhere to escape it.  It will follow you everywhere you go, whether down the street, across the country, or to the other side of the planet.  If you want to be a pastor, you have to be willing to receive, process, learn from, and endure criticism.

  1. Most criticism is based on preferences.

There’s a description of “the ideal pastor” that has made the rounds for years, which I first came across in a helpful book by Kent Hughes (Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome).  It goes like this:

“The ideal pastor is always casual but never underdressed – is warm and friendly but not too familiar – is humorous but not funny – calls on his members but is never out of the office – is an expository preacher but always preaches on the family – is profound but comprehensible – condemns sin but is always positive – has a family of ordinary people who never sin – [and] has two eyes, one brown and the other blue!”

Now, obviously that’s a parody, but it comes from somewhere!  It’s funny because it’s a bit too realistic in some cases.  And it reveals what is typical in a lot of criticism that pastors receive.  Most criticism is not usually leveled over matters of obedience to God and his Word, properly speaking; but matters of taste, though usually, a pastor’s critics won’t be able to see the difference between those two things.

  1. Some criticism is plainly sinful.

This probably could go without saying.  Some criticism is straight-up judgmental, harsh, and unloving.  Some of it is based on gossip.  Some of it is based on your critic’s fallible interpretation of your motives.  Some of it is unloving toward your family.  And it’s often directed at you without any prior attempt to understand where you’re coming from.  Sometimes, criticism is just sinful.

  1. Only some accurate criticism is actually needed and helpful.

Most criticism, to put it bluntly, is just not helpful.  Even when it is more-or-less accurate, it’s really not that necessary.  Though there are times when we need a “prophetic” hit between the eyes in order to see issues that have long hid within our blind spots, most of the accurate criticism that we receive addresses issues of which we are already (and painfully) aware.

I get that I need to grow as a preacher, and as a leader, and as a counselor – and husband, and father, and friend, and in every other conceivable way that relates to my life as a Christian.  We know this.  But, most of our critics are not aware that we know this.

  1. Criticism will continue for the duration of your ministry.

This reason is basically the first one on repeat.  As long as you are a pastor, you are going to be criticized.  It’s simply part of the package.  What this means for some of us is that there will literally be no reprieve from criticism until you quit, retire, or until you see Jesus.  “Public men must expect public criticism.” Because of this, dealing with criticism is not just about knowing what to do with a single instance of it; it’s knowing how to respond to it over the long and winding course of pastoral ministry.

Question 2:  What does a godly response to criticism consist of?

Now, you could ask this question in a more situation specific sort of way (i.e. What do I do with a specific instance of criticism?), or a more general sort of way, looking at the long view of ministry.  This second way is the way I am asking the question here.

That is, how can a pastor endure criticism, which is inevitable and inescapable – most of which is based on preference – some of which is sinful – very little of which is actually needed – over years and remain soft to the Lord, loving toward his church, and endure the challenge with joy until he has finished his ministry race?

Truly, it’s the cumulative nature and effects of criticism that seem to me to pose such a challenge to a pastor’s soul in ministry.

With that in mind, responding well to criticism becomes mostly about avoiding two ditches over the course of your ministry.

Ditch #1 – Becoming a slave to critics – a people pleaser.

People pleasing (or the fear of man) is a serious temptation for the oft-criticized pastor, and a particularly dangerous one at that.  It leads nowhere good.  As Proverbs 29:25 says, “the fear of man lays a snare.”  It lays a trap for the soul.  In people pleasing, you think you’re avoiding a trap because you have found a way to keep people happy.  However, in the mean time you lose your convictions and end up operating by priorities that are man-centered and not God-centered nor Gospel-focused.

Paul exposes the tug-of-war here when he says in Galatians 1:10, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”  You cannot serve both Christ and your critics.

Ditch #2 – Become a loather of critics – a people despiser. 

This is where a pastor simply becomes bitter.  He comes to see no value whatsoever in a perspective that is different from his own, and no longer measures the merit of specific criticisms case by case; he instead comes to the conclusion that all criticism is bad, or wrong, or unnecessary.  And, he comes to see anyone who criticizes him as an enemy.  He forgets that there is a kind of criticism that is highly valuable (Prov 27:5, 9; Ecc 7:5).  This is a serious temptation for the pastor that begins to realize that criticism will endure for as long as he is in ministry.

So then, the real challenged posed by the cumulative nature of criticism in the ministry is ultimately the challenge remaining open to godly and wise correction, while learning to be essentially unmoved by the mere opinions of others.  It is to maintain, as one author has said, “the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros.”

Responding well to criticism is about becoming a person who is willing to listen to criticism in order to discern whether it is needed and when it is unfounded; who accepts needed criticism without becoming discouraged; who rejects unfounded criticism without becoming combative or bitter; and who is not easily swayed either by the affirmation of criticism of others.  That is the essence of the real challenge of criticism.

Question 3:  How can we equip ourselves to deal with this challenge in a godly way?

What I’m finding to be consistently true in my ministry challenges, is that what I usually need to handle the challenge well is not new information; to be told things or to learn things that I don’t already know.  What I really need is to make what I know of God, and the Gospel, and God’s character, and his Word, work for me (as one pastor has put it).

So, when it comes to equipping ourselves to deal with the challenge of criticism in a godly way over the long haul of ministry – though we may need at times to learn some new people skills, and different ways of dealing with conflict, and learn to listen better, and learn to let things slide – what we really need is to bring the truths we already know to bear, very intentionally, on this challenge.

I see at least 8 key truths that we need to always keep in mind, to help us respond rightly to the challenge of criticism.  Here is what we need to remember:

  1. We need to remember our depravity.

The truth is, we are worse than any of our critics think we are.  Spurgeon says it this way:

“Brother, is any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him; for you are worse than he thinks you to be. If he charges you falsely on some point, yet be satisfied, for if he knew you better he might change the accusation, and you would be no gainer by the correction. If you have your moral portrait painted, and it is ugly, be satisfied; for it only needs a few blacker touches, and it would be still nearer the truth.” (Spurgeon, Sermon, July 1, 1888)

How easily we forget the criticism that we fully deserve.  We are not above it.  Not even close.

  1. We need to remember our weakness.

Paul reflects on his weakness in 2 Corinthians 4:7, saying that we carry the great treasure of the Gospel around in jars of clay; meaning that there is something very disproportionate between the glory of the Gospel and the glory of Gospel messengers.

The Gospel is glorious.  God is glorious.  I am not glorious, and neither are you.  It should not be a shock to that anyone would find something in us or about us to criticize.

  1. We need to remember the security of our justification.

So someone thinks you’re a terrible person, or an ineffective leader, or a bad preacher, or an inept counselor.  What of it?  God didn’t justify you on the grounds of your homiletical skill or your savvy in a counseling session, did he?  Their opinions of you change nothing before God.

  1. We need to remember the sanctifying purpose of trials.

Remember, there is nothing that comes into your life unless it comes from and through the sovereign hands of our good, loving, and all-wise God, and he has promised to work all things together for the good of those who love him and who have been called according to his purpose.  And that good, is being transformed into the image of Christ.

What this means is that even those times when you are raked over the coals over some silly, preferential, or even some legitimate issue – there is Divine purpose behind it – as frustrating, hurtful, annoying, and agonizing an experience like that can be.  God intends good in the things your critics intend for evil, and certainly what they intend for good.  The Lord is faithful to use criticism to bring about a sanctifying good in your life, even if that’s not what your critics intend to bring about in you through their criticism.

  1. Remember the Lordship of Christ.

It is Jesus you serve, brother, not man.  You are a servant of Christ, and Christ alone.  There are things you must say in your ministry that some will not appreciate and will rebel against.  There are priorities you must keep that will not resonate with many.  There are responsibilities you must fulfill that many will not understand.  There are errors you must confront that some will not see as errors.  And there are people you must care for that will take your attention away from others who want it.  And you will be criticized for these things.

However, no one but you will have to stand before Christ to give an account for the way you served in ministry.  And on that day, no one’s perspective but his will matter.

  1. Remember the example of Christ.

Jesus had his critics.  Scripture says he was reviled and yet did not open his mouth, and in so doing left us an example to follow (1 Peter 2:21-23).  Many men much wiser than me have agreed that to defend yourself against most criticism is a futile endeavor.  Christ is surely the consummate example of that.  He did not defend himself in the heat of criticism; not typically at least.  He trusted the Father to sort everything out in the end; and the Father took perfect care of him, as he can do with us.

  1. Remember the call and command of love.

Be careful, brother, not to become a critic of critics.  “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another,” including those who do not love us, as God has so loved them.

“If God so loved us…”  Those are powerful words.  We know how God loved us, and we know who the “us” is.  It’s the “us” who have accused the Lord of wrongdoing when we’ve grumbled against his Providence.  It’s the “us” who wonder if he has our best interests in mind in all things.  It’s the “us” who have questioned his goodness and faithfulness in hardship.

We have criticized him!  And yet, he has so loved us.  If God has so loved his critics, we ought to be able to learn to love ours.

  1. Remember eternity.

If you feel surrounded by critics in your life and ministry, just remember, it will not be this way forever.  One day you will be surrounded only with love – the love of God and the love of your brothers and sisters in Christ.

If you have been hurt by critics; remember, every tear will one day be wiped from your eyes.

If you have been falsely accused, remember, the truth will one day be revealed and all will be set straight once and for all.

If critics have walked away from you and rejected you, remember, if they are Christians, eternity will bring great clarity to their sight (and to yours), and there will be lots of time to enjoy real reconciliation as you together stand in awe of what God has done for us all in and through Christ.

And on that day, this light and momentary affliction that we now experience through our critics, will finally feel genuinely light and momentary.  All your unjust critics will be finally silenced, but more importantly, all the things in you and about you that are worth criticizing will be swallowed up in victory.

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Zach Putthoff

About Zach Putthoff

Originally from Tonganoxie, KS, Zach, serves as pastor for preaching at Shepherd's Community Church, in Lafayette, CO. He received his B.A. in Biblical Studies at the Moody Bible Institute and put in a few years of graduate level study in biblical counseling at The Master's University. Zach is happily married to his best friend Noelle, and has three awesome kids.