“If you don’t rise with people’s praise, you won’t fall with their criticism.” Those words from the pastor of the church in which I grew up came home to me when I became a pastor. Many times I left the church building SOARING because of the 10 affirming comments that I received about a sermon and…many times I left the building feeling “lower than a footprint” because of ONE critical comment. Why do I give so much power to one word of criticism… and yet I seemingly discount the many words of affirmation that I hear? As public figures, every pastor is tempted to let the congregation’s affirmation or criticism define our ministry.
There are two primary reasons why I think that pastors take criticism so personally. One reason is that no one truly knows what we do during the week or what we are up against. People in our congregations don’t know how many hours we actually work nor what confidential information we are carrying that weighs us down. I would like to wear a sign, “If you knew what I knew you would know why I am doing what I am doing!”
Secondly, criticism often comes to us when we least expect it…and we often receive it publicly…in front of other people. 30 seconds before we call a board meeting to order, someone across the table levels us with, “The attendance at the Women’s Association Bazaar was way down this year because YOU forgot to announce it?” Ouch! Or, as I am literally walking into the sanctuary with the choir to lead a worship service, someone grabs my arm and says “No one saw my mother in the hospital this past week.” And…I realized that the “no one” she was referring to was ME. It didn’t make any difference to her that three deacons had visited her mother last week, or that I had two funerals last week…she wanted ME to visit her mother!
Sometimes I have felt like my congregation kept a scorecard on how I am doing! Ahhh…maybe there’s the problem. As author and well-known preacher, Dr. Will Willimon said to a group of pastors, “You know what your problem is…you love people more than you love Jesus. You worry too much about what people think and not enough about what God thinks!” Or, as the famous Christian Educator, Dr. Henrietta Meers said, “We wouldn’t worry nearly so much about what other people think of us if we realized how infrequently they do!”
The thing that has helped me deal with criticism is the realization that meeting everyone’s needs is NOT my calling. In fact, as a preacher who is called to preach both a comforting word AND a prophetic word, there are times when, if I am faithful to my calling, I must disappoint people.
I remember the couple who came to me after a worship service and asked if they could talk with me after I finished greeting. I said, “Sure. I’d love to talk with you!” When we sat down, the husband said, “We HATED your sermon about money today! When you challenged us to start tithing… that was the last straw! We are going to leave this church if you don’t quit preaching sermons like that one!” I nervously said, “Hey, look at the time! I have a funeral coming up…my own!” They didn’t even crack a smile. They went on to tell me that they think that I preach about money way too much and that I don’t appreciate their limited financial resources. Furthermore, they told me that they don’t come to church to feel guilty about giving! They come to worship God.
In that moment, I was tempted to water down the sermon so they would cool down and stay in the church! But I stopped myself and remembered the words of Martin Luther that “a sermon is like a scalpel in the hands of a surgeon that can cut.” I took a deep breath and prayed …and said, “Jesus’ words about money make me uncomfortable, too. I don’t really like that text. And, to be honest, I struggle with those words of Jesus just like you do. But, I love you enough to tell you the truth of what I believe God is saying to all of us. And each of us has to do with it what we will.” That family left our church! They didn’t come back. I lost them. That’s how I felt. I knew intellectually that it wasn’t about me…but that is how it felt!
But I’ve wondered over the years what God did with that family and if I might have played a small role in their growing as stewards of God’s gifts. I’ll never know until the Kingdom of God. But, I realized that a part of learning to deal with criticism is realizing that God is sovereign and I am not! Part of dealing with criticism is realizing that God is the ONLY ONE whose opinion matters. And that my role is not to FIX every situation or make everybody comfortable!
So, when I receive criticism, I always ask God, “What I am supposed to learn from this?” I open my hands to receive what God is saying to me. And then I put my trust in God and not in the affirmation of people. This is tricky business. Wanting to be liked can be sinister. But I am learning to trust God in the midst of criticism. And, I am also learning that my wise pastor was right…“If you don’t rise with their praise…you won’t fall with their criticism.” When you are the critics’ choice, these words can remind us WHO is really in charge!