Dealing with criticism from parishioners
Generally speaking, parishioners appreciate the roles pastors perform in their churches and communities. This includes preaching/teaching Christian doctrine; performing rites of passage, such as baby dedications, baptisms, weddings, and funerals; pastoral care, such as visitation, counseling, comforting, and praying for people; and administration, such as chairing meetings, developing inreach and outreach programs for the church and community, and representing the church to the community.
But despite the roles pastors perform, they are not spared criticism from a number of their parishioners. Some of the criticism may be constructive and some destructive.
Pastoral ministry has its ups and downs. One of the up moments is when church programs work well in the church and parishioners support and affirm the pastor’s ministry. During this time, the ministry becomes pleasant and rewarding. A down moment occurs when there is a lack of support from parishioners and the program fails. The pastor faces criticism and bitter opposition from parishioners that can lead to feelings of frustration and discouragement.
Let us face it, a leader cannot avoid criticism. It does not matter what leadership position you hold, whether in politics, as the president or prime minister of a country, the head of a corporate organization, a pastor, or church administrator, there will be criticism.
Some years ago an experienced minister advised me how to deal with criticism from parishioners. What caught my attention was a remark he made that has encouraged me in my ministry. He said, “Jesus faced criticisms, too, and if you are a pastor and parishioners don’t criticize all the work you do, you wouldn’t know how you are performing in ministry.”1 Since then, I have learned to take criticism differently.
Jesus faced criticism too
Jesus faced criticism in His ministry. Matthew writes, “Then one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute; and He healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw” (Matt. 12:22).2 While the multitudes were amazed, the Pharisees criticized Jesus for casting out demons by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons (v. 24).
Some criticized even His eating habits. They said Jesus was “‘“a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” ’ ” (Luke 7:34). On another occasion, the Pharisees and scribes were critical of Him, saying, “ ‘This Man receives sinners and eats with them’ ” (Luke 15:2). Yet, reaching out to save sinners was an integral part of Jesus’ mission to this world. No wonder, in a similar incident in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus replied to the Pharisees, “ ‘For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance’ ” (Matt. 9:13).
In spite of criticism, Jesus was a successful leader. He did not allow criticism of His good deeds to divert attention from His goal to reveal His Father’s love for humanity, and preach the good news of salvation. He stayed focused and accomplished His mission. Pastors need to understand that we will face criticism as Jesus did. Besides, unlike Jesus who did not sin (Heb. 4:15), we will make mistakes and face criticism as well.
Reasons for criticism
Here are a few reasons, both positive and negative, why pastors may face criticism.
1. Failure to fulfill the responsibilities of pastoral leadership. Pastoral leadership can be very demanding and parishioners often know when pastors perform their jobs or not. Hence, pastors should not be satisfied with a level of mediocrity in their job performances. When we fail to fulfill our responsibilities, criticism will most likely come.
2. When a pastor wants to introduce change. Usually, when a pastor is transferred to a new district and attempts to change established tradition, some parishioners criticize the pastor and resist such change. To most parishioners “change is uncomfortable and often threatening.” 3 There will always be resolute defenders of tradition in every congregation who will criticize your intentions for change.
3. A breach of pastoral ethics. Pastors are expected to uphold and commit themselves to practice a pastoral code of ethics. For example, parishioners want a pastor they can trust and confide in with their personal issues. Failure to “practice strictest professional confidentiality”4 will result in criticism from parishioners and a loss of credibility.
4. Pastor a district for years without transfer. Though parishioners may feel uncomfortable when a change occurs in the status quo, this is not always so when it comes to a change in pastoral leadership. With time, parishioners get used to the pastor’s method of preaching and leadership skills.
5. Parishioners’ unresolved issues. Sometimes parishioners go through church-related issues for which they have not sought help from a counselor or their local pastor. Quite often, they are stressed out, impatient, and angry because of these unresolved issues. The church board meeting, or the church business meeting, becomes the forum for them to blame and criticize the pastor for what goes wrong in the congregation.
6. Expectation to live above reproach. Generally, people hold pastors in high esteem and expect much from them. Since pastors are seen as preachers of probity and accountability, parishioners expect them to live above reproach. When a pastor breaks one of the commandments or doctrines of the church, criticism or even rejection often follow.
Approaches for dealing with criticism
Not all criticism from parishioners is destructive. Some may be constructive; therefore pastors should take criticism seriously and not ignore it. What may be considered trivial and not given much attention may become a serious issue too difficult and too late to solve. Here are some suggestions pastors may include in their approaches to criticism from parishioners.
1. Count criticism as a blessing, not a trial. Let’s be realistic about this. We do not find it easy to face criticism and accept it as a blessing from God. When I started ministry, I used to think that parishioners who criticized my job performance did not like me. But I have also come to understand that criticism from parishioners may be God’s way of pointing out something I need to change or correct in dealing with an issue as a pastor. While I do not allow destructive criticism to detract me from doing my job, I do not ignore constructive criticism either. It reminds me that I am human and make mistakes. Constructive criticism also helps me learn and avoid other similar and terrible mistakes later on.
2. Pray for guidance and for those who criticize you. In one district, I made an appointment to see one of our conference officials for advice concerning the criticism I was facing from some parishioners. I can recall sitting in his office and pouring out my heart to him. After I finished, he looked at me and said, “You must pray for them.” I must confess that was not the answer I expected at that moment. But I continued to pray for them and before long they stopped the criticism, though a couple of them occasionally criticized me about church programs. Praying for those who criticize you will make a difference in your ministry.
3. Avoid arguing with those who criticize you. This is one of the difficulties a pastor may encounter with parishioners, especially when the pastor knows they are right about an issue they are being criticized for in the church. However, try not to argue with those who criticize you in public, whether at a church board or church business meeting. Assume a good disposition when confronted with criticism. Calm down, and if it requires a response, choose your words carefully and answer gently.
4. Always do what is right. In every decision that involves the congregation, if you have the church board’s and the majority of the members’ approval, go ahead and implement it. People will criticize and persecute you for doing the right thing, but God will admire and vindicate you for not doing the wrong thing. Ellen G. White offers encouraging words here, “To accuse and criticize those whom God is using is to accuse and criticize the Lord who has sent them.”5
5. Uphold ethics and beliefs of the church. Whatever the pastor does should be in accordance with the church beliefs and policies. Parishioners respect pastors who are honest and have a strong affirmation for, and practice, ministerial ethics.
6. Address the needs of your parishioners in a timely manner. The nature of our work requires us to be sensitive to the questions and felt needs of our parishioners, and we should make every effort to address those needs in a timely manner. We should not treat parishioners’ needs as trivial. Every parishioner is important in the eyes of Jesus, and as ministers of God, we are to treat them with love and respect as we shepherd them. This will help pastors avoid some criticism.
7. Sell your ideas to your leaders: Pastors have good plans and ideas for the church but quite often we meet opposition and criticism because of the way those plans and ideas are communicated to parishioners. When this happens, we wonder whether the church officers and parishioners see what we see. When you work with leaders in a church, they want to feel that they are a part of the decision-making process of the church. The board of elders and the church board members should know the pastor’s ideas and programs. They will then be able to support and help sell them.
8. Do not sideline those who criticize you. Remember the saying Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. You will be surprised that, in most cases, parishioners who criticize you are not necessarily your enemies, but they may be going through personal issues that require a referral or your expertise in pastoral counseling.
9. Involve those who criticize you in church ministries. Sometimes you will find it necessary to harness the energy and talents of parishioners who criticize you for soul winning instead of using their time in sowing seeds of divisiveness in the church. You can request some of them to volunteer in the prayer team or a special needs ministry in the church. Meet with them periodically to affirm and evaluate what they are doing. As you engage them in church ministries, it will help them use their talents in the right areas.
10. Know if, when, and how to confront those who criticize you. Pastors approach and deal with criticism differently. Some pastors adopt an attitude of a culture of silence and ignore them. Others choose a confrontational approach. “The attitude needed to deal with criticisms is not a withdrawal from the issue or an arrogant approach to the issue. It is gentleness and firmness—an attitude of smart love.”6 Pastoral attitudes and approaches to criticism should follow the biblical instruction in Matthew 18:15–17. Try not to harbor any animosity toward parishioners who criticize you. Continue to love and pray for them. This will make a difference in your ministry.
The pastor cannot avoid criticism. Every congregation has parishioners who will affirm your ministry and those who will criticize what you do. At times, the criticism may be constructive, and other times it may be destructive. The pastor should be open to criticism and willing to accept mistakes and correct them. Never allow criticism to detract from your calling as a pastor to perform your role. You can count on Jesus as He guides you to shepherd His flock and prepare them for His kingdom.
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1. During this time I was a pastor in Chicago, Illinois, with the Lake Region Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
2. All scriptures are from the New King James Version.
3. Tom Marshall, Understanding Leadership (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), 95.
4. Seventh-day Adventist Minister’s Handbook (Silver Spring, MD: Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2009), 41.
5. Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1962), 466.
6. Marshall Shelley, Well-Intentioned Dragons: Ministering to Problem People in the Church (Carol Stream, IL: Word Publishing, 1985), 125.