So, you’ve prepared for the criticism, you’ve distinguished the nature of the critic and their criticism, but now you have to respond. Will you be gored, injured, or with a flourish of your cape will you let the bull pass by and learn from the experience? How you deal with criticism will determine the whole course of your ministry.
Four steps to avoid
Reject: without a moment’s thought you simply dismiss the criticism, minimize it, and move on
Retaliate: again, often without even a pause, you attack the attacker or criticize the critic
Resent: while you may seem to accept what was said, you inwardly seethe and bitterly brood
Resign: you just give in, give up and run away
Four steps to follow
1. Receive the criticism
Whether it comes in verbal or written form, the first thing to do is pray for grace to listen to what is being said. If the person is in front of you, pray inwardly, look them in the eye, project calm, avoid hostile body language or facial expressions, and ask for time to think and pray about what is being said.
You may want to clarify the complaint by re-stating or re-phrasing it just to make sure you both understand the problem. Give a rough idea of when you plan to respond (within a week, say), and ask him/her what action they would like to see in response to their complaint.
End by thanking the person for coming to you in person and pray together. In your prayer set the specific complaint in the context of a wider relationship and experience of the Lord’s blessing.
2. Reflect on the criticism
Questions to prayerfully ask include:
- Is it true? Is it even slightly true? Try to find the grain of truth in it if you can.
- Is it proportionate? Is this making a mountain out of a molehill? Is it in the context of previous appropriate appreciation for the pastor? Does the criticism extend beyond one sermon/incident? Is it balanced in its expression or does it become hostile and exaggerated?
- Who is making the criticism? If it is a godly and faithful Christian, then you will pay much more attention to it than to someone who is not professing to be a Christian. If a particular Christian has an imbalanced theology or some particular “theological hobby horse” then this too should be taken into account when weighing the criticism’s validity.
- Is there something else behind the criticism? Could there be stress or trouble at home or at work?
- How many times have you heard this criticism? If it is coming from a number of independent sources, then it is time to sit up and take close note.
Sometimes it might be worth seeking advice, getting a second opinion from a trusted elder, fellow pastor, or friend, someone a bit more objective than yourself. Maybe also ask them to hold you to account as you respond to the person and relate to them in the future.
3. Respond to the Criticism
In your response, try to think of building a long-term relationship. It is easy to win a short-term victory but lose a long-term opportunity to do a person spiritual good.
If at all possible, meet in person rather than respond by email or telephone. Pray together then calmly explain what aspects of the criticism you accept (for which you thank him), and what you don’t. If you have admitted that you were wrong, explain how you plan to apologize to offended parties and put things right. In very extreme circumstances it may be appropriate to offer your resignation. Ask if your response is satisfactory. Close with prayer, asking the Lord to bless your relationship, not let the devil in, and grow in mutual love and respect.
4. Repent of your error/sin
When a matador is injured, he will review film of the incident, learn from his mistake, and put things right for the future. Likewise the pastor should respond not just by accepting he said or did something wrong, but also by putting things right for the future. Repentance does not just include sorrow for sin, but turning from it to new obedience in dependence upon the Holy Spirit.