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Surviving The Culture Of Criticism

Rev. John Simpson, General Superintendent
Baptist Union of Victoria, Australia

Number 252

A few years back a pastor who left his congregation under a cloud defined rather wistfully the kind of church he would like to be called to in the future: one where he would be accepted for who he was, where the leadership had great vision and where there were no critics. He is still looking (along with every other pastor on the face of the earth)!

Critics: They Have An Impressive History

Like it or not, effective leadership is all about coping with criticism. Love them or loathe them, your consistent critics are unlikely to retire, or have a huge change of heart tomorrow, or become secretary of your fan club.

In case you have not realised it, critics are not some recent invention. Spend a few moments with the Moses, or Elijah, or David. They all had their in-house critics. Scarcely a day went by without Jesus having to look His critics in the eye. So it is a good idea to figure out how to handle the critical gang rather than simply praying that they will be prematurely called to glory enabling us to press on with business of the Kingdom without further interruption.

Leadership has always been difficult: it seems to be much easier to find fault than contribute constructively to the working through of difficult and sensitive problems.

Some Basic Realities

No ministry can be exercised without criticism (fair and unwarranted), or the need for a thick skin (beyond what you may naturally be blessed with). Keep in mind the following:

1. There is definitely a place for constructive comment and criticism. These need to be identified and received with a very different spirit from the uncharitable back chat, harping and put down which regrettably is also a part of church life.

2. The church is for everyone regardless of stage of life, health (physical and mental), background, experience and ability. Like no other community group, the church actively throws its doors open to all comers. Some congregations do this better than others, of course. It is to be expected that some will arrive as optimists and enthusiasts, others as incurable pessimists and gifted fault finders.

3. It is hardly surprising that no pastor can ever hope to meet the expectations of such a diverse group of people be they active supporters or carping critics. The challenge is to create an environment where everybody can be heard and where a genuine effort can be made to act on all suggestions which offer better ways forward.

4. We owe more to our critics than we probably realise. How many proposals, strategies and ministries generally have been revisited and made much more effective because our critics had something to say?

5. Critics sharpen up our leadership gifts. As we learn how to cope well with criticism, our ability to lead is stretched, our sensitivity to other viewpoints is developed and there comes a fresh confidence to lead which is not easily thrown by unexpected reversals. We can take much more in our stride than we ever thought possible.

6. Criticism often reveals much more about the critic than the matter being addressed. Patient and wise acceptance of the harshest criticism may actually guide us into fresh ways of understanding and meeting the personal needs of our critics which could, in fact, be the real issue.

Who Are The Critics?

While it is impossible to identify all the sub-groups of critics, here's a summary of the most obvious:

* Those valuable souls who are committed to the very best for pastor and congregation alike. They are on the lookout for ways to enhance the ministry of the church and are willing to critique areas of ministry and activity where the pastor and people could be doing better. They may not always say it with total grace and their words may hurt occasionally but they are on your side and you cannot fault their heart or intentions. The worst mistake is to treat them as if they are the enemy.

* The people who regard the church as theirs: they are the proprietors, the long-term families who have carried the church (or feel that they have) and may see the latest pastor as a temporary intrusion and probably not equal to leading the church in the manner to which they have been accustomed.

* The people whom life has dealt a difficult hand (and maybe through no fault of their own): the abused emotionally and physically who have immense problems and require loving pastoral care and usually professional help as well (although they may not see the need for this). You will find it hard to solve their problems and may be judged as pastorally inadequate.

*Those for whom criticism is some kind of calling. It is hard to know what drives them. They may have:

- Problems with perceived authority figures (which includes church leaders)

- Profound personal problems which may lead them to project their tensions and inadequacies onto others--with leaders being sitting ducks

- An enhanced view of their own skills, Bible knowledge, and capacity for ministry such that they believe they could do much better than the pastor

Unfortunately there can be a meanness which is part of this particular package. This crowd has a healthy track record for talking behind the back of the leadership. They also have a rare skill for dumping their burdens on church meetings without notice and often couch this with an impressive spiritual overlay.

* The people who have been let down by the church: They have had bad experiences which have never been adequately addressed and it is almost always the pastor (past or present) who is seen to be at fault.

What criticisms are you likely to collect?

A pastor is likely to collect four major varieties of criticism:

1. Criticisms of your doctrine and/or theological position.

These are most likely to surface after a sermon but can pop up at any time. Some will be sincerely offered and deserve thoughtful attention. But there are those people who derive immense satisfaction from keeping the pastor on the biblical straight and narrow (at least as they define it). Good dialogue can be an outcome; but if you are dealing with hard liners not open to alternative views of Scripture, it will not only be wasted time but could deteriorate into real conflict.

2. Criticisms of your gifts, abilities, of not living up to Criticisms of your gifts, abilities, of not living up to performance expectations.

These criticisms are given especially by those who consider that they could be ministering much better than you. This is a happy hunting ground for many who would still not be impressed if you could raise the dead. There should be no reason for surprise here though. No one pastor has all the gifts (need it be said) so you will always pull up short in the eyes of some.

3. Criticisms of you personally and/or your family (many possibilities).

This is the unkind stuff especially if your spouse or kids are in the firing line (and they never should be). Almost always marked by a monumental lack of charity from people who, more often than not, have their own ample collection of traumas.

4. Criticism of church related matters (worship, leadership, many options).

This is to be expected and represents the occupational hazards which come with diversity. Great if the middle ground can be found though this is not always easy. People have many differing experiences of church and your flavour will not gel with everyone. But there is plenty of scope for finding new ways forward and fresh approaches if listening and negotiation is a strength.

Keeping A Place For Ongoing Review

A creative way of dealing with criticism is to develop processes for review and evaluation where potentially difficult matters can be tackled early:

* Some pastors invite informal evaluation time each time the leadership meets. This is an integral agenda activity and is a checking of the church's pulse. It also nurtures a safety net where issues which might become awkward can be identified and attended to before they become sticky.

* Others encourage a regular, formal review of congregational life (at least annually and sometimes more often) as an ordinary, ongoing aspect of the church's modus operandi. This essentially eliminates the need for major reviews and has similar outcomes to regular leadership evaluations: issues are noted as they arise and are dealt with promptly. It is a bonus for a congregation to ponder its direction and its effectiveness in service as a normal practice.

How To Shoot Yourself In The Foot!

Of all the challenges facing a pastor, coping with criticism is one where it is all too easy to damage yourself. It is not hard to do. For example:

1. Insist that there is no reason for a criticism to be made. This is to forget that perception is reality. If there is something bothering someone, it is worth paying attention. You may still think it is marginal and unwarranted but at least find out what the issue actually is. Brush it off now and you will probably live long enough to regret not having taken the time to listen.

2. Assume that all criticisms are mounted as a personal attack. True, some critics are specialists in personal abuse (although they usually mount their attacks with considerable piety). But it is a major error of judgment to react to a genuine concern with all barrels blazing. You will have just passed up the opportunity to demonstrate great grace and patience. Self-defence is a wonderfully effective strategy for putting thoughtful people off side.

3. Propose that the criticisms offered are wildly inaccurate. There is always a tendency to demolish critics with great gusto. It is another form of self-defence. Obviously some criticisms will be wide of the mark, misinformed and unhelpful but do you really want to lose connection with your critic? A courteous offering of an alternative, more accurate assessment is much better than doing a snow job with what may lead to public humiliation of the critic.

4. Go off the deep end! You won't be the first to lose your cool but you will have plenty of time to regret it. By all means let off steam in an angry letter but do yourself a favour and don't send it. If you want to chew someone's ear off, go to ground for a few days. Having it out with a critic in a fit of rage is disastrous, a supremely bad model and suggests an abiding insecurity. It is not surprising for powerful emotions to be generated by tough criticism especially if the target is a favourite project in which you have invested a great deal of effort. But sit on your feelings until some perspective is restored.

5. Assume that the presenting issue is the one to be addressed. It is all too easy to respond to a criticism imagining that it is the one requiring your attention. But what you are hearing may not be the big deal at all. It pays to take your time to clarify the source of tension. You may find that the real problem is hidden away behind many words: you could waste much energy attending to the presenting problem which may be nothing more than a smoke screen for a rather more pressing and very different dilemma.

How To Cope
 
So how do I cope with my critics? A few rules of thumb:

1. Always respond to your critics with appreciation! This will be affirming for those who are trying to be helpful and will come as a surprise to those who are not. In fact, the latter may be prompted towards being constructive in the long run.

2. Make sure you understand the criticism before responding. You may miss the pitch the first time you hear it so that any response will miss the mark. Ask questions with sincerity. Pin down the precise issue. This also helps to separate the person from the issue. You are in for a little more fun than you had planned for if you mix them up.

3. Take time if you need it. Some critics will want an answer or explanation right away and you may be able to offer this most times. But a complex issue will require more thought and consideration. It is better to advise that you would like time to contemplate such a matter rather than address it off the top of you head. Taking time also emphasises your desire to give the matter the attention it deserves. You may also need time to allow your self to cool down, to get the emotions in check if the criticism has unsettled you.

4. So, recognise your own panic buttons: what causes you discomfort, or pain? What sends you into panic mode, or self-defence strategies? Learn to recognise your limitations and reach for greater levels of personal security and maturity. These do not come overnight.

5. Avoid trying to fix things up after the morning church service. Make another time. Persistent critics often want to monopolise your attention. They are time bandits.

6. Believe it or not, you don't have to agree with every criticism. Be thankful for comments which can be put to good use, those which further the cause. But if there are criticisms which you understand but which you do not endorse, so be it. Just be ready to explain clearly why a particular line does not sit well with you. There must always be room to agree to disagree agreeably (as the old saying goes).

7. Find ways to disentangle with grace. Keep in mind that you do not have to pursue every criticism in detail. Often the best course of action is to hear your critic out and be thankful for the view offered. But you are not bound to act on every suggestion or adjust your strategy to suit everybody. Also, there is no purpose pursuing debates which soon lose their point or which become a passport to continuing tension.

8. Look for ways to build a relationship. A critic who is trying to be helpful is well worth nurturing. But don't overlook the value of getting to know your "problem" critics either. Getting alongside socially and enjoying their company may not be as tough as you thought. It could also open up deeper levels of understanding and insight for you both.

A Few More Tricky Ones...

It important to respond well to your critics for a number of crucial reasons:

* Remember that some criticisms will be justified! If there is a hint of accuracy, they may even cause pain. A humble, teachable spirit will be able to benefit from whatever is offered. You may need to offer an apology on occasions. So don't go into a low orbit unless you want to dry up the flow of helpful observations. People will still talk; they just won't talk to you too much if they get a feisty reception all the time. Also, it is smarter to hear about the rough edges from friends before the less charitably inclined decide to do so.

* Good pastoral modeling in responding to criticism will help others in coping with their own critics. A pastor who always goes off the deep end, or who is unable to listen, or who constantly feels the need to have an answer for everything, or who always has to have the last say is not going to help others. This kind of performance leads rapidly to serious relational breakdowns of a kind which are hard to correct.

* Effective pastoral leadership is about caring for everyone. This does not mean that every critic or criticism has to be taken the same way but it does mean that everybody has a right to be heard. The simple act of genuine listening with gratitude even though there may be profound disagreement is usually a good way of keeping the communication lines open with even the severest of critics.

* Don't get carried away with anonymous letters: Make sure your waste paper basket is handy! Most of us are sufficiently curious to want to read anonymous letters. But that's as far as it should go. If a critic is not prepared to identify themselves, there is a huge risk in paying too much attention to their writings. Pitching their notes into the bin is both practical and therapeutic. Some pastors have allowed anonymous letters to cause them far too much unnecessary heartache.

* Think twice before you follow up the back stabber: As sure as the sun rises, there is bound to be someone who will talk behind your back. You will need to decide how to handle this. If there is irrefutable evidence which can be called upon without implicating others in awkward ways, there is great value in seeking your critic out and suggesting that they talk to you directly. It is the Gospel way (see Matthew 18) and can amount to a quantum step forward in improving communication. But the wheel can fall off too. Depending on the situation and the personalities involved, you may want to do this with the assistance of a mature helper.

Finally...

Few of us will enjoy the privilege of Joshua who outlived his critics. Critics are a fact of life for all in leadership. We do well to make room for them to be heard. There may be much to learn; there may be little. Make no mistake, more is to be gained by exercising patience and grace than simply ignoring those who have a different grasp of the issues.

Great leadership is about good listening and secure responses while still preserving the space for differing approaches and perspectives. In the midst of many voices there is discovered much wisdom and learning.

Perhaps we should thank the Lord for our critics rather than praying for their removal!

Rev. John Simpson

This article is reprinted by permission of the author. It originally appeared in Ministry Perspectives,
a publication of the Baptist Union of Victoria, Australia.

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:27 PM