For the most part, my first 11 years as a senior pastor were wonderful years. Of course no pastor is without critics, but the criticism I faced was sporadic and easy enough to put behind me. This changed drastically in my twelfth year of ministry—my seventh as a senior pastor. At that time I began to face harsh, personal criticism from other leaders, all of whom I respected and had counted as rock-solid supporters and friends. When faced with their criticism I fell prey to one of the greatest mistakes a leader can make, and it cost me dearly both as a pastor and a person.
What was the great mistake? I let my critics set the agenda. I allowed them to define reality, both about the state of the congregation and who I was as a pastor. Their story slowly began to become the narrative through which the health of the church was perceived by other leaders. Their view of who I was as a pastor and as a person began to become my own self-understanding. The result was that I became exhausted from trying to respond to the various perceived deficiencies that were being raised, and I was never able to achieve the level of performance my powerful critics set for me. The church was hindered as we became increasingly inwardly focused, and the leadership team became muddled as we struggled and sometimes fought over who we were as a church.
In the end, I was left wondering whether I even belonged in ministry.
Were the criticisms fair? In some cases they were. In others they weren’t. In many ways the issue for me as a leader was not whether the criticisms were true but how I would handle them. It was important for me to listen to my critics and seriously weigh their concerns. They deserved thoughtful consideration, a respectful response, and changed behavior, where necessary. However, in my attempt to “be open” to criticism I ended up giving it far too great a place in my life. If we are not careful, criticism can be the main lens through which we see ourselves and our ministries. When this happens, difficulties for all concerned are bound to follow.
How Did It Happen?
How does this happen? Why do we sometimes fall prey to allowing our critics to define reality and set agendas? In my case I can think of at least seven reasons.
The first was inexperience. As a young pastor I was especially vulnerable. Not having faced a similar challenge, I was not exactly sure what to do. I lacked experience to guide me. Add to this the regular, ongoing challenges of leading a church and it was easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure as to what the right move was.
I also had a misplaced sense of wanting to “be like Jesus.” I saw Jesus as someone who was meek and mild. He was the one who faced his accusers in silence and, like a sheep, went to the slaughter. If I defended myself too vigorously or stood up to people too firmly, I believed I was not being very Christ-like. In one board meeting, I challenged one of my opponents, whom I believed was directly behind some proposed changes to my job description. I asked honestly, in what I thought was an appropriate tone, if this was the case. He reacted strongly, telling me he did not think my comments were appropriate. I immediately apologized. Following the meeting, I rushed after him to apologize again. He reiterated that he thought I had been wrong in my assertions. In retrospect, however, I don’t think my questions were wrong. They were honest, even if they were uncomfortable for me to ask and for him to hear. Yet his displeasure bothered me immensely. I felt as if I had failed to act like Jesus, and that made me feel extremely guilty. To me, being like Jesus meant being gentle and essentially passive.
Through this experience I also discovered how deeply committed I was to trying to please people. I learned how much I disliked conflict and how far I would go to avoid it. I would apologize for things that I did not need to. I would make decisions I didn’t believe in or reverse previous decisions, again without conviction, all in an effort to make people happy with me. This was completely exhausting and ultimately a sin: I became more committed to pleasing people than I was to pleasing God.
Another factor that influenced my behavior was fear. I was afraid of losing my job, of losing esteem among my colleagues, and of more conflict. I was afraid that if I could not win back my critics I would end up fired (or “resigning”) and then what about my family? What about my reputation? Fear motivated me to try to meet the standards my critics were setting, in the hope that I could win their approval and a fresh vote of confidence.
Respect for my critics played into my actions as well. I honestly had great respect for the people who were telling me that I was no longer up to the job of leading our church. They were sincere followers of Christ who cared about the church and gave their energy to it as much as anyone else. Many of them had been close friends of mine. One in particular had been a trusted friend I often met for breakfast and with whom I had experienced many times of honest sharing and mutual encouragement. I believe my critics genuinely believed their motives were pure. Because of this, I wanted to respect their words and give them a place in how I was leading the church.
I had a sense of vision for the church and, along with other leaders, had sought to clarify it more fully. However, when that vision (or my ability to lead it) was challenged, I soon abandoned it and tried to conform to the vision that I thought others wanted. I neglected my central theological and methodological commitments and compromised them in an attempt to appease my critics more fully.
These trials uncovered in me a lack of confidence in who I was as a person. It showed me that deep down I suspected that I wasn’t acceptable as a person or as a pastor. I would stand in the foyer after a service on Sunday and hear people tell me how much they appreciated the message I had preached, yet inside I would never really believe they were telling me the truth. My assumption was that they were just being nice, serving me platitudes because they did not know what else to say. However, when I was attacked as a person and as a pastor, I was more than willing to accept what my critics said because I already had a voice inside of me that told me I was not worthy of respect, that my gifts were suspect, that my personality was not conducive to ministry. This brokenness in me made me ripe for letting my critics set the agenda.
Once the critical views about me and the church began to hold sway over me it was not long before they began to have influence over other leaders in our church, too. This is not to suggest that everything at the church had been wonderful before. Like every congregation we had definite issues and weaknesses, but soon after the criticism began we were being perceived by some of our leaders as an “unhealthy” church—despite the fact that we were a church that was leading people to faith in Christ, seeing solid numerical growth, developing believers, and adding new ministries.
A Healthier Response
What could have been done to thwart this trend? How could I have responded in a way that gave genuine respect to the criticism I received while at the same time preventing my critics from setting the church’s agenda?
Reading my Bible more closely—particularly certain sections of it—would have helped. The truth is, all leaders get criticized. Jesus was criticized heavily for being true to the mission he was sent for. Paul was constantly defending himself against his critics. Moses took strong criticism for his leadership. The Psalms should be regular reading when we are feeling betrayed and hurt by the criticism of others.
I personally neglected the wealth of encouragement that the scriptures offered. While I continued to read my Bible, I intentionally did not seek out passages that may have be
en particularly helpful. In fact, I became cynical toward them, thinking, “That was them. Their situation is not mine.” However, had I actually read the accounts and the responses of these leaders, I may have found great solace and direction in the midst of criticism. There is something very powerful in knowing that the great leaders of our spiritual heritage were the objects of harsh criticism as they tried to lead people in fulfilling God’s vision for them. As we allow these leaders to walk closely with us when we are under attack, they can become companions that strengthen us along the way. Add to this a little familiarity with church history, or even with the stories of secular leaders who have accomplished much, and we can take heart that everyone who ever accomplished anything important had people—and often people they had once been close to—criticize them.
In any ministry, there are always things to criticize. Sometimes all it takes for these issues to become the focal point of leadership is for someone with a little credibility to come along and start declaring these shortcomings as normative indications of the health of the organization. That is why a clear overall vision and strategy that emerge from our theology are crucial. A clear vision helps us determine our priorities. It helps us know why we do what we do. It helps us answer our critics and tell them that we will not do what they are telling us to do because it is not in keeping with what God has called us to be. A clear strategy determines how we will do ministry and allows us to hold strong to the things we are convinced contribute to our achieving God’s vision. A clear theology informs why we do what we do. It enables us to stick with our strategy and vision because we believe that ultimately they are an expression of God’s revealed will for his people.
These must be exercised with courage. As a young pastor I failed to honor my convictions. Although the congregation had a vision and strategy, and although I had some theological convictions about God and ministry, when faced with the pressure of hard questions, I deferred to my critics rather than stand up for what I truly believed was God’s calling on my life as a church leader. I did not do this consciously, but I now know that it is true. If I had understood more fully the importance of maintaining a clear vision, strategy, and theology, I would have been more inclined to stand up for my beliefs and to those who were challenging them.
For some of us, responding firmly to criticism is a natural response. However, for many pastors, this is not what we naturally do. One night in a board meeting an elder made a sweeping statement about the complete ineffectiveness of a segment of our ministry. I spoke strongly against his position and gave examples of how he was wrong, after which he backed down. Yet, as always, I felt guilty and apologized several times. The next day the chairman of the board called me. I was surprised when he asked, “Why did you apologize?” He went on to tell me that it was appropriate for me stand up to the statement and challenge what was obviously an overly negative attitude. Again, my concept of Christ was erroneous. Jesus was not one to shrink back from a fight. Many occasions in the Gospels describe Jesus pushing back against his critics. Luke 15 is a response to those who did not like his spending so much time with “sinners.” Matthew 23 is a searing criticism of the religious leaders who often strongly opposed him. Paul, too, stood up to his critics, as shown in 1 and 2 Corinthians (especially 1 Cor. 4:18-21 and 2 Cor. 10) and Galatians. Almost every Epistle includes sections where the writer challenges critics either from within the body or from outside of it.
This is not to imply that appropriate respect, love, and graciousness are not also required, but if we are to stop critical voices from taking control of the church’s agenda, it will require us to stand up to false and unfounded criticism and challenge it respectfully—not for our own sakes but for the sake of being faithful to what God has called us to lead.
It is important to not let the critics become your primary focus. Keep working with other leaders who are firmly on board. This involves at least two things. First, it is important to let them know that criticism is out there. Sometimes people criticize us and expect to fly under the radar; they don’t want others to know that they are being critical. Never give them that luxury. Tell other leaders what the criticisms are and who is making them. Get their honest feedback. They may affirm some of the criticism, in which case you need to pay attention to it and consider closely what you are going to do about it, or they may completely disagree with the criticism and thus encourage you. However, we die a slow death when we try to weather criticism alone. Second, we need to stop other leaders from getting poisoned by the criticism by making sure they do not become overly focused on it. If we do not work with other leaders and help them to keep the criticism of others in proper perspective they can easily get caught up in trying to please the critics just as we can. We need to coach other leaders through criticism and not allow them to become panicky, reactionary, or overly responsive to the critical people who are trying to set the agenda.
Essentially this means listening to the criticism but not succumbing to it. This is a difficult balance. Good leaders try to listen to criticism and learn from what is helpful. Good leaders try not to dismiss their critics completely but to find a way to work with them. That does not mean, however, that they simply do what their critics say. In fact, that is bad leadership. Three things here can help: First, recognize the spirit of the criticism. Sometimes it is lovingly and constructively delivered. When this is true, pay careful attention. Other times it is delivered in a way that clearly says, “I don’t like you and I want you gone.” When this is the case, give it far less weight. In the latter case, there still may be truth to what is said, and maybe we should make changes as a result, but do not give this kind of criticism a strong place in your life. You will never please these people. Do not let their opinions set the agenda of your organization and, more importantly, do not let them define your view of yourself.
Instead, let your vision, strategy, and theology set the agenda. The clearer you are on these things the more effectively you and other leaders will be able to evaluate the viability of the criticism. Often, if you are the key leader, it is up to you to keep reminding your leadership team of these things. Keep them faithful to what you have determined is God’s calling for your organization.
Finally, stay positive! If we become too negative or discouraged it will be contagious. In fact, I have come to believe that negative attitudes are much more contagious than positive ones. It is not hard to convince Christian leaders that they are not doing well; we are all too aware of our shortcomings. Thus, we have to try to stay realistically positive and buoy other leaders around us with a general optimism about our situation and the future.
We cannot ignore criticism, but we also cannot let it set the agenda for our ministries. When my critics began to set the agenda, the progress of our church was slowed, morale diminished, and I stopped leading effectively. These are the consequences of not dealing efficiently with criticism. We all know that criticism will come; the question is not if but when. When it does come, the question we must ask ourselves is, will we let it set the agenda or will we put it in its appropriate perspective?
Questions for Reflection
- Is criticism setting the agenda of your church leadership team? Are the negative voices currently shaping the conversation and image of the church? If so, can you identif
- Are there any critics you have allowed to “fly under the radar” and whose criticisms need to be made known to others so that you can process the criticism
- What issues in your life make you more susceptible to internalizing criticism?
- As you think of sources of criticism in your life, which ones would you identify as “constructive critics,” seemingly outright opponents who nonetheless must be paid attention to? Who are the critics in your life whose criticism you need to just walk away from?
- Are there any ideas that you can identify from the article that could help you more effectively process criticism that you are currently receiving? If so, how will you implement them?