How to Handle Criticism as Pastors
The way in which the Conference organizers (Peter and Andrew) got me to agree to speak on this topic was rather humorous. They told me that seeing I was the pastor with the most years of active service in our Canadian Reformed federation and that I was still alive and on duty I must have some hidden or secret wisdom to impart to you when it comes to survival in the pastoral ministry.
Well, I don't have any secret wisdom or Gnostic insights to impart to you. I would just say that in the end it is all grace and more grace. The Lord has been good, merciful and forgiving to me and allowed me to serve Him thus far for 36 exciting, wonderful years. As to how many more years I will receive I do not know, but He knows and determines, and that's good enough for me.
Still, I must admit that in the years thus far I have both experienced and learned something when it comes to criticism. So let me share some of that with you.
We all have our stories
When it comes to the pastoral ministry and criticism, we all have our stories. Let me bore you with a few of mine. The first goes back to a church that I served where I met a nice, little, old man who had a really nagging wife. She was always after him for one thing or another. The result was that he tried to escape from the house as much as possible. He also loved, as an escape, to delve into church matters and to champion various ecclesiastical causes and issues.
One day he came to me with a number of complaints about how the church was run and told me in no uncertain terms that he was not the only one who thought this way. As a matter of fact, he was seeing me as a representative of a number of disgruntled people. "Oh," I said to him, "you're acting as a trouble shooter."
Wrong word! For not only was this brother old and his English stunted, but he was also rather deaf and he came to the conclusion after he left that I had just called him a "trouble maker!" Needless to say, I was in hot water. One unfortunate expression on my part launched an avalanche of criticism that took some to work away.
Or another illustration from my ministry comes to mind. There was a certain female member in one of the congregations who was looking daggers at me every Lord's Day. I knew something was up and so I reluctantly scheduled a meeting with her.
In any case, I came to her home and no sooner did I sit down and she unloaded on me. I was literally dumped on for 90 minutes. All sorts of grievances, were aired and insinuations were made. A lot of them had to do with things that had happened before I even arrived in that church. I tried a little rebuttal here and then there, but all was to no avail. She was in pit bull mode and nothing was going to deter her. So I listened and took it. I became her verbal punching bag and the lightning rod for her discontent. To this day I do not know why I did not lash back at her, except to say that it must have been the Holy Spirit who gave me surprising calm.
Nevertheless, when I left her place I felt as if I had been run over by a steamroller. I went home and do you know what I did? I looked at the Help Wanted column of the newspaper. Who needs this?
Now, these are only two of my stories, and there are a lot more. Some are short and some are long. Some are quite funny and some are really sad. Some did little damage and others hurt a lot. (The Dutch have a neat expression that sometimes sums things up, its "stank voor dank." It does not translate well into English and comes out something like "stink or stench for thanks.") I am sure that all of you can relate to this and that each one of us who has been in the ministry for a number of years can even write a book about it.
The wider context
Before we turn now to an examination of criticism proper, it may be helpful for us to set our bearings by citing a number of obvious but sometimes forgotten things.
The first is that we all serve a perfect Lord and Master in Jesus Christ our Saviour. He is both God and man. As man He is intimately acquainted with our life. He knows its joys and struggles, its setbacks and achievements, its ups and downs. Nothing that we experience is foreign to Him. It is great to know that as we do our work we can always look up to our sympathetic Redeemer. At the same time it is also comforting to know that He is God and that with Him resides all of the wisdom, might and mercy. He is able to make up for all that we lack and to sort out whatever mess we make.
One thing in particular needs to be noted in connection with our Saviour and criticism, and it is the fact that perfection did not result in no criticism or less criticism for Him. The truth of the matter is that our Lord was probably criticized more than any other person who ever lived. His popularity was rather short-lived; whereas, the character assassination done on Him was long, brutal and fatal. It would appear that even perfection does not exempt you from criticism.
The second thing that we may have a tendency to overlook is that we serve an imperfect people. Now, some churches claim that they are composed only of sanctified people, or of members who are nigh to perfection. How I would love to be introduced to such a church! From my own experiences, from my reading the stories and hearing about the experiences of others, indeed from my study of the New Testament, I am forced to conclude that such a church does not exist here and now. I know and believe that one day the church will be perfect, but that time has not yet come.
Today the members of the church may claim to be a "new creation," to quote the apostle Paul, but a lot of bad stuff from the old creation still clings to them. Sanctification is a process and the process is not yet complete. Indeed, I would even go on record as saying that it are often the people who claim to be the most spiritual who in the end, or in a situation of crisis, prove to be the most unspiritual. As my father used to say, "Son, watch out for those people who claim to be super spiritual or 150% Reformed!"
Hence you and I need to take into account that we serve in a less than perfect environment. We may call the members of the church "covenant children" or "sheep" but some are really wolves, others are at bottom hypocrites and all are weak and vulnerable. And yet they all need to be ministered to in one way or another.
But then if the people we serve are imperfect, let me also hasten to add that we who serve are imperfect too. The sheep are imperfect but the shepherds are also imperfect. For the last 20 years of my ministry I visited a man who spent most of his life in prison. He was out for a little while on parole but then re-offended. His crimes were considered so serious that the Government of Canada finally classified him as a dangerous offender, which means that they have the power to lock him up forever. This past year he walked away from the minimum security prison he was in and he has not been heard from since.
Now, why do I tell you about him? Because as I got to know this brother and his story I was often taken up with the thought "there but for the grace of God, go I!" If I had been raised as he was raised, had experienced what he did, had been abused as he was abused, who knows how I would have turned out? At bottom I am just as vulnerable, weak and susceptible as he is or was.
So, brothers, if you are riding high on the horse of your own ability, invincibility, morality, or superiority, you had better get off quick. With such an attitude you cannot pastor, much less survive the ministry. Our God calls on us to have a proper measure of ourselves and that includes humility, lowliness, meekness and a daily dependence on His grace and forgiveness in Christ.
This brings us to another obvious truth, and it is the fact that there is someone who exploits both the imperfection of God's people and our own imperfections, and that someone is the Devil. I do believe that as we do our work we often forget about him or, if we do think about him, we give him short shrift. We so easily dismiss him. And he likes that! This suits him just fine! Go ahead and under-estimate the greatest enemy of God and of His people! Nevertheless, he is alive and he is active. He has made a specialty out of identifying our weaknesses, attacking them, and tripping us up. In short, what the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 6 about spiritual warfare and about our need to be equipped with the right armour is just as relevant now as it was then. Seek your strength for ministry "in the Lord and in his mighty power" (Eph. 6: 10).
Oh, and as you do so, never forget something else, and it is the fact that you have a received a most glorious calling from the Lord. As Paul puts it, you are being led "in triumphal procession in Christ" and it is through you that "the fragrance of the knowledge of him" is being spread everywhere (2 Cor. 2:14). To you has been given "the ministry of reconciliation" and you are "Christ's ambassadors" (2 Cor. 5:18, 20). There is no higher calling.
But at the same time there is also a no more dependent calling. Again, it is Paul who reminds us that "we have this treasure in jars of clay" (2 Cor. 4: 7). In and of ourselves we who have been entrusted with so much are nothing more than frail, fallible and fumbling people. Every day we need that other Counsellor to sustain us and to enable us (see John 16).
Looking at the source of criticism
We need to move on, however, from preliminaries and presuppositions to the actual meat of the matter. In this connection let's pay attention for openers to the source of criticism. Where does it come from?
In light of what we have just noted it would be correct to say that ultimately all destructive and unwarranted criticism comes from the devil. He is "a liar and the father of lies" (Jn 8:44) which means that all untruth, distortion, gossip and slander come from him.
Nevertheless, the devil is not the only one who is on the attack. He engineers things in such a way that criticism comes from many sources.
Most often it comes from church members who are not happy with the pastor for a host of reasons. Perhaps they feel ignored, bypassed, misunderstood, or targeted unfairly in the preaching. They may also feel that his sermons lack depth, substance or application. They may be of the opinion that his pastoral gifts are deficient in various areas. They may disagree with his stand on a number of theological or ethical issues. They may dislike him as a person. In short, much of the bad stuff that happens to the ministry comes from the pew.
In addition, it may also come from the elders. There is a certain rule of thumb out there, and it is this: if the congregation is unhappy then the elders are unhappy too. And what do unhappy elders do? They pick on the preaching and find fault with it – real or imagined. They take issue with the way in which the pastor does or does not do his pastoral work. They may even begin to question his personality, sincerity, and integrity.
Unhappy members and unhappy elders can ruin a minister's life. And if you add them to the mix, so can unhappy colleagues. Local conflicts in the church never stay local. Invariably the circle gets wider and moves beyond the confines of the local church. Wider family circles are drawn in. Neighbouring churches and pastors are drawn in as well. A classis becomes involved, as well as church visitors.
It should also be said that in the end even the support of one's colleagues can often not rescue a pastor in distress. Over the years I have been involved in any number of rescue missions, but by and large they have not managed to resolve matters and to restore the relationship between pastor and congregation. Indeed, at times the criticism of colleagues has only added to the load.
Finally, one more source of criticism that a pastor may have to deal with has to do with his wife and family. Admittedly this may be criticism of a different kind. Most often it has to do with neglect. A wife may complain, "Why is my husband always gone and why is it that when he is home his mind is elsewhere?" Children may also complain and say, "Why do my friend's fathers show up at hockey and basketball games, and mine never does? Why do I always have to take a backseat to the congregation?"
What this shows you is that criticism in the ministry can come from many different quarters and be about many different things. It runs the gamut from your official work in the church to your personal life in the home.
Types of criticism
Just as the sources of criticism differ so also the types of criticism we receive can vary. Much of it is verbal. It's like that lady who let me have it. It comes from that man or woman who feels the need to give you a piece of their mind, and then proceeds to lambaste you with his tongue.
In this connection I am no longer surprised but I am often appalled at what people say to one another, especially at what people, who claim to be Christian, say to one another and about one another. They may have heard the summary of the law about "loving your neighbour as yourself" thousands of times, but they still do not get it.
All of this is made even worse by the manner in which some of them can speak to and about their pastor, one of God's ordained servants. Some of this stuff even happens in public. The worship service is no sooner over and a member makes a b-line for the minister and proceeds to admonish him loudly. At times a member may do so using the most outrageous language. Meanwhile, the members are stunned and shocked. They do not know how to react or what to do.
Although sometimes they do. One time a colleague was getting a royal verbal licking in the church foyer after the service, because a certain male member did not agree with his sermon. As he went on and on berating the minister, a lady who still had her wits about her came between the pastor and the protester, stuck out her hand to the pastor and said loud and clear for all to hear, "Thanks for a great sermon." May her tribe increase!
To paraphrase and revamp the words of Hal Lindsey, of all people, "verbal criticism is alive and well, and living in the church." Sometimes it even thrives there.
But then, if there is verbal criticism there is also the non-verbal kind. Earlier I mentioned the lady member who glared daggers at me. Have you ever had that happen to you? Someone sits in the pew and you can just tell from their demeanor, posture and expressions that they are not happy with you. They may not say a word to you but you can tell from their body language that you are in trouble.
How does one deal with them? First, you should let them stew for a while. Do not allow a disgruntled member to control you with their glare or stare. Next, examine yourself as to what may lie at the bottom of the fly that they have in their bonnet and so get ready for the onslaught. Third, arrange a time to see them and be prepared to be on the receiving end. Fourth, pray to the Lord to calm your nerves and to intervene in this situation.
But if there is verbal and non-verbal criticism, there is also written criticism. Some members specialize in writing letters to the consistory. There are also members who have discovered the joy of email and make a hobby out of peppering the pastor with electronic messages.
How should one deal with letters and emails? If letters are sent to the consistory about the minister then the consistory should inquire as to whether or not the letter writer and the minister have met and attempted to iron out their differences. A consistory should not let a letter writer off the hook of taking up personal contact by allowing such a person to plead that he does not need to follow this route because the consistory has jurisdiction over the office of the minister. Elders do well to wave the words of our Lord in Matthew 18 in front of all who think that letters are a way of avoiding personal encounters.
Then there is also the matter of emails. Pastors and consistories are wise to insist that this medium be avoided when it comes to handling criticisms and settling disputes. There is no doubt that people generally are much bolder and more cavalier in what they will say from behind their keyboards, then what they will say face to face. We should not allow anyone to use the internet as a coward's castle.
Areas of criticism
Having looked at the context, source and type of criticism, we turn to the actual areas of criticism. What kind of criticisms are most often directed at pastors?
The first area wherein criticism often arises has to do with doctrine. The late Rev. H. Scholte was my seminary teacher when it came to church history and church polity and he used to give us young theological students lots of fatherly advice. One piece of advice had to do with the congregation. He would, "Boys, always remember that Reformed congregations have Reformed antennae ("Gereformeerde voelhoorns"). They may not be able to tell you exactly what is wrong with a pastor's sermon, but they can sure tell you when something is just not right." Quite simply, they can sense when a preacher's sermons are suspicious or dubious. They get this inkling when he does not stand right and true on doctrines relating to church, covenant, baptism, justification and a host of other topics. What this means is that it is a dangerous thing to underestimate your congregation and the power of its theological radar.
The second area where criticism arises often touches on the matter of competency. In other words, a pastor's sermons can be such that members begin to question whether he can really get the message across. Perhaps they deem his sermons to be too superficial, his applications all but non-existent or even inappropriate. They may also consider his overall sermonic structure to be lacking in clarity and logic. In short, they wonder whether he really has what it takes to be an effective preacher.
The third area that is often a lightning rod for criticism has to do with personality. A congregation is usually quick to spot whether a pastor is remote, distant, demanding, soft, wishy-washy, arrogant, lazy, stubborn or materialistic.
It used to be said that a minister lives in a glass house. Now, today most of us may not live next to the church anymore nor at the heart and center of the local village, but we need to be aware that we are still very much a topic of lively conversation. On every Lord's Day the members of the church have a reason to react to you and your sermons. It may good or bad or indifferent, but you can sure that they are busy with you. In some homes they have roast pastor for lunch.
In addition, realize as well that because you are their pastor, they identify with you. But there is also something deeper going on here, for they want to identify with you in a positive way. They want to give you their respect and esteem. When that does not happen for one reason or another, a feeling of disappointment arises, but often there is more. They feel let down and they feel betrayed. When that happens – look out! Love and esteem can soon give way to scorn and ridicule.
The pastor and criticism
Now, thus far I have said very little about the nature of the criticisms that we receive, so let us turn our attention to the things that often get us and our colleagues in trouble.
The first thing that I would point to is poor preaching. Whether we acknowledge it or not the heart and soul of a successful pastorate rests on faithful, clear and effective explanation and application of the Word of God. You may be the nicest pastor in the world and that will carry you far, but at a certain point the goodwill tends to run out and the reception turns sour. True believers want to be feed weekly and when you are no longer able to feed them, discontent arises and frustration sets in. Then an environment is created that allows criticism to arise and to flourish.
The second thing that generates criticism has to do with a failure or an inability to love the sheep. I have known men who were good preachers of the Word but the relationship between them and their sheep never grew and solidified. The sheep acknowledged that such a man knew how to deal with the biblical text but felt that his heart was not truly open to them or sensitive to their needs and burdens. Or they felt that the pastor was always preaching at them and never to them. They wanted someone they could look up to, confide in, get close to and trust in. They wanted a pastor who was really concerned about them and who could relate to them.
The third thing that often does pastors in is an inability to listen. It is not for nothing that Proverbs is known for its refrain, "Listen, my son." The author wants to impress upon his offspring that listening is a vital life skill. The same goes for a pastor. If all he can do is dish it out, then he is fundamentally flawed. You and I need to be able to listen, to listen well, to listen long and to listen deeply. Take to heart what the members are telling you, reflect on it, pray over it. Do not ignore it. You do so at your peril.
The fourth thing that pastors need to watch is how they deal with money and material things. Some of you have heard my story about when I entered the ministry and some of you have not. Let me tell it again. This was back in 1972 and among the calls that I received was one in which I was offered $4,500.00 to serve. When I carefully inquired about this rather low figure, the elders told me that I would also be serving another nearby congregation on a part-time basis and that what I got from it would result in a reasonable stipend.
Fine, I thought. But as I was visiting with members of the calling congregation I was also told repeatedly that this other congregation would soon die out and that then I would only need to be concerned about one church.
Well, it may have been fine with them, but it was not fine with me. I needed the smaller stipend of the other congregation to supplement the larger stipend of the calling congregation. If it disappeared, it would be on to the deacons for my wife and I. Hence I asked the elders politely, if the other congregation disappeared would they agree to review the stipend. They said "yes!" What a relief, but in the end I still declined.
Only that was not the end of the story. For some time later the grape vine spread the news that the reason that I had declined was because I was money hungry. When I heard that I resolved to do one thing, and that is, stay clear of money issues. For more than 30 years now, whenever the elders and deacons review my stipend I leave the room and I tell them – "You figure it out!" And they have, in a generous and good manner.
The moral of the story is that if you are remunerated poorly or, for that matter, if you have problems with the parsonage, proceed carefully. Once you get a reputation for being money hungry or too demanding, you will have a hard time living it down.
The final thing that I want to mention as a problem in ministry is poor judgment. This can be connected to a host of things. Let me cite a few of them: if Saturdays newspaper headlines are always in your Sunday sermons then your congregation will quickly conclude that you are leaving your sermon work too late and taking it too lightly. If you are sighted too often at the local golf course, they will soon jump to the conclusion that you are more concerned about that little white ball then about the black sheep in the congregation. If you make use of old sermons and fail to change their unusual illustrations or keep their aging yellowish paper concealed, you are courting negative comment. If you tend to dominate the conversation in the consistory meetings or at pastoral visits, watch out for backlash. If you fail to pay proper heed to the needs in the congregation, the word will soon spread that pastoring is not really your thing. If you always insist on having things done your way, you will one day be walking on the highway that leads out of town. If you align yourself with a certain segment in the congregation because they like you or compliment you, do not be surprised when the rest turn around and bite you.
How to handle criticism
Now all of the above was by way of introduction, for we still need to come to the heart of the matter which "how to deal with criticism?" So, how does one do that? A number of things come to the fore here.
The first thing is prayer. I am sure that this does not surprise you. Whenever you are criticized you need to close the door, go into your inner room and call on the Lord. Lay it all before Him. Ask Him to evaluate it. Plead with Him to teach you how to weigh and evaluate it properly.
In my students days I went around preaching in Ontario and one of the few sermons in my repertoire was one from Micah 6 – "What does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (v. 8). Walking humbly in prayer and daily dependence is basic to a healthy and blessed ministry.
If there is anything that has kept me sane in all of my years of ministry, it is the conviction that ultimately I have only one boss who I answer to in prayer. Perhaps that is putting it crassly, but there are times when some members want you to do this, some elders want you to do that, and others have a different opinion or agenda. What do you do? Where do you turn? You turn to the Lord and you ask Him. Call on Him for light and wisdom.
Invariably, He will show you the way. He will remind you about the bottom line. He will let you know what He thinks.
And once you know that, follow it through. You need to be able to live with your conscience. You need to be able to do your work in the confidence that should the Lord ask you why you did what you did, you can freely tell Him why and have the firm conviction that your answer is in keeping with His holy will.
Closely connected with prayer is the matter of self examination. In this regard it is always helpful to turn to Scripture passages such as Exodus 20 which deal with the Ten Commandments, Galatians 5 which deals with the fruit of the Spirit, and Philippians 4 which deals with "whatever" – "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right" and so on.
In addition to this, it is also helpful to review the qualifications mentioned in Timothy and Titus for the offices of elder and deacon. Ask yourself whether or not you measure up to them.
In short, regular, honest, frank, even brutal, self-examination is essential for effective ministry. You need to know both your personal strengths and weaknesses, and then you need to ask God to keep you humble in spite of your strengths and you need to ask God to work in you and with you so that your weaknesses can be made into strengths.
And be specific. If patience is a problem, ask Him to supply it. If laziness is a problem, ask Him to correct it. If arrogance is a problem, ask Him to remove it. If organizational ability is lacking, ask Him to provide it.
Another basic way to deal with criticism is to follow the route of consultation. You all know that Proverbs speaks about the benefit of having many counselors. Well, apply it.
Earlier I mentioned that lady who dumped all over me. What did I do in that case? First, I licked my wounds as best as possible, Then, I prayed for her and for myself. Next, I went home and told my wife.
If you have a wise wife, treasure her. She will prove to be one of God's greatest gifts to you. Now, I believe that I have a really wise wife. She calls it as it is. She is not blind to my faults either. She will always give me a true and balanced response. Indeed, if you ask me where, besides God, does the key to success in the parsonage lie, I would say that here is one really big key. Hence I turn often to my wife for counsel.
But not just to her. I also often go to the elders. If and when someone dumps on me, ruins my day and cuts me up, I go to the elders and I lay it all before them and then I ask them for their honest and fearless feedback. Was I wrong? Was I at fault? What should I have done? Invariably, they have given me true and wise counsel, and I praise the Lord for them too.
Now this brings me to another important, if not unusual, ingredient, and it is humour. Do you know how to laugh? How to laugh at life? How to laugh in spite of life's setbacks and disappointments? Do you also know how to laugh at yourself?
Whenever I meet a theology student who has no sense of humour or who cannot laugh, who is always serious and somber, then I know that I am looking at trouble.
I spent the years 1972 to 1978 in Alberta, and they were good years. They were also very difficult and challenging years. If there was no trouble in Edmonton, then there was trouble in Neerlandia, and vice versa. In any case, in the midst of all of these troubles and tensions one thing that we could always do as colleagues was get together and laugh. Oh and in case you are wondering we did not laugh only at others, we probably laughed even more at ourselves and at our own blunders and mistakes. Yes, we laughed a lot at ourselves and that kept us grounded. In a way I miss those miserable, laughter-filled days.
Hence I would urge you to cultivate a sense of humour. Whoever said that "laughter is the best medicine" got it right!
This brings me to one more thing, and that is time out or time away. Here is something that I preach but I am also aware that I do not practice it enough. When the pressures and problems increase, and especially when you feel yourself reaching the boiling point, it is good to call a time out.
This is one of the things that we never did enough of in the past, and that pastors still do not do enough of today, and that is take a good look at their deteriorating situation and then take a hike. The best way to deal with a heap of criticism is simply to remove yourself from the situation for a while. Ask your elders for a time of rest and relaxation. Such a time will remove you from the scene, revive your spirits, give you a new degree of objectivity, restore your energy and bring you back with fresh and new determination.
Well, my tale has been long enough and it is high time that I wrap it up. In closing I would urge you also to keep reading the letters of Paul. Why Paul? Because he supplies us with ample proof that, when it comes to congregational dynamics and demands, there is nothing new under the sun. He also reminds us that criticism in the ministry is nothing new. If the Lord Jesus was the most criticized Person who ever lived and still lives, then the apostle Paul does not come very far behind Him. Like His Master, He too received his share of it.
Yet in the end he prevailed because His God and our God is faithful. It is my hope and prayer that we also will be able to prevail and to prosper in the precious work of God. In spite of shortcomings and criticism, may He sustain us all daily and use us as effective instruments in His service.