“To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person.” Luke 6:27–28 (The Message)
Recently I was in conversation with several pastors. One of them reported that he had spent his previous Monday speaking with members of his church who were critical of the earlier day’s services. Some complained about the music. Others had Covid-19 and social distancing concerns. For some, the temperature was too hot, and for others, it was too cold. I do not recall him mentioning any criticism about the preaching, but it would not be surprising.
It is commonly known that more pastors resign on Monday than any other day of the week. I did not confirm the validity of this statement, but it sounds plausible to me. It would be unwise to dismiss every criticism. Even criticism is delivered without tact; we must be careful because sometimes complaints contain elements of truth.
I was drawn to Jesus’ words, “love your enemies.” I do not mean that anyone critical of us is our enemy; it only seems that way sometimes. What lessons can we learn? Can we use criticism as a tool for self-improvement? Examine all things. Firmly hold onto what is good. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (MEV)
Nobody likes to receive criticism. Yet it is an opportunity for growth and learning. Even when it is unfair and hurtful, it will give us a chance to develop a loving response. Like you, I have experienced criticism. Here are a few things that I have learned.
You Are in Good Company
There is not a leader or anyone in ministry who has not faced criticism at one time or another. It inevitably comes with the territory and should probably be written into the job description itself, but how we deal with it will play a prominent role in our success or failure.
Find solace in the fact that many others have been where you are. “And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” Matthew 5:11–12 (MESSAGE).
Learning how to evaluate the situation is critical in dealing with the problem. Quite often, the real underlying issue is quite different from what is articulated. Try to determine if the real problem goes deeper than the surface accusation.
A leader will often be the target of people with frustrations because they want to be heard and often validated. There are several things that a leader must do when confronted with criticism. After taking a deep breath and pausing for a moment, it is wise to do a personal assessment to determine if any of the criticism is valid.
Even though it may be delivered improperly, there may be some truth in what is being said against you. If this is the case, apologize and make every effort to make the situation right. Remember that God can even use a donkey to deliver a message.
The Right Response
Regardless of whether the attack on you is justified, we have an obligation to respond with love. How we respond is often more important than whatever issue is involved. Long after the core issue is forgotten, you will be remembered for how you handled the situation. As a leader or pastor, people always watch and evaluate your actions.
Always consider the big picture as you seek responses and solutions. Do not settle for winning the battle and then losing the war. After thorough consideration, respond with love, not with vengeance or anger, but with a desire to restore the relationship.
Pray fervently for the person and seek the best for them. If a resolution can be found, move on from there and do not dwell in the past. Remember these words: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” 1 Corinthians 13:4–5 (NIV). That last part can be challenging. Do not keep a scorecard of the criticism or offense, but keep moving forward, remembering that your mission is to advance the cause of the gospel.
There will be times when you will not be able to resolve a conflict, no matter what you do. Sometimes there will even be a parting of the ways. When it happens, do your best to let it go and remember the Scripture: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Romans 12:18 (NIV).
Criticism is inevitable. When we understand that criticism is a fact of life for not just pastors and leaders but for all of us, we can take steps to make the best of it. First, use criticism as a mirror. “As iron sharpens iron,” ask God to help you appraise where you can make improvements.
Second, do not dwell too long at your own pity party. Criticism can sting, and it can even leave a mark. Focus on your ministry and mission. Paul, reflecting on his suffering and imprisonment, told Timothy: So I endure all things for the sake of those chosen by God, that they too may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus and its eternal glory. 2 Timothy 2:10 (NET)
Finally, we must remember why we serve” Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:13–14 (NIV). Keep moving forward!