I was definitely naive in my first part-time ministry position. My job wasn’t that difficult or controversial. It included training student ministry workers, forming small groups, and selecting a curriculum. I had been a member of the church for more than ten years and had moved from willing volunteer to reluctant staff member. Yet no one prepared me for my first encounter with a critic. An angry mom entered my makeshift church office, wagging a finger in my face and letting me know I made a grievous error by assigning her son to the wrong group. I left the encounter flustered, defensive, and shaken. I didn’t say many words in the heat of the moment, but twenty years later, I can still feel the sting of her critical words. Words wound.
Today, it’s even easier to face criticism. An unpopular social media post can instantly bring out the harshest of critics. As one leader I know told me a few months ago, “I wake up and check the weather, one on the weather app and one on Twitter.” He knew that a storm could easily form with one misguided post, whether it was about him or someone under his leadership.
I wish I could say criticism is rare, but that isn’t realistic. The fact is leaders make decisions. The results? People will applaud some and criticize others. You’ll face criticism from all sides, including people you like, and well, people you struggle with. Some criticism will be deserved. Some will not. And even when people you love may tell you to “not take things personally,” the reality is criticism does become personal. And even though I don’t always get this right, here are some things to consider when handling criticism.
Criticism is typical and should be expected. Every leader I’ve read about in Scripture faced criticism of some kind. The people of Israel criticized Moses, and they begged to go back to Egypt. Paul endured physical harm and landed in jail in the face of opposition. Jesus said His followers would endure persecution. He told the crowd when preaching the Sermon on the Mount, “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” (Matt. 5:11-12).
In other words, don’t be surprised when criticism comes your way. It’s not always fun to endure, but God can use it to make you a better leader.
Consider the source of the criticism. Is it valid? Is it from someone you trust and respect? Or is it from someone who constantly has a critical spirit? Being critical isn’t a spiritual gift, but a trusted adviser is worth listening to. Proverbs 15:31 says, “One who listens to life-giving rebukes will be at home among the wise.” On the other hand, criticism can come from someone who wants to cause harm. Proverbs 17:14 reminds us, “To start a conflict is to release a flood; stop the dispute before it breaks out.” If my critic approaches me in love and I have a trusting relationship with that person, I’m more apt to listen and learn from his/her critique. On the other hand, if it is coming from someone who has little leadership experience or understanding of the situation, I may choose to set aside the criticism.
In addition, I must consider the long-term consequences of the criticism. Will it affect decisions for the future, or do I need to take the criticism in stride and move on quickly from it? Ask yourself: Are there things you can change or things you can’t change in the situation?
Next, consider what is true and what isn’t. Some criticism is gossip and should be ignored. Proverbs 17:9 says, “Whoever conceals an offense promotes love, but whoever gossips about it separates friends.” Remember who you are in Christ and that you don’t have to respond to every critical email or evaluation. As leaders, many times you have additional information you are unable to share with others. You may have insight regarding a decision that others don’t understand. Stay confident in your leadership when you have knowledge others do not.
Consider your typical method of response. Do you tend to lash out when someone attacks you? Do you withdraw? The prophet Elijah ran as far away from Queen Jezebel as he could when she threatened him with his life. Isolated, hungry, and tired, Elijah went from slaying the prophets of Baal to hiding in a cave. For many of us, it’s easy to run from our critics and pray it all goes away. Instead, a confident leader must trust that God is on her side and appropriately respond. James 1:19b-20 reminds us, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.”
Learn how you typically respond and find healthy ways that result in moving forward. If you tend to fight back with words, take a break and catch your breath before firing off an angry response. If you tend to withdraw, consider healthier ways of engaging with others and expressing your feelings.
Consider the good parts of criticism and the value of counsel from trusted mentors and friends. Proverbs 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens another.” There really is such a thing as constructive criticism, and all of us are better when trusted friends and advisers encourage and push us to be better leaders. For me, at times their counsel has stung, but because we had an ongoing relationship, I’ve been able to receive it and adapt decisions that needed correction.
Finally, when you are facing criticism, stay focused on the main thing and the spiritual mission you have been given. Cling to the truth of God’s Word and allow the Lord to fight your battles. He’s a big God, and He will fight for you.
Kelly is the Manager of Magazines/Devotional Publishing and Women’s Ministry Training for Lifeway Christian Resources. She is the author of Ministry to Women: The Essential Guide to Leading Women in the Local Church and contributor to the Lifeway Women’s Bible, as well as the Lifeway Women Advent and Easter studies. In addition, she is the co-host of the MARKED podcast for Lifeway Women. She has a Master of Theology degree from Gateway Seminary and is currently pursuing her Doctorate in Ministry degree.