How to Survive Toxic Criticism in Your Church

As you already know, we work in churches so everyone is always nice.

Nobody ever says anything hurtful…right?

Oh wait.

We all have stories of criticism we have received about the way we lead, speak, dress, drive or whatever that frankly…hurt!

My fifth-grade teacher predicted that I would be a Lazy Boy sofa tester when I grew up…yeah, that wasn’t helpful.

Once after preaching, someone from the congregation told me that I would be a good preacher…someday.

So that day wasn’t today then?

Ouch.

I could share a bunch more stories but you’re already thinking of your own.

Something I’ve noticed is that for some leaders, toxic criticism is paralyzing.

It messes them up for weeks or even years.

Other leaders have the ability to navigate toxic criticism without stumbling.

How do you do that?

How do you keep moving forward after hearing something that really hurts?

This is an important question because if you lead people for any amount of time, toxic criticism will hit you and it will likely be in a vulnerable moment.

So, let’s talk about surviving toxic criticism.

Prepare

It is coming.

You will be criticized.

What is worse, it will likely not be delivered well.

Now that you know this, get ready for it.

Prepare.

One of the biggest mistakes we make is failing to prepare for criticism.

The truth is, how you deal with toxic criticism has more to do with your heart than what was said to you.

For me, this looks like an ongoing conversation with God about my identity.

If what people think and say about me defines my value then I’m in real trouble.

If, however, my sense of identity comes from what God says about me and what Jesus has done, then I’m solid and safe.

I have to return to this conversation every day, but it’s how I prepare for the toxic criticism that I know is coming.

Listen

What do you do in the moment?

I’m talking about in the moment you are receiving the toxic criticism, whether that’s in person, on the phone or through an email.

What do you say?

I think the answer to this question is critical.

When I receive, what feels like unfounded or unfair feedback, I’m tempted to shift blame, justify or make excuses.

  • Yeah, that was actually Bill’s mistake, not mine.
  • The reason I am late is because of traffic on the interstate.

I think it is a mistake to do this, even when you know you are right.

In the moment, just listen and thank the person for the feedback.

You can always go back and share more information.

But in the moment, the wisest thing you can do is simply listen.

Why?

It sends a strong message about your character, particularly humility.

The best response is to listen, ask a few clarifying questions and then thank the person.

This doesn’t mean you accept the criticism.

It doesn’t mean they aren’t crazy.

It means you are a person of character who has humility.

Filter

Here is where many of us get stuck.

When confronted with toxic feedback, we usually respond in one of two ways.

  1. Throw it All Out
    • “Well, he is a mean person so anything he says is invalid.” When we do this, we lose an opportunity to learn. Some of the most important feedback I’ve ever received came in a bundle with hurtful words. It was delivered terribly, but there was something there that I really needed to hear.
  2. Drink the Medicine with the Poison
    • The second mistake is to internalize everything that was said. Doing this is dangerous to our hearts. As leaders, we must learn to pour the poisonous words down the drain. Don’t internalize them. Again, people will say dumb things. As leaders, we are not responsible for what other people say. However, we are responsible for the decision of whether or not to drink the poison. Don’t do it!

The secret to navigating toxic criticism is filtering.

It is possible to grow immensely from feedback that is delivered badly or even toxic criticism.

When your identity is grounded in Christ, it is possible to hear what is helpful and discard what is hurtful.

This is a skill that must be learned and maintained if we desire longevity in ministry.

Learn to filter.

Validate

Sometimes it can be difficult to discern what is helpful and what is hurtful.

When you’re the one who received the toxic criticism, this can be almost impossible to figure out.

This is why seeking validation from trusted sources is important.

By validation, I don’t mean a validation of you, rather validation of the specific feedback.

For example, going to a trusted friend and co-worker and asking,

“I received this feedback. I need you to be honest. Is there something to this?”

I find it best to leave out the person who delivered the feedback and the tone in which it was delivered.

Also, you have to be realistic here.

If you are seeking validation from your spouse or best friend, you’ll probably hear,

“That person is an idiot. Never change. You are the best person ever.”

Yeah…that sounds like something your best friend would write in your high school yearbook.

That might not be helpful.

I think you get my point.

Return

When necessary, I think there is a final conversation that needs to take place.

Return to the person who delivered the criticism.

Sometimes, it might be a follow-up conversation.

Hey, thanks again for the feedback you gave me. I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said, and I want you to know that I’m changing a few things.

Other times, it might go more like this,

Thanks again for sharing your feedback with me. I need you to know that some of what you said was really hurtful because of the tone in which you shared it.

Wisdom is required here.

If the toxic criticism came from someone you barely know, I would not return to the conversation.

However, if the toxic criticism came from someone you work closely with or see on a regular basis, then it is probably needed.

If you aren’t honest with the person, it will be difficult to maintain a healthy relationship.

Wrap Up

Let’s end with this: if you are a leader, toxic criticism is coming.

Are you ready?

Although it isn’t fun, all criticism is an opportunity for growth.

You can’t reach your potential without receiving and acting on criticism.

I hope this has been helpful. Thanks again for reading.

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