Anyone who has been in leadership for more than a month should be aware that criticism comes with the territory. I think criticism can be even more intense for church leaders.  I see two reasons for this. First, we have a supernatural enemy that is intentionally focused on creating division within the body of Christ ( 2 Corinthians 2:5-11). Second, our mission is one where the eternal destination of people is at stake, and that reality elicits very strong feelings and opinions on the part of those involved.  Not all criticism is motivated by selfish, negative people. Some of it comes from people who care deeply that the church faithfully fulfills its mission.

I pray regularly that God will help me to be:

  • Secure enough to listen to criticism
  • Wise enough to distinguish valid from invalid criticism.
  • Humble enough to apologize and make a course correction in response to valid criticism.
  • Strong enough to not be distracted, disrupted or discouraged by that which is without merit.   

Secure enough to listen –
Insecure people are defensive people. They shield themselves from criticism because they are overly dependent on being affirmed and accepted by people.  Criticism is immediately taken personally; viewed as an attack on their self-worth and significance.  When the insecure person is not able to avoid his critics altogether, he is hindered from listening carefully to what is being communicated because the moment he perceives it as a personal attack he becomes either angry or discouraged. These powerful emotions distort his ability to listen carefully and think clearly. In addition to his mind being clouded by his emotions, the insecure person is also inclined to quickly formulate his defense at the first indication that the communication is critical. I laugh at myself as I recall times I stopped listening prematurely because my mind turned to thoughts about what I needed to say to protect myself.

If our insecurity prevents us listening well, we will not be able to be able to be…

Wise enough to distinguish – 
Listening carefully to our critics is the first step in assessing the validity of the criticism. As we listen, we should ask God to show us if the criticism is a “shoe that fits”, and if it does, we should “wear it”. Constructive criticism is one of the leader’s best friends. Every seasoned leader has headed in a wrong direction at one time or another and has benefited from the “wounds of faithful friend” (Prov. 27:6).  However, the leader must avoid wearing shoes that don’t fit. He must be able to discern criticism which should be rejected as Nehemiah did when he told Sanballat, “Nothing like what your are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” (Neh. 6:8).

Humble enough to apologize and course correct –
Arrogant leaders do not benefit from the wisdom to discern criticism that is valid and constructive because they can’t bring themselves to admit that they are wrong. The proud leader, craving praise and recognition, will often neglect wise counsel and correction because it is too painful to see someone else receive the credit.  The humble leader is free to apologize when wrong and is able to benefit from constructive criticism. He recognizes that he has something to learn from others and is able to accept that someone else might have an idea or insight that is superior to his own. 

One qualification: Don’t apologize or own responsibility for things you haven’t done or said. That is not taking the high road. It is not a sign of humility, but weakness. A leader will often do this to appease his critic so the criticism will stop. Leaders that do this value their own comfort over truth. A leader who owns responsibility for a failure that in reality belongs to another is not being merciful. He is doing a dis-service to the person or people who actually are responsible and should be accountable.

Strong enough to follow your convictions rather than your critics –
Ministers who suffer from a desperate need for approval tend to be unduly influenced by criticism even though they recognize the criticism is unwarranted. It is not enough for us to have the discernment to identify criticism that is invalid, the leader still needs to be strong enough to do what he believes to be God’s will, even in the face of pressure from his critics. Nehemiah is a great example of a leader who exercised the strength of will to continue the work God had called him to, even in the face of physical danger from his critics (Nehemiah 4 & 6). The leader who fears his people will not be able to lead them. Instead, he will be led by them.

Which of the above do you need the Lord’s help with most?