I read an anecdote once about an old man and child traveling with a donkey, passing through a number of different villages during their journey. In the first, the old man led the donkey with the child following and was called a fool by the villagers for not riding the donkey. So, wanting to humor the people, the old man climbed onto its back. The people in the next village, however, called the old man cruel and heartless for riding the donkey while the child walked. So, the man sat the child on the donkey and once again walked. In the third village, the people criticized the child, calling him lazy and uncaring for making the old man walk. Exasperated, the old man climbed behind the child and both rode on the donkey. Finally, the residents of the fourth village said the poor donkey was overly strained carrying the two passengers. The last time anyone saw the old man, he was carrying the donkey!
When I read this, I was struck not only by its humor but the startling feeling of recognition I felt as I considered life in pastoral ministry. The truth is, criticism is a ubiquitous reality in ministry and oftentimes the source of deep-seated feelings of despair and disillusionment. The ever-present nature of criticism means that we can’t avoid it or run from it. Criticism comes from all directions leaving profound wounds. The only answer is in learning how to face it and overcome it. As pastors who desire to not only “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews12:1, ESV), but to “run that you may obtain it [the prize])” (1 Corinthians. 9:24b, ESV), it is imperative that we learn the art of conquering criticism. So, how do we go about learning this art? How do we move beyond coping with criticism to overcoming it?
Here are six practices that have helped me in my journey:
Embrace its Inevitability
As mentioned above, criticism is an unavoidable part of life in ministry. Jesus was criticized throughout His ministry as a drunk, a glutton, and a friend of sinners. Paul was criticized as an illegitimate apostle and weak in appearance. Criticism is an inescapable reality of leadership in general and ministry in particular. In embracing its inevitability, we are able to avoid the shock that so often uncenters us and to remain steadfast in our identity in Christ rather than our performance.
Consider the Source
It is important to always remember from whom criticism comes. How well do you know them? More importantly, how well do they know you? How involved are these critics in your life? While criticism offers us a unique opportunity for personal evaluation and growth, it is often more about their felt need in relation to us as pastors than to our performance.
Consider the Content
When criticism reaches us, it is very easy to find reasons to disregard the content. From extenuating circumstances to our criticism of the would-be critic, there are a myriad of ways to excuse ourselves from taking responsibility for what has been said of us. Here, we must remember that it is impossible to overcome something we won’t face. Honestly consider the criticism. Allow it to become a tool in the hands of the Holy Spirit by which we are further formed into Christ’s image. This is a supremely difficult task, especially when we attempt to do it alone. Share it with one or two trusted people in order for them to: (1) listen and encourage you and (2) honestly engage in constructive dialogue on where there might be opportunities for growth.
The truth is, we are all sinful and flawed, which means that there are most likely seeds of truth interspersed in every criticism. The danger lies not in the accusation or criticism but in ignoring these seeds of truth and allowing criticism the time to grow into disappointment, disillusionment, and despair. It is in such environments that we as pastors can become vulnerable to deeper doubt and darker sin.
Own What You Can or Should . . . and Discard the Rest
In my experience, I have rarely received criticism that didn’t reveal something that God wanted to work with in my heart and life. In fact, the more viscerally I responded to the criticism only revealed more distinctly something that needed to change in me. The point is, by allowing ourselves the freedom to own our mistakes and weaknesses the easier it is to move forward in growth and to identify the chaff so often attached to criticism. It is the chaff of criticism that can distract us. Once you identify it, throw it away!
Don’t Allow Criticism to Take Root
When there is a constant emphasis on criticism, it can begin to shape the way we view both ourselves and our lives. Feeling the sting of criticism over a prolonged period of time, I have found myself becoming more critical of those around me. My words became vehicles by which I would transfer my own anger and hurt to those God had called me to. Criticism had so filled my life that I became a new source of criticism for others. Like begat like. It is critical for pastors to recognize this when it begins to surface. By being aware of this, we are able to embrace the process of healing and evaluation that personal criticism can offer when faced in relationship with God and others.
It is amazing how a life of humility, integrity, and love can overcome the criticism of others. Be faithful to God and the ministry He has called you to, faithfully witnessing to the love of the Triune God. Over time, as you grow in Christ, the criticism of the past will become ever more ephemeral as the light of God’s work is revealed in and through you.