Positive ways to deal with criticism

Understanding and dealing constructively with negative criticism.

Teena M. Stewart is a ministry consultant and speaker with Ministry in Motion from Benicia, California.

To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing" (Elbert Hubbard). While serving as Ministry Empowerment Director of a church, I worked rather closely with some church members. This meant having to deal directly with criticisms and complaints. As a people pleaser who wants to keep everyone happy, I have discovered how difficult it is to please everyone.

Our church offered regular gift-discovery classes. I oversaw the follow-up placement process connecting volunteers with lay ministry opportunities. My responsibilities included supervising a group of ministry consultants. We made progress with our volunteer placements and were excited to be putting people in positions they felt passionately about. Despite the positive results of ministry mobilization, after one recent placement session every consultant voiced a different complaint. They proceeded to criticize everything they saw wrong, and each seemed to have a separate agenda for how he or she wanted things to work.

I walked away from the meeting deflated. Didn't anyone see how far we had come? Just two years earlier we had no placement process in place and people were virtually clueless when it came to knowing how to get connected with volunteer ministry. I had worked hard to set the wheels in motion and it was working. The lay mobilization process was making a difference with the number of volunteers we had, but no one seemed to notice the good stuff. They were focused on every thing they saw wrong. I couldn't help but think that if they were personally expected to bring about the changes they wanted they would quickly give up. To them it was a church leadership problem and they were quick to find fault.

I am married to an ordained minister, and we have served in numerous churches. Criticism comes with the territory. Lay constituency frequently holds staff members to a higher standard. First Timothy 3:1-13 explains how overseers and deacons must be beyond reproach. When you couple this expectation with the fact that people are pay ing a leader's salary, the standard for excellent performance is higher.

Although we are called to be exemplary leaders, we are still works in process, saved by grace just like other believers. Unfortunately, members occasionally forget this little detail, developing a higher set of expectations for their leaders than for themselves.

The cold hard fact is, we will never please all of the people all of the time. Under standing why people criticize and learning how to handle those criticisms, helps me, as a leader, equip and fortify myself to withstand the waves of criticism.

Reasons people criticize

Those with poor self-esteem are often the quickest to find the "speck" in their brother's eye because tearing someone down seems to lessen the scrutiny of their own faults. Administrators often operate under the unspoken premise, "I wouldn't manage things that way," assuming alternative methods would make things work more smoothly.

Still others are perfectionists and cannot tolerate imperfection. Someone has said, "Criticism is the disapproval of people, not for having faults, but having faults different from your own." Criticism stems from a personality clash and sometimes it happens because people don't have a clear under standing of the church's internal mode of operating.

A pastor friend told the following story: "Stress factors from my pastorate were causing my wife, Esther, and I to have enormous marital and family difficulties. At times it was nearly beyond our ability to cope. After one particular bad day of criticism, I left work terribly angry. I drove home and parked my van in a vacant lot next to my home. Still fuming, and alone, I got out of the van, slammed the door, and huffed and puffed my way into the house.

"Unknown to me, a friend and neighbor, whom my wife had just led to Christ, watched from her two-story window. If I'd known, I certainly would have hidden my anger.

"A day later, Esther happened to meet with our neighbor. The neighbor brought up the incident. 'Your husband must have been having a bad day,' she said. 'When I saw him, I began praying for him. Is he all right?'

"I was much better after hearing her response! Such a response from a parishioner after seeing her pastor being so human, was not only encouraging for us, but is unfortunately rare!"

A church regularly encouraged members and visitors to complete communication cards in order to give feedback and updates on addresses and prayer needs. One Monday morning staff members sifted through the cards. On one card a member had written, "The pastor's sermon was good but it's too long. It needs to be about ten minutes shorter." Another card in the same pile read, "The sermons are too short."

Trying to please everyone is like walking a tightrope. If we try to per form so that we don't ruffle any feathers we lose our effectiveness totally. So, what's the answer?

Answers to criticism

Reducing criticism. If you are a people pleaser, your first inclination is to do everything in your power to please your critics, but the impossibility of doing this soon makes itself known, since everyone wants something different. People pleasers are more likely to listen to complaints.

At my ministry consultant meetings I was setting myself up to receive complaints by allowing consultants to get off track and chase rabbits. Sticking to a set agenda and bringing consultants back to task reduces the opportunity for criticism. Keeping God's purpose and will at the fore front puts everything in its proper place.

Drop the act. People can spot a phony a mile away. If I put on an irreproachable air of perfection I set myself up as a target for criticism. If I admit I am capable of error, those around me will be more likely to for give me when I make a mistake, or when I take a course of action they don't like.

Attitudes toward critics. Use gentleness and compassion. "A gentle answer turns away wrath" (Prov. 15:1, NIV).

Pastor Dan's eyes filled with tears as he read a scathing letter from one of his core leaders. The man gave a blow-by-blow account of everything wrong with Dan's leadership and teaching style. The leader-critic was so displeased he resigned from his position and left the church.

Dan felt betrayed and deeply hurt, but rather than respond with bitterness he "retaliated" by continuing to send the leader birthday cards, letters, and even invitations to breakfast. All his efforts, however, were rebuffed.

Two years passed. Then one day the leader returned and stood before a gathering of Dan and other church leaders where he asked forgiveness for his poor judgment and wrong attitude. Dan's gentleness and perseverance were instrumental in his transformation and restoration.

St. Francis de Sales once wrote, "When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time."

Pray. Have people pray for your leadership on a regular basis. Likewise, pray for those who criticize you. The pastor who was struggling under the burden of his parishioner's criticisms was encouraged and uplifted when he learned that someone was praying for him. God can work in the hearts of our critics (even the chronic ones). Ask Him to uncover the truth and the root cause of the criticism.

Consider the source. "Let a righteous man strike me it is a kindness; let him rebuke me it is oil on my head" (Ps. 141:5, NIV). Some people are just natural faultfinders but within our congregations there are certain members we respect because of their wisdom and godly ways. A reproof from one of these members carries a lot of weight and I am more likely to receive it as truth.

Look for the grain of truth. If one person corrects me I may or may not take their words to heart, but if two or more people are raising the same issue, their words carry more weight. If the criticism seems totally out of line with no true merit, cast it aside. If there is a grain of truth, then adjustment of my actions and/or behavior is probably in order.

Responding to criticism. If you want to really tick off a critic then just give a pat answer. They'll see right through you. I don't want to come across as flippant and uncaring but I have developed some ready-made responses that have proven helpful. Sincerely saying, "Oh, I can see why that might bother you," or "Thanks for bringing that to my attention," are ways I show I care.

When someone corrects me I listen attentively, then make the judgment call. If I immediately see the criticism is on target, I tell the giver what action I will take to correct it. If I feel the criticism isn't merited, I tell them gently but firmly.

If a particular church member continually criticizes it helps to pinpoint the cause. I've discovered that the most critical members are often not serving in any capacity and have too much time on their hands. I can help alleviate some of the friction by finding an area where they are gifted to serve.

When others are being criticized

But what about when criticism is leveled at someone else? On several occasions I have been approached by individuals who level criticism at a fellow staff member or lay leader because they see me as being on the inner circle of leadership.

Recently a lay worker "dumped a load," regarding some issues she was having with how prayer requests and church notices were being handled.

The people pleaser in me didn't handle it well. I already had scheduled a meeting with the pastor who administrated in that particular area, so when I met with him I raised the issue and explained the lay worker's complaints.

The pastor patiently listened and explained why things stood as they did, giving me an entirely new perspective on the situation. He gently pointed out that I should not have shouldered these issues because they were really out of my realm of responsibility.

At the time I was annoyed that he seemed to brush the issues aside, but later, after mulling over what he said, I realized he had handled it well. When I got back to my office I contacted the lay worker and gently shared the new information I had gleaned. Then people-pleaser me did something I was really proud of, I put the responsibility back on the lay worker's shoulders and suggested if she still had issues, she should set up a meeting with the pastor in charge of those areas.

People pleasers carry invisible backpacks. As we go along and hear criticisms, we add a stone to the pack. Before long the weight of the bulging pack is unbearable. Now, when some one criticizes another coworker, instead of placing the stone in my backpack, I hand it back to the initiator and suggest they address the leader directly.

Don't dodge. Criticism can be so unbearable that sometimes we are tempted to hide from the situation. Usually, however, dodging the problem makes the situation and the critic more hostile. Meet the criticism head on. Even Christ, when confronted, dealt with His critics.

When we follow His example we sharpen our problem-solving skills and grow in the process. The better we become at dealing with painful circumstances and individuals, the more resilient we become as leaders.

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Teena M. Stewart is a ministry consultant and speaker with Ministry in Motion from Benicia, California.

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