5 Ways to Handle the Chronic Church Critic

Every church has ’em. The Chronic Critic…the person(s) who simply can’t be pleased. No matter what you do, they have something negative to say. You are not alone when you face chronic critics. Nehemiah, perhaps one of the greatest leaders of all times was on a mission from God. Yet he faced chronic critics. They could have derailed his God-given mission. They didn’t. And here’s what he did.

How to handle the chronic critic:

Complete this statement: The last time I was criticized by someone in my church I…

  • Reacted
  • Blew up
  • Screamed
  • Cussed (maybe not out loud, but in your mind)
  • Stayed silent and drove my anger inward
  • Became defensive
  • Felt embarrased
  • Listened and learned from the critic
  • ???.

Were any of these responses true of you?

Criticism never feels good. Sometimes it’s warranted. Sometimes it’s not. Nehemiah’s criticism from Sanballat and Tobia was not warranted, yet Nehemiah wisely responded with the 5 P’s below. Nehemiah 4. 1-9 tells the story.

Neh. 4.1   When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews,  2 and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble — burned as they are?”

3   Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building — if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!”

4   Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity.  5 Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.

6   So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.

7   But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry.  8 They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.  9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat. (NIV)

You’ll recall that God gave Nehemiah a burden to re-build the wall around Jerusalem, a noble task. He obeyed God’s prompting and got criticized for it. The five insights below from Nehemiah’s response to his chronic critics give us a good template to follow when we’re criticized. I call them the 5 P’s.

  • PREPARE FOR IT: if you want to make a difference for God, you will be criticized, even though what you’re doing is noble. We live  live in a fallen world and this world’s systems and values oppose the rule of God. If satan can use criticism to derail you, he will. The greater impact you have for God, the more you will be criticized, not less. If you try to please everybody, you may avoid criticism, but you’ll be miserable.
    • For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism. (Harrison’s Postulate)
  • PAUSE AND PRAY: Instead of reacting, retorting, getting defensive, showing the illogic of his critics, Nehemiah first turned to the Lord in prayer (v. 4). The criticism hurt, but he did not even the score. He asked the Lord to bring appropriate judgment. Prayer takes the sting out criticism and when we pause, it gives time for clear thinking to rule, rather than reactivity.
    • Matt. 5.44 … I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer… (Message)
  • PRAY AND PROCESS: Criticism often makes us feel bad and often we act irrationally or in an healthy way to it. When we get criticized we must, however, process that criticism by asking these kinds of questions. What is valid about it? What do I do with it? Do I ignore it? Do I confront the criticizer? Do I learn from it? We should not disregard all criticism.  We can learn much from our critics. Some critics can even become our best coaches.
    • Psa. 141:5 Let the godly strike me!  It will be a kindness! If they reprove me, it is soothing medicine. Don’t let me refuse it. (NLT)
      • Evaluate the merit of criticism in two ways.
        1.  In light of the spirit and attitude in which it was given. Did the critic criticize to help you or to hurt you?
        2. In light of the voices to whom your critic listens. Does the critic hang around with godly people, or simply run with a pack of other critics?
  • PROCEED WITH CARE: Although Nehemiah often prayed, he didn’t use prayer as an excuse to do nothing. He did something. He moved forward with the project to rebuild the wall. When the chronic critic criticizes you, don’t let it immobilize you. Do something tangible.
    • You may need to separate yourself from your constant critics and not listen to them any longer.
    • You may need to boldly tell your critic to stop criticizing.
    • You may need to listen and learn from your critic.
  • PROTECT YOUR VULNERABILITIES: In response to his critics, he posted guards at the wall’s most vulnerable places. Sometimes criticism reveals where were are weakest and most vulnerable. When such criticism reveals those weaknesses, we may need to take some of these extra steps to deal with those sensitive places.
    • Consult a good counselor.
    • Invite a safe friend into your life to help you process the criticism.
    • Study Scripture to see what God’s Word says about that area.
    • Read a helpful book that addresses your sensitive area.

Ultimately we must look to Christ who provided the perfect pattern for responding to our chronic critics.

1Pet. 2.23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (NIV)

What has helped you respond to your critics?

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[1] Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). Be Determined (p. 50). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

Critics: Stay Away or Draw Close to Them?

Criticism hurts, especially the non-constructive kind. We tend to stay away from such critics. But is that the wisest choice? Should we draw close to them instead of pulling away from them? In this post I explore the idea of not shunning your critics.

Murray Bowen, the father of family systems, coined the phrase “non-anxious presence.” He used this term to describe a personal quality that when a leader exhibits it, can keep a family or a group’s overall emotional reactivity and anxiety down. He and others suggest that leaders should not cut off their critics, but should actually stay connected to them in a calm way.

What does a non-anxious leader look like?

  • can truly listen to another, even if he or she is bearing bad news or criticism
  • can hold his emotions in check when in the hot seat
  • seldom gets defensive
  • can acknowledge the emotions of his critic
  • will calmly and courageously respond instead of reacting

Ernest Shackleton, one of the greatest explorers ever, modeled this non-anxious presence with his Antarctica expedition crew as they were marooned for over a year in 1915-1916 after their ship was crushed by the ice. His calm presence and his drawing to difficult crew members allowed him to lead them all to safety. Not one man perished. Here’s what he did.

  • His photographer, Frank Hurley would feel slighted if the crew didn’t pay attention to him and would become difficult to work with. Instead of isolating him, Shackleton gave him a place in his tent and often conferred with him.
  • His physicist, Reginald Jamer, was an introverted academic. Shackleton feared that his personality might invite ridicule that in turn could escalate into a serious issue. He made him a bunkmate as well.
  • When Shackleton selected a crew to take a lifeboat to sail from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island to assemble a rescue party for the entire crew, he selected the carpenter, McNeish. He chose him not only for his skills but also because he was concerned that McNeish could create discontentment with the men who were left.
  • Finally, Shackleton specifically picked two other crewmen because he felt they might cause trouble in his absence. In total, more than half of the group he chose were potential troublemakers.

So, how can we present a non-anxious presence to those who are our critics or to those with whom our personalities rub? I suggest these five ideas.

  1. When criticized, truly try to understand the critic’s perspective. Ask questions. Really listen.
  2. When someone criticizes, thank them for sharing it.
  3. Keep a good sense of humor. Don’t allow the criticism to suck the life from you.
  4. Spend some social time with the critic so he can get to know you. Share some of your personal life story.
  5. Do something thoughtful for your critic, something that he or she would not expect from you.

As counter-intuitive as this may seen, staying calmly connected to your critics can actually help you grow as a leader and move your church or organization forward.

At what point do you believe you should you draw the line with criticism? That is, when should you cut if off before it truly damages you?

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3 Healthy Boundaries Every Leader Needs with Critics

At last year’s Willow Creek Leadership Summit, I heard Sheila Heen speak. She co-authored the book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback with Douglas Stone. The session was so good I purchased the book. Wow. What an eye-opener. It’s chocked full of great insight and I highly recommend it. One particularly helpful section dealt with healthy boundaries every leader needs with critics when we don’t want or need their criticism. The authors suggest three ways to respond that I’ve summarized below.

Three boundaries every leader needs when the critics come calling.

The authors’ basic premise is that we need feedback and how we respond determines how well the feedback helps us. But sometimes we simply don’t need or want the feedback and criticism others offer us.

Here’s how to respond with grace, tact, and clarity.

  1. I am open to your feedback but may or may not heed it.
    • In this case, you do run the risk of the other person feeling rejected. If you are seeking their advice, request it in such a way to minimize that risk. For example, if you are considering some new ways to do mens’ ministry in your church, you might ask a key church leader, “I’m asking several men about some new ideas for mens’ ministry. Any ideas you care to share?” In this way you are communicating that you are listening to several different people, not just one which can take the edge off you not taking his suggestions.
  2. I can’t receive your feedback now.
    • In this case, at the moment you are not open to feedback on an issue. Let’s say you’re a pastor and really struggled with your Sunday sermon and you’re bummed out about it. Someone comes up to you at the end of the service and says, “Can I give you some feedback to your message?” If you can’t receive it at the moment, communicate that. Simply say something like, “I appreciate your willingness to give me feedback, but I just don’t have the emotional energy to hear it now. Thanks.”
  3. I don’t want your feedback on this.
    • This is the most strident boundary response. If this person does gives feedback it could severely damage your relationship or further damage a tenuous one. Let’s say you have a chronic critic in your church who won’t let an issue die and they keep badgering you. In this case when they come to you again it may be appropriate to say, “We’ve talked about this many times and we don’t agree. Please don’t bring it up again.”

Communicating in these ways isn’t easy, but necessary at times to keep healthy boundaries. In my research for my third book People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership, I discovered that a good percentage of pastors find it difficult to draw these kinds of boundaries.

If it’s tough for you, face your fears and try one of these boundaries next week with a critic.

What has helped you keep boundaries with your critics?

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9 Ways to Respond to the Church Critic

One well-worn adage reads, “The two things you can’t avoid in life are death and taxes.” As a Pastor, I’d like to suggest two more for those in ministry. Two things a pastor can’t avoid: people being late to the Sunday service and…critics. I’ve served in full-time ministry for 35 years and I’ve experienced my share of critics. I’ve responded well to some and not-so-well to others. And I’ve learned 9 ways that have helped me respond better to the church critic.

9 Ways to Respond to the Church Critic.

  1. Give them your ear, but within reason. Don’t allow someone to destroy you with caustic criticism.
  2. Let your body language communicate that you are truly trying to understand.
  3. Avoid an immediate retort such as “Yea but,” or “You’re wrong,” or some other defensive response.
  4. Breath this silent prayer, “Lord, give me grace to respond and not react.”
  5. Before responding take a few moments to check what you’re about to say. Abraham Lincoln used to suggest counting to 100 when you get angry. That may a bit of overkill, but he is on to something.
  6. Look for the proverbial ‘grain of truth’ in the criticism and act upon it accordingly.
  7. If you see more than a grain of truth and you can’t process it alone, seek feedback from the safe person in your life. (see my post on What to Look for in a Safe Person).
  8. Ask God to keep you approachable to your critics (within reason). However, you probably wouldn’t want to vacation with them. 🙂
  9. Learn from your critics on how best to deliver criticism to others. When someone delivers criticism that you received well, ask yourself what about how they criticized you made it easier to receive. For those who don’t criticize well, avoid their tactics.

What has helped you deal with the church critic?

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A Simple Way to Deal with Criticism

In the heat of the moment when someone criticizes us, it’s easy to react and make things worse. Too often when I’ve received a critical comment at church I’ve gotten defensive or said something in return that I wish I could take back. Has that every happened to you? When that happens, what can we do in the moment? Years ago I learned a simple acronym that can help us respond appropriately to criticism. Here it is.

Respond to criticism with LEARN.

  • L listen: Simply hear the person out.
  • Eempathize: Acknowledge how they feel.
  • Aapologize: Even if you aren’t responsible for the problem, an apology for their experience may help ameliorate ill feelings.
  • Rrespond: Explain that you will attempt to address the issue if at all possible.
  • Nnotify:  Let those who can potentially fix the problem know about it.

The next time someone in your church brings you a complaint, LEARN from it instead of reacting to it.

What has helped you respond appropriately to criticism?

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