Friday, October 23, 2009

Handling Criticism While in Leadership

When you're the leader, how do you handle criticism? I believe that the answer to this question goes a long way toward revealing what is in a person's heart as well as doing much to determine what kind of outcome any person will have in leadership. A proper response to criticism will arise out of an optimum combination of internal security and humility. These two concepts are not really in tension with one another for a Christian. A Christian avoids insecurity not by abandoning humility, but by humbly acknowledging that my many failings and weaknesses are amply corrected by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Don't let the voices of your critics dominate your thinking. I'm especially speaking to those of you who, like me, serve as pastors. It is easy, depending upon your personality, to drift into the delusion that your critics speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. However, that's rarely the case. Even if there is truth to what your critics are saying, it usually isn't the whole truth. Did God call you into the ministry? Did He call you into your present position of service? If so, then in addition to whatever shortcomings your critics may see in you, there are the good things that God is doing in you to equip you for the calling that He has given to you. The criticisms also may not fit the category of "nothing but the truth." Sometimes critics will take what is a real weakness in your life or your ministry and push it too far for their own reasons. A wise person listens for the encouraging voice of the Holy Spirit for support in the midst of attack.

On the other hand, don't shut out the voices of your critics entirely. Your critics often will not be speaking lies and nothing but lies, either. Not always, but most times, criticisms that have no basis in the truth whatsoever will also be no threat to you whatsoever, and you'll know that instinctively. For example, if someone were to allege that I, Bart Barber, drink up all of the coffee at the church and leave none for the rest of the staff members, then that allegation wouldn't make it very far—I don't even drink coffee. Only the plausible accusations gain a foothold, because they have some basis in the truth. Sometimes, there is information in an accusation that can be helpful to me, even if the person delivering that information wishes to harm me with it.

I think that there are many mistakes that people often make in dealing with criticism:

  1. Automatically moving all critics to my "enemies list." If you have this habit, you'll quickly wind up with a full list of enemies and an empty list of friends. The person who disagrees with you or criticizes you on topic A may turn out to be your strongest ally on topic B.

    Make this mistake, and you are doomed to finding a new church every few years.

  2. Demeaning valid criticism. When people have reasonable criticism to offer, you must respond to it reasonably. If you do not, other people will perceive it as a weakness on your part and you will wind up strengthening your critics with your actions rather than weakening them.

    A prime example of this is President Obama's treatment of Fox News. Obama's dismissiveness toward Fox News gives an impression of him as imperious at best and unable to answer his critics at worst. I wish I could say that pastors or denominational leaders never act the same way, but that's just not the case. It is hard—really hard—when passions rise to treat critics with dignity, but that remains the best course of action in defense of a worthy cause. I have failed often in this regard, but I try to remind myself of this truth.

  3. Failing to spot the difference between criticisms and questions. Sometimes you will encounter people who are just trying on the opposing viewpoint as an exercise in making up their own minds. The difference between a questioner and a critic is one of certainty. Unloading both barrels on someone who is just trying to make up his mind is a great way to make up his mind in the wrong direction.

The best steps for overcoming criticism, in my opinion, are understanding, explaining, and trusting. Your first obligation in dealing with criticism is to demonstrate that you truly understand the rationale that the critic is putting forward. The right kinds of sentences in this regard might begin with, "I can see why Fred might wonder about that, because…" You're helping to demonstrate that Fred (your critic) doesn't know something that you don't know. Ideally, you'd like people to believe that you have already considered exactly what Fred is talking about, and that you've nonetheless come to a different conclusion. Indeed, you want people to conclude that you know everything that Fred knows, and that you still know a little more besides that, which is why you've come to a different conclusion.

Well, actually, ideally you don't just want people to draw that conclusion—ideally you want that actually to be true. If Fred is presenting a point of view that you don't understand or that you haven't considered up to this point, do yourself the favor of taking a moment to consider it.

Once you have come to understand your critics point of view, and have demonstrated to everyone that you do understand it fully, you need to explain why you have still, even understanding all that your critics say, have come to a different conclusion than they have. It may not be iron-clad syllogistic proof. Most things in life aren't quite that clear-cut. But it needs to be a sound bit of reasoning that people can grasp for themselves. Good sentences along these lines often start with, "Even though I understand all that Fred is saying, I think we've got to give careful consideration to…"

Finally, there comes a time to trust in the Lord and in the people. Do so internally and communicate it externally. Tell people, "I'm glad that we're looking carefully at all of the points of view. I'm confident in the case that I've made, but I'm even more confident in the leadership of the Holy Spirit and in the way that each of you can listen to Him as you weigh all of this prayerfully and we decide together what to do."

Really, I believe that President Obama is a great illustration of this whole concept (and if you hold a different opinion of President Obama, don't let that make you miss the point of this little essay). Dictatorial leaders who demand adoration and will not brook any criticism may be very successful for a while, but they are ultimately doomed in any free society. Great leaders will be able to learn from criticism and grow through criticism, demonstrating thoroughly to the people whom they lead that they have no interest in protecting themselves at the expense of the mission. If this is true for political leaders and business leaders, how much more ought it to be true for people who claim that their own selves have been buried together with Christ and are beyond protection anyway?


Bob Cleveland said...

Well spoken, and needful IMO.

I understand that, if you look at most churches, you might find more folks who tend to criticize for the wrong reasons .. because they simply don't like something or other .. than people who offer true constructive criticism. I personally thank God for all of both kinds I've ever encountered, as I have needed more often to examine my own ways, than the ways of others. And they all do that, whether it acts to affirm what I do believe, or offer the chance for needed correction.

I think it was Abe Lincoln who said that when he was right, throngs of people telling him he was wrong would not change his mind, but when we was wrong, 10,000 legions of angels telling him he was right wouldn't make him right.

So, thank God for critics. And for a Holy Spirit Who desires such closeness with us, that He can guide us in discerning the differences.

jonwhitehead said...

Great words, Bart. When I counsel church clients about their bylaws, I always counsel them that the most important discussion they can have now is the discussion about what will happen when there is disagreement.

Because there will come a time in every church when the leadership will be split, or the congregation differs from the pastor. Before that happens, it's important to decide how you will make the best decision in those situations -- before you know who is "right" and who is "wrong." Trying to decide in the middle of the storm will just inflame the other side.

The early church handled that kind of dissent by asking the congregation to solve the problem. Unfortunately, the gut reaction of many pastors is that they must win the dispute, right or wrong, lest their leadership/CEO role be questioned.

Anonymous said...


Excellent observations and advice.

The hard part is putting it into practice.


David R. Brumbelow said...

Very good comments that all us pastors should heed.
David R. Brumbelow