If you serve in a church, criticism comes with the territory. I doubt that any pastor or leader likes it. But, we must deal with it in a God-honoring way. One way to do that is to understand why people criticize us. I’ve listed below what I believe are 7 reasons why church people criticize pastors with a suggested response to each.
Why church people criticize pastors
- They lack spiritual maturity. Some people criticize you because they think it’s part of a Christian’s job description. After all, “Pastors need to avoid pride and some good healthy criticism can keep ’em humble.”
- Response: Don’t be surprised that you get criticized. Make sure that your church has an intentional spiritual formation strategy to help people think and act more biblically.
- They feel they are losing the church they once knew. As we get older, we must deal with the inevitable results of aging, slowing cognitive function and reduced flexibility and resilience. Seniors in your church may feel that changes you are bringing are taking away the church they grew up in. Guess what? Unless we stay resilient as we age, when we get older we’ll probably feel the same way.
- Response: Give a gracious listening ear to seniors and seek to empathize with them by stepping into their shoes. Try to see their concerns from their perspective.
- They don’t feel they have a voice. Some church people can feel that their opinions don’t matter and so criticize to get their voice heard.
- Response: Provide opportunities that give people a way to give input. I’ve heard Patrick Lencioni, leadership author and guru, often say that people will support you if they feel that they’ve been truly heard.
- They don’t deal with change very well. Some people are born more adverse to change than others. Their brains are wired that way. Their fear circuits are more easily set off by uncertainty and change brings uncertainty.
- Response: Recognizing this fact will give you greater tolerance and understanding why some people tend to criticize more than others. Again, empathy will go a long way to help these folks feel more comfortable with change and less critical.
- They need to find something or someone toward which to vent their hurt caused by other life issues. Some people in your church project their personal hurts through criticism. Criticism helps ease their angst, at least for the short term.
- Response: Although this is not a pleasant reality, it is true. A wise counselor once said, “The past is not past until it is processed.” Many in your church still carry heavy loads of guilt and anger that can easily spill over toward you through criticism. I suggest prayer in response to this kind of critic. Prayer could fit into a response for every category I’ve listed, but it’s especially apropos in this case. If you sense that others are projecting their pain toward you through criticism, ask the Lord to heal their hurt and to release their unforgiveness, bitterness, and pain.
- They are truly malevolent people committed to your demise.
- Response: Although I believe these critics are few, they do exist. If you face this kind of person in your church, take bold action. Titus 3.10 commands us to warn a divisive person once and after that have nothing to do with them. Sometimes extreme cases require you to apply church discipline.
- They have a point. Sometimes the criticism is valid and you need to hear it.
- Response: Listen and heed. When the criticism reflects a valid issue, learn from it and make appropriate adjustments in your life or ministry. Proverbs 27.6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.”
Criticism is never pleasant, but sometimes necessary.
In my third book, People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership, I quoted a bold statement by author Edwin Friedman who wrote a great leadership book, Failure of Nerve. He said, “Chronic criticism is, if anything, often a sign that the leaders is functioning better.”
Whether or not what he says always holds true, I do believe that it you aren’t facing at least some criticism in your church, you’re probably trying to lead too safely. I also believe that to lead at our best, we must respond to all criticism in ways that honor God and respect the criticizer.
What other kinds of critics have you seen in the Church?