How to handle criticism

If you are in a leadership role, you are fair game for criticism. You can't escape it, but you can cope with it The author's Bible-based prescription for learning to handle the heat is designed to help you help yourself and your critics.

Philip R. Li Calzi is pastor of the Westside Baptist church, Port Morris, New Jersey.

I have never yet learned to react favorably to criticism!" a prominent minister confided recently. Another pastor told me that as soon as he realizes a person is going to criticize, he says to himself, Heaven forbid! Here it comes again. ' 'I actually feel a physical change sweep over my body in waves at that point, " he said. Leaders are always fair game for critics, and ministers are no exception.

In fact, many critics consider ministers prime targets. And the more effective and widespread his ministry, the more vulnerable the minister becomes.

How do you react to criticism? How you react has a great effect on both your emotional well-being and your success.

To be properly equipped for ministry, you must learn how to handle criticism effectively.

Yet after years of observation, I'm convinced that most ministers have no idea how to cope with criticism. The majority seem to experience symptoms far worse than slight irritation or mild indigestion. Lingering depression, inability to function normally, bitterness, even breakdown, come all too often.

Many cope by transferring to new churches or changing to new types of ministry every few years.

Is there a way to learn to cope with criticism? Is there a "basic training" that can equip the pastor for the shell shocks he'll receive once he's out in the field? Yes, I believe there is. But it's no "piece of cake." Nothing the Marines or Army do at boot camp is more difficult than what I propose as a means for preparing to face the conflict and criticism every minister must face.

But if you'll follow the three-stage plan suggested below, you'll be ready to take criticism and turn it into an occasion for bringing glory to God.

Looking inside Recently I lay on a hospital bed gazing at a machine that showed me the very inner workings of my heart. It was a sobering experience. But hardly more sobering than the experience we all need daily if we would cope effectively with criticism.

What is it that makes criticism hurt so much? Ask yourself that question next time you're hurt by a remark. Chances are you won't even be able to put a finger on just what hurt you. That's because the part of you that got hurt is deep inside in a part of your being that most people seldom probe.

If you're going to learn to cope with the hurt, the first stage of your basic training program is to examine closely the part of you that is hurt.

We all have a self-image we cling to.

But psychologists suggest that not one person in a hundred has an accurate self-image. "The heart is deceitful above all things," the Bible warns (Jer. 17:9).

And while it is easy to accept that fact about my next-door neighbor, it is hard for me to believe it about myself. Which, in itself, proves just how wily and evasive the heart can be! The main reason we are hurt by criticism is pride. The more we want to make a good impression, the harder the blow when we fail. The higher we regard our own intelligence, the worse our wound when it is called into question.

Jesus' prescription for dealing with easily wounded pride is found in Luke 14:7ff. Put simply, His message is: Take the low position, and let others elevate you, because if you take the high position there's sure to be a critic around ready to knock you down a notch or two. That same critic might be willing to elevate you if you don't do it for yourself.

Challenge yourself during stage one of basic training. "Do I really take the 'lowest place' in all my relationships? Do I follow Paul's admonition in Romans 12:10 and prefer others above myself? How will you react when the critic who prides himself on being brutally frank approaches you one day and announces, "Say, Pastor So-and-so, the fellows down at work tell me you're about the poorest excuse for a preacher they've had in years! And not only that, they say your voice is as raucous as a chain saw!" Could you view that man as a prospect for the kingdom? Or would you more likely find yourself wishing he'd drop dead and leave you alone? If you've learned to take the "lowest place" in your thinking, you'll be able to take even the rudest criticism and turn it into a launching pad to help you soar above it and make it work out for good.

"When pride cometh, then cometh shame," Proverbs 11:2 tells us. We must either get the best of our pride, or it will get the best of us. To graduate success fully from the first stage of basic training, we must learn that it is more important to get the best of self than to get the best of our critics. Then we can go on, freed from the tyranny of pride, to represent Jesus, not ourselves.

Opportunity knocks The second stage of basic training involves learning to view criticism as a unique opportunity for witnessing to the power of the gospel. Here, your first step is to qualify your critic quickly. If he comes as a foe, rejoice, for you have a special privilege. Of the four Gospels in the Bible he may know little or nothing.

Yours is the rare chance to have him read the "fifth gospel," the gospel according to you.

Next, try to ascertain why he has come to you. Remember, the presenting reason may not be the real one. He may not even understand his real motivation himself. It could be jealousy. Or a desire for attention. Or overcompensation for feelings of inferiority. Whatever his reason, it is likely rooted in a need that you can help fulfill. You may be the only person in the world that he can tell off without serious consequences.

Some critics are motivated purely by animosity. This type is easy to spot. The look on the face, the tone of voice, the demeanor, soon betray the real motivation. His message will most likely be built on an element of truth, but the tools of his trade are exaggeration, false accusation, disdain, and confrontation.

Because he doesn't like you, he wants to cause you pain.

Your critic has probably anticipated this confrontation with sadistic delight.

He has assumed that his brutal attack will burst your bubble of pride. And he plans to brag about how he put you in your place.

But is he in for a surprise! He doesn't realize that you are combat-ready. You have passed the first phase of basic training and learned humility from Jesus.

You have no bubble of pride for him to burst. Your reaction now is not "Oh, no, here it comes again," but rather "Thank You, Lord!" for you know that the mission field has come right to your door.

Here's your strategy: Even though your critic has come to hurt you, treat him as a friend. Offer him your most comfortable chair. When you're seated, take the initiative. Ask him to tell you what is on his heart (and be sure to say heart, not mind).

Then give him your undivided attention, keeping good eye contact. Let him do the talking. Don't interrupt even for clarification. Above all, don't contradict him no matter what he says.

When he is finished (or perhaps "run-down"), ask him to please repeat what he has just said, because you want to be sure to get all the details exactly as he gave them. Do this even if the details were clear and simple. As you make your request, reach for a pad and pencil and begin to take notes.

Why all this? For several reasons. Your actions show that you have no cause to resent what he is saying. And that you regard him as a reasonable person and are interested in his views. And one more thing: You have quietly demonstrated that you are in control of the situation.

Even if the criticism is trivial, treat it like it was most serious. Providing it doesn't appear as overkill, it is best to say you will take your critic's remarks into consideration and that you will get back to him in the near future. If possible, set a time and place right then and there.

Withhold your comments until that meeting. This will allow opportunity for the Holy Spirit to give you a real concern for your critic.

At this point, based upon numerous experiences, I find it easy to imagine some of the thoughts that will be going through your critic's mind as he leaves: The preacher didn't act at all the way 1 thought he would. He didn't argue with me.

He was considerate. He treated me with respect. And he didn't respond to my criticism the way other people do. I had no idea he is the kind of person I found him to be. He displayed a solidness and a stability I cannot help admiring. What I said seemed not to rile him or hurt him in the least. I had regarded him as an enemy, but I'm not so sure 1 wouldn't like to have him for a friend.

Once your critic has left, don't neglect to follow through on your part of the bargain. Give his views careful consider ation. The next time you meet, open the conversation by expressing your appreciation for the time and thought he had given to the matters discussed on his first visit. Then in a businesslike way share your conclusions with him. First, cover the details with which you agree. If you really feel it necessary, deal also with his untruths and false accusations. Even in this, maintain and reinforce your first witness as a humble, sincere servant of the King of kings.

Often criticism may be offered by a genuinely concerned friend. This type of critic is easy to recognize too. The words will be sweet in spirit and chosen with the intent to support and elevate. There will be no false accusation, exaggeration, or contentiousness. What your critic says will be true as he sees it, and many of the same tactics that you used on the antagonistic critic will apply equally here. Be hospitable, listen without interrupting, be open-minded, and let him do all the talking. Above all, stand ready to admit a fault or mistake. Even though you have every reason to justify yourself, don't. Never pass the buck or make excuses. When counseled by a friend, you have the opportunity to learn more that's important to you and helpful to your ministry in a few minutes than you could learn in a week of reading books! Every opening to represent Christ is valued by the minister who is motivated by the Holy Spirit. Whatever the nature of the criticism, whoever the critic, it must be regarded as a door to service in our Saviour's name. Criticism affords us the opportunity to preach, by way of dramatic illustration, one of our most convincing sermons on the way one acts when Christ lives in his heart.

If your critic does not come to your door, but approaches via an anonymous letter or phone call, you cannot view this as an opportunity for witness. Simply let it be known that you do not read letters unless they have a bona fide signature and return address. With phone calls, break in at the outset and say, "Excuse me, sir [or madam], but I have identified myself, and you know where I live.

Please show like courtesy by giving me your name and address before we continue our conversation." Insist on a full name and address before your caller shares his message. If your caller refuses to identify himself, don't slam the phone down, but politely hang up and refuse to answer the phone for at least fifteen minutes to give him time to cool off.

Criticism facilitates growth Thus far we have noted two stages of preparation for coping with criticism.

The third stage is learning to recognize the need of criticism. No one is perfect. And many of our problems may be invisible to us until someone calls them to our attention. So if we're going to grow, we need criticism.

Almost everyone we meet will be superior to us in some way. The most highly educated among us can often learn from someone unschooled. As always, the key is to be grateful for criticism, no matter how or from where it comes.

For a minister to be endlessly surrounded by admirers feeding him a steady diet of praise would be one of the worst possible fates. Criticism, if nothing else, encourages us to lean more heavily upon God. If I had to choose between a congregation wholly comprised of flatterers and one with the usual sprinkling of critics, for my sake I'd have to choose the latter.

If we have ears inclined to hear, over the long run we will learn more from foes than from friends. Often, because friends are fond of us and fear their criticisms may hurt us, they say nothing. As someone ventured: "A man with bad breath can live a lifetime among friends and never be told. The person who dislikes us is not hampered by that kind of reticence." How do you cope with criticism? 1.

Examine your soul, pin down the reason it hurts, and win the battle over pride the way Jesus told us to. 2. Regard criticism as a unique opportunity to witness for Christ. 3. Gladly accept it because you know you can learn from it.

These three stages comprise the ministers basic training. Successfully passing less than all three is insufficient.

Adequate preparation takes time and persistence. But it is worth it!

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Philip R. Li Calzi is pastor of the Westside Baptist church, Port Morris, New Jersey.

January 1985

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