Every church leader faces criticism at some point. Dr. Edwards suggests how we may cope with it, as well as warning us about what doesn't work.
The ministry is one of the few professions in which all that its practitioners do is evaluated, for good or for ill. Criticism simply goes with the territory. Because local church elders often take the place of the pastor and act as church leaders, they must also learn to cope with criticism. Church leaders live a unique existence. They play a multiplicity of roles. Those in church ministry must be counselors, preachers, evangelists, community leaders, priests, and prophets to their congregations.
Parishioners expect things to go well (unless they are among the few who work to make things go poorly) and tend to notice only the mistakes. Church leaders may joke about what congregations expect, but behind the smiles lie disturbing realities.
On the other side, remember throughout this article that church elders may also occupy the seat of the critic. At the feeling level, church members (including many elders) expect the pastor to be in the office when they telephone or drop by, but otherwise to be out calling or attending meetings. They demand that the pastor be adept at personal counseling as well as at building a church. Members anticipate that the pastor will find time to prepare sermons and do continuing education, yet never leave town; be more Christian than anyone else, yet never offend anyone's political or economic prejudices; be totally ethical, yet understand and forgive their indiscretions; be open and honest, yet never admit any shortcomings.
But whether you are a church elder or pastor, you may be subject to criticisms of style. Such criticisms seem puzzling because style has little to do with one's performance on the job. Such things as sense of humor, whether one preaches wearing a coat on a hot day, whether one's best thinking hours come late at night or early in the morning, or how one looks in a certain hat have little to do with the gospel. Yet these behaviors seem important to some members.
Church leaders are fair game for criticism. If an elder or pastor vents frustrations in the presence of others, he or she pays a price. Critics rarely seek change or reconciliation, any more than hunters do with their prey. The fun is in the stalking and the shooting.
So how does one relate to critics? Beware of the following stances. They are guaranteed not to work.
Pastoral: See the critics as having personal problems and in need of help.
Parental: Tell yourself the critics are engaged in childish antics; some will "mature," while others will remain hopeless but lovable.
Psychological: Dismiss the critics as motivated by psychological problems; label them as paranoid, schizophrenic, or neurotic.
Adversarial: Try to win a contest of wills, since the critics are wrong.
Righteous: See the critics as less Christian than yourself and therefore acting out of envy or ignorance.
Retreating: Retreat into family, hobbies, studies or preparation for more specialized jobs to avoid hurt.
Professional: Call parishioners "clients" who lack the expertise to tell leaders how their jobs should be done.
Arrogant: Declare, "I am the only one who knows what is right, just because I am me."
Manipulative: Arrange the church structure so that only those favorable to oneself remain in power.
Divisive: Separate the congregation in for and against camps, isolating critics in a minor congregation operating alongside but separate from the "real" congregation.
Escapist: Flee to another church to minimize criticism and to increase the honeymoon period experienced in a new situation.
Analytic: Label critics by organizational or management terms.
Ubiquitous: Try to become all things to all people until you lose your own identity.
Martyrdom: Create an unhealthy dependency relationship with those who side with you, allowing others to become disgusted and possibly leave.
Prophetic: Do not take critics seriously because prophets expect criticism.
Intellectual: Treat criticism as it is treated in the Old Testament wisdom literature, an interesting exercise in marginal scholarship.
Reconciling: Seek out critics and wheedle them into a tearful reconciliation. (Few critics will go through such an episode more than once.)
These methods allow us to cope without actually dealing with the criticism. Criticism needs to be dealt with at the human level. We must treat critics as children of God. You have to face them on three levels: the emotional, the rational, and the practical.
1. The emotional level. Controlling emotional reactions does not come easy. Criticism makes a direct attack on your self-esteem, and the natural response is to feel resentment and anger. But to openly express these emotions makes you more vulnerable; to dwell on them causes you to poison yourself.
Jesus said to pray for your critics, to bless them that hurt you (see Luke 6:28). This may seem preposterous to someone smarting under the lash of undeserved criticism, but amazingly such prayer relieves hurt. If you make a conscious choice to pray for your critic, you cannot simultaneously brood over the injury done to you. Jesus reconciled Himself with His critics by relating to them through God. "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
In terms of incarnation, God in Christ dwells in our fellow beings. We cannot dismiss the idea that through criticism God may be talking to us. Coping with criticism involves how we relate to the critics. Dealing with criticism means asking God what His Word has to say to us.
How do you steady your emotions under attack? Remember that strong men and women have always been criticized. If your life has vitality, if you want to get things done for God, and if you tend to blaze new paths, you will encounter hostility and opposition. Christ experienced bitter criticism and finally crucifixion by His contemporaries who could not endure His revolutionary ideas.
Abraham Lincoln once said, "If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how─the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, 10 angels swearing I was right would make no difference."
2. The rational level. The second step in coping with criticism is to be rational. Take the criticism and examine it objectively, for as Theodor Leschetizky, a great piano teacher, remarked, "We learn much from the disagreeable things people say, for they make us think; whereas the good things only make us glad."
Ask yourself if there is any truth in the criticism. Beware of self-excuses and rationalizations; if you give in to these, you only compound the original error. If you conclude that your critic states the truth, you must acknowledge that truth. This should silence him or her─what more can be said? Another positive result─other people tend to rally around someone who can admit mistakes.
Another rational approach involves examining the qualifications of your critic. Is the person reputable and sincere? If so, you cannot afford to dismiss his or her criticism too readily. Has he or she reason to be spiteful or jealous? Then perhaps you can dismiss your critic. In such a case, dignified silence may be the best response. But if the criticism is false and damaging, you must respond. In such a case the best reply is simply to state the facts rather than retaliate.
Remember too that when criticism finally reaches your ears, it has probably become exaggerated. Beware of advice. Some people actually enjoy the excitement of a feud, and will throw gas on the flames if they can. "Come on," they seem to say to the victim of criticism, "put up a fight!"
Another aspect of being rational means recognizing that not everyone is going to like you. (Occasionally some people rub us the wrong way for no particular reason─keep in mind that we too may rub someone else the wrong way.) Facing this simple truth will help you to not be unduly disturbed by a certain amount of unpopularity.
In dealing with criticism at the rational level, the key is not so much a matter of the leader and his or her critics, but the leader and God. The leader is first and foremost a servant of God, not of the congregation. The only opinion that counts is God's. We might have the smoothest-running, bestoiled ecclesiastical machine around, but if we are not at one with God, then what does it matter?
Two dangers exist. First, our Lord states, "In that you do it to one of the least of these, you do it unto Me" (see Matt. 25:40). Christ is present in our parishioners. Being reconciled to God sometimes means being reconciled with a sister or brother.
A second danger exists in the potential subversion of Jesus' own reconciliation ethic: "So if you are offering your gift at the altar, . . . first be reconciled" (Matt. 5:23, 24, RSV). What if we try to reconcile, and the other party refuses? Is Christ's statement an absolute? The Gospels do record several instances when Jesus Himself had to slip out of town rather than reconcile with His accusers.
How to reconcile may depend on our priorities. If we accept every criticism as of equal importance the congregation may get the message that they control us rather than God controlling us. When our parishioners criticize us, sometimes they want to know if we really are leaders. In their hearts they hope for a leader who belongs to God first.
3. The practical level. How can leaders deal with criticism on the practical level? You can try to help your critic. Criticism is a two-edged sword, and often the poisoned edge cuts the person who wields it. Ellen White agrees when she writes: "Evilspeaking is a twofold curse, falling more heavily upon the speaker than upon the hearer. He who scatters the seeds of dissension and strife, reaps in his own soul the deadly fruits" (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 176). Further, "Caviling, ridicule, and misrepresentation can be indulged in only at the expense of the debasement of your own souls. The use of such weapons . . . cheapens the mind and separates the soul from God" (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 466).
Gossip can be nothing but criticism motivated by jealousy or insecurity. Small people find it easier to tear someone else down than try to build themselves up. But what is their reward? No one trusts them, and ultimately no one believes them.
Jesus commands us to return evil with good (see Luke 6:35). This is no pious nonsense; kindness is stronger than malice. Who can forget Abigail's surly husband, Nabal, who found himself foolishly in trouble with David. Infuriated, David set out to wreak revenge. In a display of wisdom and tact Abigail skillfully turned David from his wrathful plan (1 Sam. 25). Of this story Ellen White writes, "With kind words she sought to soothe his irritated feelings" (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 666). And she did, for kindness "is the most powerful argument that can be produced in favor of Christianity" (Gospel Workers, p. 122).
Chronic criticism usually comes from warped and unhappy people. Clutching at false importance, they try to cover up their own inadequacies by pointing out the failings of others. To reflect Christ when you encounter hostility you need to look behind the anger, understand its root, and attempt to remove it for the other person's sake as well as your own.
As English statesman, Benjamin Disraeli, once remarked, "How much easier it is to be critical than to be correct." There will always be critics in your world, some well-intentioned, others cruel. You can defend yourself against the unkind ones by learning to control your emotions, adopting a calm and rational attitude, and sincerely trying to help your critics to rid themselves of their anger. Remember, however, that your best defesce lies in your own day-to-day conduct. It means keeping your moral standards high, having a clear conscience, and living a life devoid of deception.
REX D. EDWARDS
Rex D. Edwards, D.Min., is director of continuing education, General Conference Ministerial Association, Silver Spring, Maryland.