By Dr. Mark A. Croston
Different contexts of ministry bring different challenges to ministry. But one thing we all have in common is that we’re not immune to criticism.
Criticism shows up to burst our balloons on our best days and to kick us when we’re down on our worst days. It can come from any source: parents, spouse, children, friends, co-workers, enemies, and even strangers.
We can’t escape criticism, but what we can do is learn to handle it. This is especially true for leaders. This article is not a word for the critics on how to be more cautious and caring. This is a word for the censured, crucified, and criticized.
Leadership comes with extra challenges—like criticism. And since you can’t escape it—can you handle it?
Let me offer six strategies for successfully navigating criticism.
1. Expect it.
Unfortunately, criticism comes with the job, so don’t be surprised when you feel attacked. In fact, if you never get any criticism, there’s a good chance you’re not giving your job your all.
Luke 6:26 warns us: “Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for this is the way their ancestors used to treat the false prophets.”
2. Embrace it.
Know yourself. Learn how to take a punch. We’re not all the same, so this is easier for some of us than it is for others.
There is some research about the activity of the limbic system when receiving negative feedback that suggests some people receive criticism in a more emotional way than others, and that produces a more visceral response.
The best time to respond might not be at the moment the disparagement is received. You may need some time to breathe, to think, to be angry, and to get over the shock of it.
3. Evaluate it.
Pray about it. If the shoe fits, wear it. Take what is really for you. Look for grains of truth in the criticism.
Accepting criticism may be like eating fish. Sometimes as you eat the meat of the fish you must be careful not to get choked on the bones. If it’s not true, shake it off. If there is truth, own it.
4. Learn from it.
Criticism is often like bitter medicine. We hate it, but it can be good for us.
Think about it: Throughout the Bible, leaders we treasure received criticism that helped them to be successful.
Moses had Jethro (Exodus 18:17-18); David had Nathaniel (2 Samuel 12:7); for Esther there was Mordecai (Esther 4:13-14); and for Peter there was Paul (Galatians 2:11).
All of these scenarios of criticism have two elements in common:
A strong relationship
It’s easier to hear some difficult truths from someone with whom you also have a deep relationship.
Even as a pastor, if there was a really difficult truth that needed to be shared with someone in the congregation, I would first send the church leader who shared the strongest personal relationship with them.
A commitment to the same goal
We all need people on our team who are willing to tell us the unvarnished truth when we need to hear it. None of us are perfect.
We all have our blind spots where we need others to help us to see. If you think you are above criticism, just know that even Jesus received plenty of it, and He was actually perfect!
5. Don’t give it back.
1 Peter 2:22-23 encourages us to be more like Jesus: “He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth; when he was insulted, he did not insult in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten but entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”
Often the moments of criticism are times to minister to the needs of the critics. Harsh critics speak out of their own hurts, and we should respond in love. Who said being a Christian leader was going to be easy?
6. Thank God for it.
Matthew 5 has a lot to say, but specifically remember verses 11-12:
“You are blessed when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
This is what the apostles did in Acts 5:41: “Then they went out from the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be treated shamefully on behalf of the Name.”
Like Paul, allow every struggle to make you stronger. He said, “So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and in difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
DR. MARK CROSTON (@CrostonMin) is the national director for black church ministries at Lifeway Christian Resources.