Perhaps nothing is as demoralizing to a pastor as criticism. By criticism, I don’t mean critical feedback offered in good faith. Any pastor with a modicum of ego-strength welcomes that kind of criticism. No, the criticism I mean could better be termed “kvetching.” This is criticism leveled ad hominem, or shared with others rather than with the pastor, or that begins, “A lot of people are saying….” It’s often anonymous or takes place in the parking lot as the knot of people gathered draws quiet as the pastor passes by. There is absolutely nothing helpful or constructive about this kind of criticism and therein lies the key to handling it.
My father, who had a rich 25-year pastorate in a thriving church in a small town in northeast Colorado, was no stranger to the kvetching kind of criticism. I rather imagine he applied these fatherly maxims from my childhood to the criticism he faced, (and enjoyed a very fulfilling and successful pastorate despite the kvetching) and I share them with you here.
Consider the source. Who is making the criticism? Is it someone deeply committed to the welfare of the church? Is the person perhaps dealing with painful life-issues and their frustration and anguish is being misdirected? Is the person (or group) perceiving a loss of power and is railing against what they perceive as their insignificance? Consider the source of the criticism.
Pray for your enemies and do good to those who persecute you. Ok. He didn’t make this one up. It is closely related to the first piece of counsel, though. Before (during, while, after) engaging the critic, pray for them. Your critic is a beloved child of God. Clearly something is amiss in their life if they are expending all that energy in mal-contentment. Pray for their welfare.
An ounce of direct communication is worth a pound of fretting. By this he meant, after you’ve considered the source, go to the source. Go in love and with an open mind. Go in hope and kindness. Go with another person but go. Go to the source rather than going to anyone else. (Another way to say it is that you avoid triangulation!)
Don’t chase every mail truck. By this he meant that not all criticism is worthy of engagement. Sometimes ignoring a problem really does make it go away. Don’t chase every slight or grumble. Yes, it’s a trick to discern when a little holy avoidance is in order (and it often is not) but at least consider it as a strategic option.
Your life is played before but one Audience. When we get our sense of worth and our guidance from God, it’s amazing how how little our soul is affected by criticism. In a conflicted situation, the Ignatian Self-Examen is a good practice for maintaining integrity before God and with others.
Be the first to point out your mistakes. This was a pre-emptive move but also a move of genuine humility. And self-awareness. Nothing takes the wind out of a critic’s sail faster than beating them to the punch. And likewise if God is your audience there is nothing to lose in being honest.
Don’t be a mealy-mouthed old lady. This he said to my mother in 1983 just moments before going into the high-risk surgery he would not survive. My mother was a really nice woman. Knowing this, my father was (in his own quaint way) encouraging her not let her people-pleasing posture keep her from standing by her convictions, her intuitions, her God-given wisdom and vision.
That’s what my father said.