When You Face Criticism in Ministry
We live in an era where basically everyone feels free and justified in sharing their opinions even when they are negative. For example, if they don’t like a product they purchased, they can leave a negative Amazon review. If they think a particular politician or company needs to be exposed for wrongdoing, they can share that on social media.
While these sorts of freedom to express our opinions are part of our privilege as Americans, how should we navigate sharing negative opinions within the church? Is it beneficial for people to share their concerns? Is it better for them to keep their opinions to themselves?
All church leaders face negative feedback from time to time, and there’s a distinction I’ve found really helpful. It’s this: to express negative feedback in a way that is fruitful in the church, disciples of Jesus must learn the difference between giving a helpful critique and having a critical attitude. There’s a big difference between the two. If you’re a leader in the church, it will be helpful to know the difference so you know the wisest way to respond.
Leading a congregation of people is a challenging job.
A good pastor strives to consider the needs of his people while at the same time adhering to the teachings of the Bible. After 30 years of full-time ministry, I can look back on good leadership decisions I have made and also poor leadership decisions I’ve made. Even after poor decisions, through God’s continued grace and the support of my wife, fellow leaders, and friends, we have been able to see victories and find our way back.
Along the way, however, one of the most painful aspects of full-time leadership is learning how to navigate criticism. Unfortunately, very few people realize the time, energy, and sacrifice that most ministers expend as they strive to encourage the Church. After so much work, fielding emotional criticism can leave one feeling discouraged and depleted; also, it leaves some ministers wondering if it is time for another career.
After years of serving God’s people, and by being a giver and recipient of critiques, I want to address the difference between giving helpful critiques and having a critical attitude. Knowing the difference and choosing wisely can help make your church ministry more sustainable.
Helpful Critique VS Critical Attitude
In Exodus 18, Moses is striving to lead God’s people after the Exodus and his father-in-law Jethro makes a critique about his leadership style. He asks why Moses spends each day, morning to evening, settling personal disputes for the Israelites. Moses explains that he does it because the people need his help understanding God’s instructions when issues arise. Jethro responds, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone” (Ex. 18:17-18).
Jethro then goes on to give Moses advice on how he can select capable men of character, appoint them as judges, and let them handle most of these cases except for the most difficult ones, which they can bring to Moses.
Did you notice how, before Jethro expressed his concerns, he asked for personal clarity to better understand Moses’ objectives? When making a critique, it is best to have a conversation with the individual or individuals that you are critiquing to gain better understanding into their chosen methodology or decision. Next, Jethro expressed concern for Moses as well as concern for the people. Productive critiques should encompass both concerns; if you make a critique against a leader, you should show your care for the leader as well as the people being led. Then, Jethro gave Moses recommendations that would benefit the entire community of believers.
In my experience, the most helpful critiques include all three aspects we find in Jethro’s critique: 1) a clarifying conversation, 2) a multifaceted concern, and 3) a helpful recommendation.
Conversely, the Bible also includes examples of people being critical and creating chaos in the community. This goes beyond just offering critique to having a critical attitude. We see this attitude at work in Numbers 13, where 10 of the 12 spies who explored the Promised Land they were meant to conquer came back with a message of hopelessness. They exaggerated the obstacles they would face and concluded that they never should have left Egypt.
Their despondency spread throughout the community to where the people panicked and even talked of stoning Moses and returning to Egypt. These 10 spies had witnessed the power of God; however, their personal agendas, perspectives, and fears were the guiding factors in how they processed the next phase of their journey. It was because of their faithlessness that Israel was delayed in entering the Promised Land by an entire generation.
Unfortunately, even among God’s people, there will be critical individuals; it is unavoidable. Thus, it should not catch us by surprise, especially when God is about to open new opportunities, if there are some individuals who do not have the faith to make the next step. If they do not remain humble, they become critical. When approached by an overly critical individual, we must point them back to God and try to encourage their faith (see Num. 14:5-9).
When You’re on the Receiving End
Now that we have explored the difference between giving a helpful critique and having a critical attitude, let me talk to the church leaders who have been the focus of negative feedback. Ask yourself, are you the target of unfair criticism, or are you being given the gift of a helpful critique? What’s the healthiest response? Here are some steps you can think through in order not to be derailed by a critical attitude in your church.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that, although we live in an era of freedom of expression where most everybody feels free to express negative opinions, there is still a need for biblical and spiritual leadership. That doesn’t change. The Body of Christ is not American democracy. God gives qualified people the responsibility to lead and shepherd his people. Ephesians 4:11-13 describes the “apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers” whom Christ gave to equip and build up his church.
Second, if you’re part of the core leadership team and you’re committed to Jesus’ mission, it’s crucial not to allow people’s criticisms to divide your cause. Numerous thriving churches have been destroyed after the core leadership team allowed disgruntled people to divide their focus. God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33). Confusing us and causing fear and destruction is what Satan does. So, how do you know you’re facing a spiritual attack? A test to apply when trying to determine if people are making a helpful critique or spread a critical spirit is found in James 3.
In the following verses, we see a contrast between true and fake wisdom, the latter of which causes disorder and shatters peace:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:13-18)
If you want the end result to be “good fruit…peace…a harvest of righteousness,” then make sure you are listening to those being led by “the humility that comes from wisdom.”
Third, here are some helpful questions to consider when you are the object of negative feedback:
- Are the comments being made in conversations pure? Is the individual trying to gain a better understanding?
- Are the comments gentle and encouraging to those who are being critiqued? Or are they unnecessarily hostile and divisive?
- Are the concerns presented humbly, through a spirit of submission first to God and then to the people striving to lead God’s church?
- Are the critiques made to consider the well-being of the entire congregation or simply of an individual or an isolated group?
- When you finish the conversation, are you feeling an atmosphere of peace?
- Lastly, are the individuals who are making the comments focused on the mission of Christ (i.e., loving the lost, serving the less fortunate, and strengthening their brothers and sisters)?
Fourth, remember that people aren’t the real enemy.
Even if you are dealing with someone who is clearly being selfish and divisive, the person isn’t the ultimate enemy. Ephesians 6:12 is clear: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” In spiritual battles, you don’t win by cleverness or loudness. It’s a matter of putting on the armor of God (Eph. 6:10-18) and spending a lot of time on your knees (Eph. 6:18).
In this information age, when everyone can feel like an instant expert because of Google, and when social media empowers us to boldly share our every thought, we need to remember we are not the world but the Church. This means staying on mission even when being criticized, as well as having the humility to receive and appreciate critiques which are helpful and wise. Paul was adamant that his younger brothers and sisters not be distracted by those trying to subvert the Church’s mission. This means warning divisive people (Ephesians 4:10) even as we open ourselves up to “truth in love” from each other.
In closing, it’s helpful to acknowledge that not all negative feedback will perfectly fall into either category (helpful critique VS critical attitude). Sometimes you’ll hear bad ideas from people with great hearts. Sometimes you’ll hear constructive ideas from people with critical attitudes. However the negative feedback comes at you, it’s important to stay humble and stay on mission. When you receive negative feedback, it’s important to stay humble enough to recognize helpful ideas when you hear them. At the same time, it’s also crucial to stay on mission so that critical attitudes and unhelpful ideas have zero power to derail you from following God’s direction for your life and ministry.
However negative feedback comes at you, it’s important to stay humble and stay on mission.