4 Ways to Deal with Criticism (as a Church Leader)

4 Ways to Deal with Criticism (as a Church Leader)

Aaron Buer

Digital giving apps and tools

If you’ve been leading or serving in a church for more than ten minutes you’ve probably been criticized.

Here are some real life examples from my life:

  • “I’m upset that you cancelled that program.”
  • “You use the phrase, “I think…” too much when you’re preaching."
  • “I can’t believe you played that song at your event”
  • “My son doesn’t like your ministry”
  • “You move your body in weird ways when you’re on stage and it’s distracting”

And sometimes people are sneaky and their criticism sounds nice... for a second.

  • “You’re going to be a good preacher someday.”

Wait. Someday? What does that say about my preaching right now? Oh. I see what you did there...

As leaders, we are going to be criticized. Probably a lot.

We really can’t change this.

However, how we choose to handle criticism can change everything.

I know more than a few pastors and leaders who have become embittered by criticism. Others have lashed out and said, or did something that they regret. Others have become discouraged and quit ministry.

There’s a flipside to criticism as well. Criticism has actually lead to major growth in my life and ministry. Without some of the criticism I have received, I wouldn’t be half the preacher or leader that I am today.

Criticism, though painful, has been instrumental in my development. And to be clear, some of this criticism wasn’t even well intentioned. Some of it was rude and unkind. But learning to navigate criticism in healthy ways has protected and grown me.

We’re going to be criticized. There will be negative feedback. How we navigate it is crucially important. So, let’s talk about how to navigate criticism well.

1. Don't Return Fire

Here’s a scenario that’s not really a scenario because it happens to me all the time.

I receive an email. It isn’t nice. It’s critical. The email is all about something I did or something I should change.

Have you received this email? I bet you have. I get two or three a week.

My natural response is to immediately click “reply” and start crafting a response. I call this the nuclear option.

Bad idea. It has literally never worked out well for me. Why? I’m too emotional.

I’m too focused on defending myself or showing the person where they are wrong. I can’t think of a single example of when immediately firing back with a defensive email has been the right call. It always leads to an escalation of tensions or immediate regret.

Because of the many times I’ve had to learn the hard way on this, I now employ a new strategy. It’s called “wait.” I would recommend waiting an entire day. That’s right. 24 hours. Why? Because in 24 hours I’ll be calmer and maybe even more importantly, the other person will be calmer too.

I understand that it can be hard to sit with criticism for a day without responding to it. The trick is to respond to my own emotional response without responding to the person.

Sometimes I leave the office—go for a walk or drive around to chill out a bit. Sometimes I grab my prayer journal and unload my frustrations. Other times I call a trusted friend and ask if I can vent a bit.

If there is one thing you can do to start handling criticism in a more healthy way it is to wait before responding. Try it. I think you’ll like it.

2. Find a Kernel

In the early days of ministry, I often responded to criticism by vilifying the person who gave it.

Sure, it made me feel better but I wasn’t exactly humbly listening to feedback. What I’ve learned is that there is probably something there. There is probably some kernel of truth in the criticism.

This requires a high degree of humility.

Let’s be real. Criticism is often delivered poorly. It’s easy to dismiss negative feedback when it is delivered badly. Also, toxic people love to criticize. It’s easy to dismiss criticism when the person delivering it is a perpetual jerk. And yet, I would encourage you to exercise humility and ask,

“Is there something here?”

There is great wisdom in pushing aside the person who delivered it and even the way it was delivered and looking for a kernel of truth.

It isn’t about them. It’s about you and your development and growth. Truth is truth.

Something I’ve found helpful is to ask someone I trust, who isn’t involved in the situation, if they see anything in the criticism. I’ll often say:

“Someone told me that I _______. Do you see this as well? Is there something to this?”

If you want to grow in your ability to handle criticism, look for the kernel of truth in the feedback.

3. Respond More Relationally

Let’s talk for a second about those times when the criticism you receive really isn’t about your development but more about a person who is upset about something—probably a decision you made that they don’t like.

Typically you receive this criticism in an email. Something I’ve found is that if you respond in the same way, the conversation will escalate or go on forever—sometimes both.

There is often a simple way to diffuse the tension and that is to respond in a more relational way.

For example, if the person emailed you, call them back instead of emailing them. 9 times out of 10, this person will deescalate their emotions simply because you’re actually talking instead of firing off impersonal emails.

Similarly, if this person gave you the “ol’ fadeaway”—you know, criticism in passing or walking out the door (love those) — consider setting up a coffee meeting.

My point is that if you respond in a more relational way than the feedback was given to you, there is a strong chance that the person will back down in terms of their emotional energy concerning the issue. This has worked for me many times.

So, if you want to grow in your ability to navigate criticism, consider being more relational in the way you respond to the person.

4. Shake It Off

In the immortal words of Taylor Swift, sometimes you just have to shake off criticism. Don’t let it stick.

If God called you into ministry then He called you into ministry. You’re in your role for a reason.

Besides, your value doesn’t come from what people think or say about you.

My senior pastor has the same advice for me every time I get an opportunity to preach from our main stage:

“Act like you belong up there...because you do.”

His advice is empowering because it reminds me that God gifted me and called me to do this work. Sure, I need to listen to the feedback and continue growing and developing but this is the work that God called me to do and if God called me to this work then I’m not about to let criticism derail my calling.

Wrap Up

So, as you navigate the criticism, remind yourself that you are gifted for and called to ministry. Listen to the criticism but shake it off. Don’t let it make you bitter. Keep moving forward. Your church needs a healthy you.

If you’ve found any additional techniques to work well in navigating criticism or anything you think should be added to this conversation, we’d love your comments below.

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