Responding to Criticism in the Church

How do we respond to criticism in the church?

Pastoring is a job unlike any other. It’s so full of fulfillment and enjoyment that we can make a mile-long list of our favorite things about being pastors. (At least I hope you can!) There are personal relationships, helping people we love, introducing people to Jesus, overnight camps, leadership conferences, premarital counseling, weddings, flexible hours, diversity of work, and plenty of free food.

However, there is also a difficult side to the life of a pastor. While we get to counsel, comfort, and connect with people, we also face a lot of criticism. We are exclusively working with people after all. People have preferences. They can be harsh. Our congregations will share their opinions. People make mistakes.

So what do we do when criticism collides with our calling? How do we respond to it?

Fortunately, King Solomon had a lot to say about the topic. I am sure he was one of the most criticized people on earth during his reign. After all, he was a King to a nation in and out of exile. His constituents had families to feed, money to make, and preferences on national policy. His inbox (whatever that looked like back then) was likely crammed full of critical messages.

So what did he say we should do when faced with criticism? We shouldn’t ignore it; we should embrace it!

READ: Proverbs 15:31-33

Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise. Those who disregard discipline despise themselves, but the one who heeds correction gains understanding. Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the Lord, and humility comes before honor.

Sometimes criticism cuts like a knife, doesn’t it? Someone questioned your decision, challenged your perspective, or disagreed with your sermon point. It’s normal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hurtful. Whenever you face the sting of criticism, ask yourself this question: “Are they criticizing a product or a person?”

More often than not, they are questioning a by-product of something you did, not who you are. It’s crucial to keep this distinction at the forefront of your mind. Yes, trusted people may occasionally point out personal things in your life — sin, character flaws, shortcomings. However, 9/10 times, someone will be critiquing something you did, not who you are.

That’s why we should take the advice of Lysa TerKeurst. “Don’t let people’s compliments go to your head, and don’t let their criticisms go to your heart.” When approached in a healthy way, criticism is almost always constructive.

While constructive criticism will be the norm, destructive criticism does happen. This is when someone clearly wants to hurt you, tear you down, and break your heart. They aren’t attacking what you do, they’re attacking who you are. Learn to discern between the two, because everything we are about to share assumes that the criticism is coming from someone who cares.

Let’s learn how to cultivate our ministry through helpful criticism.
How to Respond to Criticism as a Pastor

Proverbs 15:31-33 gives us the ABCs of responding to criticism. 

Accept the Criticism

“Whoever heeds giving correction will be at home among the wise.”

Solomon starts with an assumption. He thinks that we are all going to be corrected sooner or later. If you aren’t being critiqued occasionally, then you probably aren’t doing enough. Criticism is inevitable in leadership. So, we should heed their words, not get harsh.

Allow empathy to change your trajectory. Your natural tendency is to explain everything away. That’s normal, but it’s not helpful. Authentically accept what they said, evaluate it, empathize with them, and ask yourself what lessons you can learn from them. When you do this, you will be “at home among the wise.”

Be teachable.

“Whoever heeds correction gains understanding.”

When you honestly listen to what they said, you will gain understanding. Do you have to act on every piece of feedback? No, not at all. How exhausting would that be? However, you still need a teachable spirit. You are not perfect, so some guidance is always appreciated.

Allow teachability to be your mentality. Calling someone out is scary, so be open to their instruction. You will learn, grow, and develop as you do.

Connect With Conversation

Our third point is not directly tied to part of this passage. Rather, it’s the context of the entire passage. How do you learn? How do you empathize? What does it mean to “heed?” It all starts with a discussion. When criticized, connect with a conversation.

Allow conversations to be a catalyst. Ask questions. Request solutions. Be open to how their personal experiences shaped their opinion. No one is going to reject someone who’s trying to hear them out.

Discussion is the best path to discovery. Always seek a deeper connection when people are being critical. This will dull your defenses and sharpen your relationship with the other person. That’s why the environment is so important. If the critique comes from social media, invite that person to a private message or email. (Healthy disagreements seldom happen online.) If the comment comes from an email, request a phone call. Did it happen on the phone? Invite them to coffee. If it happens in the sanctuary, encourage them to set up a meeting away from the crowd.

This method has three big benefits.

  • First, it gives everyone time to cool down, pray, and think.
  • Second, a new environment dulls emotion.
  • Third, it shows you value their feedback enough to get go deeper into a discussion.
Don’t Defend Before You Discuss

On brand for Solomon, he gives us a stern warning. He writes, “Whoever disregards discipline despises themselves.” If you disregard criticism, you are actually causing yourself harm. Sure, it may protect your feelings in the short term, but you won’t help yourself grow in the long term.

“Humility comes before honor.” I didn’t even have to alliterate this in my own words. Solomon did this for me. You can tell he was a great preacher if his words were catchy in both English and Hebrew!  Your natural response is to defend immediately. Don’t do it yet! I recommend you share your heart after you’ve empathized with them, learned from them, and connected with them. It’s easy to defend your decision immediately. It is much harder to accept that there is a lesson to be learned.

When you face criticism, be encouraged! You are in good company. Someone cares about you. They see the impact you’re making. Someone took time out of their day to have a tough discussion with you because they want to you improve. All of this is tremendous news. Criticism will be part of your calling as long as you’re in ministry. Learn to embrace it, empathize with it, and expand because of it.

Watch the full message here:

Let’s Talk about it!

The pastors on our team would love to learn more about you and your ministry to help you apply these leadership lessons in your church. Send us an email at Pastor@ForMinistryResources.com or click the button below to schedule a call with a pastor. We hope to hear from you soon!

This blog contains leadership material from The Pastor Circle. What is THE PASTOR CIRCLE?

We recently asked ourselves, “how can we serve pastors more personally?” The Pastor Circle is the answer.

It’s a virtual small group community of pastors who understand what you’re going through and want to offer you godly support and guidance. We meet on Zoom once a month to listen to a short devotional and topic introduction, followed by a small group discussion. We hope to see you there next month! Click here to learn more.