You can spot them coming from across the lobby. Something happened at church and they are not pleased. It was too hot, too loud, too long, too shallow or too “not they way they did it at my last church.” And you know they are the tip of the iceberg. On Monday morning the signed and anonymous comments will be piled in a neat stack on your desk. A cornucopia of advice on everything from how to preach to how to dress to how to raise your kids. How do you answer the onslaught of unsolicited advice? How do you deal with criticism?
First, let me point out the obvious; everyone gets criticized.
- The Eiffel Tower has 13 one star reviews on Yelp
- Eleven sportswriters didn’t vote for Babe Ruth to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame
- Jesus, the perfect Son of God, was criticized for the way he ate, drank, healed and washed up before dinner
If you lead, preach or show your face in public you will have critics. Critics are like sunburns on vacations, no one likes them but everyone has to deal with them.
So how do you deal with critics in a healthy way? Here’s what I’ve learned in over 35 years of being publicly and privately flogged…
Consider the source
When I was one of the main communicators at Seacoast Church I had three men who consistently offered criticism (positive and negative) of my sermons. One was a brilliant thinker and theologian, another was steeped in history and missiology while the third taught public speaking to large corporations. As hard as it was to hear, whenever one of these men had a word of criticism, I wanted to hear it. Their goal was always to make me better.
On the other hand there were a few whackos who also felt the need to share their opinion, no matter how baseless or ill-informed. These were the people I tried to avoid in the lobby lest I get pinned in a corner with no escape and no answers.
Always consider the source of criticism. If they are critiquing your speaking, do they understand the intended audience? Do they understand the theological point you were making? Are they coming from a viewpoint or world view that overly colors their comments? Often harsh criticism comes from someone who has been hurt, rejected or overlooked. It is important to understand their context.
You can’t consider the source if criticism is given anonymously. I highly recommend ignoring anonymous comments. The best policy is to let the congregation know you don’t read anonymous comments, and then make sure all unsigned criticism is deleted or shredded. You can’t consider the source and you can’t respond to Mr Anonymous, so you should delete him from your database.
Weigh the evidence
Someone said, “If one person calls you a horse’s butt ignore it. If two people call you a horse’s butt consider it. If three people call you a horse’s butt, buy a saddle.” With any criticism it is important to consider what may be true. Solomon put it this way:
‘If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise. If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding. Fear of the Lord teaches wisdom; humility precedes honor.’
Proverbs 15:31-33 (NLT)
If you are unsure whether criticism is valid ask a friend you can trust. (Not your spouse, that just puts them in a really tough spot) If you open the door by asking questions, however, be prepared to hear honest feedback. Remember, your friend is only trying to help.
All criticism deserves a response, but not all criticism deserves the same level of response. I once worked with a leader who asked that everyone on staff respond to criticism with a face-to-face meeting. While well-intentioned, this policy simply encouraged more and more criticism, and often gave weight to otherwise unfounded complaints.
I recommend three possible responses:
- Email: Thank you for your input, I’ll prayerfully consider your thoughts
Translation: I don’t think there’s any substance to your complaint, but I’m willing to think about it
- Phone call: Thank you for your input, let me share some information that might shed more light on the situation
Translation: I see how it seems from your viewpoint, let me share a different perspective
- Face-to-face: Thank you for your input. Can we schedule a meeting to explore this topic together?
Translation: There is either validity or weight to your opinion, we need to talk through this situation
Empty the trash
Once you have considered the source, weighed the evidence and responded to the critic, its time to move on. Shred the comment card, delete the email and put the conversation out of your mind. Discouragement is Satan’s weapon of choice against pastors, and criticism is his delivery system. You were chosen, called and place by God. You make mistakes, you misunderstand theology, and you occasionally say things you shouldn’t say. But you are God’s weapon of choice in the battle, and the critics don’t have a say in the outcome. Get better if needed, but don’t let the critics drag you down. To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt said, “Its not the critic who counts. Its you. You’re the one standing up, taking the risk, putting yourself out there.”
This article originally appeared here, and is used by permission.