I recently listened to a conference message by Dr. Joel Beeke on how to handle criticism, with a particular emphasis on pastors. I really appreciated his insights, which were wise, practical, and biblical.
Below is a summary of his talk. While not all of what you read below is necessarily verbatim, I believe that it nonetheless captures what Dr. Beeke had to say to pastors, who must face all kinds of criticism in their callings.
Beeke recalled how he was asked to address this topic at a conference in Africa some years ago. While researching it, he recalled being “stunned” at how little it has been addressed.
“More than any other topic I have addressed in all my life has hit such a nerve” as this one, he said.
“Brothers and sisters, we don’t know how to deal with criticism.”
“We need to know how to criticize people constructively, and how to receive criticism constructively.”
The problems with criticism are obvious: it promotes backbiting, and thinking evil of those who criticize us.
Beeke then asked a question: if 80% of ministers or more say that their greatest problem of coping with criticism, don’t we need some biblical guidance on how to solve this problem?
He then provided 11 practical guidelines, mostly from his experiences, on dealing with criticism in the ministry.
- Consider Criticism Inevitable
“He who stands up in the front will inevitably get kicked in the rear.” – A Dutch saying
People have strong feelings about everything—especially God, which is probably the most important thing in their lives.
“Sometimes in church life, our task is keep everyone equally dissatisfied.” – Beeke’s father
It is inevitable that some will not like you if you are a pastor. Others will hate you.
“If we said and did nothing, we wouldn’t get criticized. But then, we wouldn’t be doing the Lord’s will, would we?”
2. Consider the Source
Who is criticizing you? An office bearer, an unbeliever, a fringe member of the church?
80% of my criticisms come from 20% of my members who are the least dedicated to the work of the church. Don’t ignore their criticisms, but ask, how important is that criticism?
The more we sincerely welcome constructive criticism, the more we will benefit from it.
Welcome people as they express their concerns, but don’t respond obsessively to all of them.
If 2 in a congregation of 700 complain, that’s one thing. But if it’s 50 out of 200, then pay attention.
3. Consider Timing and Prayer
If I respond to people as soon as they criticize me, chances are I will respond with self-defensiveness.
“When I receive a criticism,” Beeke notes, “I ask them to let me pray on it for a day or two before responding. My responses are less self-centered, and more understanding. Doing this shows respect to others.”
In the long term, pastors will become more well known for your reactions than your initial actions.
“Truth has a way of vindicating itself. Sometimes, you have to wait longer than one or two days before responding to a personal criticism.”
Luke 21:19: “In your patience, possess your souls.”
4. Consider Yourself
Critics are often God’s gifts to guard us from self-satisfied and self-destructive tendencies. The Holy Spirit uses our critics to keep us from exalting ourselves. It’s true that critics—especially our worst ones—almost always exaggerate their cases. It’s true that they are seldom entirely right.
But often, they are a little bit right.
The worst thing you can do when criticized is to latch on to the exaggeration.
For instance, a church member might say, “You’re always late for appointments!”
Don’t get angry and say, “I wasn’t late last week,” and walk away, leaving you and the other person angry.
All the person probably meant was, “Pastor, could you please make an effort to be on time more often?”
A kinder, slower response will let both of you walk away in good spirits.
Let yourself be more vulnerable.
“Every minister must develop the hide of a rhinoceros, and the heart of a child.”
There is a fine line between letting every criticism bounce off of you, versus letting every criticism bleed.
One way to work it out: having accountability partners (wife, fellow minister, etc.). Report the criticism objectively as possible. Don’t accent the criticism, and make it into a pity party.
By all means, never be afraid to say, “I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” And, “I forgive you,” immediately and unconditionally.
5. Consider the Content
What are they criticizing you for?
Goal: Every time I get criticized, I need to deal with it.
But deal with it, make any necessary change, and move on!
If a change doesn’t need to be made, tell the person. Be direct, and tell them why, as firmly and kindly as the situation will allow for, and move on!
“Don’t let criticism fester. Move on!”
The goal in every criticism is to deal with it constructively. Never become angry. “Turn the other cheek,” Jesus said. As a minister, you cannot give it back equally to a member of your congregation; that’s a disaster waiting to happen.
You may need to patiently explain why you aren’t taking a critic’s advice. But in some cases, especially when you’re dealing with a difficult critic, it might be better not to explain, as this can lead to over-explaining. The critic may conclude that you are defensive.
“Fight God’s battles, and God will fight your battles.”
By all means, don’t take every whisper seriously.
“A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle.” -Proverbs 18:19
There may come a point where, if a relationship is ruptured and it’s eating you up, you’ve apologized and they won’t forgive you, you just need to move on.
Once you’ve dealt with a criticism, don’t let it fester. Then, go bury yourself in your work again.
6. Consider Scripture
There are wonderful texts that encourage us in Scripture. Tape them to your computer, and memorize them.
“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” -Romans 8:28
“No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord.” -Isaiah 54:17
7. Consider Christ
Look to Jesus in the face of mounting criticism.
“For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously.” -1 Peter 2:21-23
If Christ, who was perfect and innocent was mocked, what can we imperfect pastors expect?
Remember, we are followers of Jesus, and fellow-sufferers. That’s true of lay people and pastors.
“Expect people to say terrible things about you beyond all reality…and then, remember Christ.”
Say to yourself, “No matter how badly anyone has treated me, they have not treated me as badly as I have treated Christ. And if Christ has forgiven me, why shouldn’t I forgive my brother or sister when they have said false things about me?”
From our heart, it should be easy to forgive, because we have been forgiven so much more.
“Don’t get angry, but get down on your knees and thank God that they don’t know by half how bad you really are.” -Puritan Pastor
When criticism gets me down, it drives me to the Lord, and anything that drives me to the Lord is worth the price.
8. Consider Biblical Saints
One Example: Nehemiah had so many people attacking him. Many of his workers were not skilled and/or committed. How did he respond? He committed his cause to God in prayer.
His strategy: Pray, remember, revise, but don’t abandon.
He revised his plans without abandoning his vision.
Many times in pastoral ministry, it’s three steps forward, four steps back. You can bring up a vision, and if it’s strongly criticized, let it rest for time; perhaps bring it up a year later, and it may go well. In making you wait, the Lord may be taking away your pride, and reminding you to lean upon Him.
9. Remember Love
Love the one who criticizes you. Try to get to know them better. You can’t criticize those whom you don’t know.
Instead of avoiding your critics, go out of your way to meet them. Don’t shun them, but welcome them.
When something has been dealt with, don’t ever bring it up again.
“Unless you have forgiven others, you read your own death warrant every time you read the Lord’s Prayer.” -Charles Spurgeon
It’s hard to criticize someone you’re praying with. Pray with them if you can. Do it lovingly. Let your prayer be the very reason why the critic wants to tell you.
Of course, sometimes the criticism is so bad, you should feel bad for him.
Put away anything that hinders love (1 Peter 2:1). As the saying goes, “Kill them with kindness.” As the Bible says, “Heap coals of fire upon his head.”
10. Consider Long-Term Vision
No president was both so respected and so reviled as Abraham Lincoln.
A friend came to him to say that the criticism has gotten very bad.
Lincoln responded, “When it gets dark, the dogs will bark and bark at the moon.”
His friend said, “So, how does that story end?”
Lincoln responded, “There is no rest of the story. The moon just goes on shining.”
His point: he knew he was right, he had long-term vision and that people would be barking at him, but he was clear in his conscience.
As pastors, we can too easily waffle at “barking parishioners” when we know we’re in the right in accord with God’s plan, mind, and vision.
To attain temporary peace with a few disgruntled members, we are prone to abandon valuable long-term valuable vision. Don’t do that! Don’t be intimidated by the minority to say, do, and be nothing. Don’t lose heart, and don’t give up.
“Never, never, never, give up.” -Winston Churchill
11. Consider Eternity
This is the ultimate, long-term vision.
On the other side of the Jordan, our faithful Savior will be waiting for you, saying, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
Even though you have many faults and wrinkles, He loves you and will take care of you, and at the end of time, all criticism will be past. There will then be perfect unity, and perfect worship. No denominations, no divisions, Luther and Calvin will see eye-to-eye. Our believing critics will embrace us, and we will embrace them. There will be perfect, visible, and complete oneness.
Three things to consider about criticisms when weighed against eternity:
First, we will understand that all of the criticisms we received here were to prepare us for Emmanuel’s Land.
Second, we will see that all of the criticisms we received were but a light affliction when compared to the eternal weight of glory that awaits us.
Third, in Heaven, we will be more than repaid for every affliction we endured on Earth for the sake of our faithful, perfect, and best friend, Jesus Christ.
“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” -Matthew 5:11-12
Dr. Beeke recalled a woman in his congregation who had a very difficult pregnancy. Finally, she had her baby. When she did, she told him, “Now that my baby is here, I have forgotten all about the pain.”
So it will be with us at the end of time.
“The bride eyes not her garment, But her dear bridegroom’s face;
I will not gaze at glory, but on my king of grace.
Not at the crown He giveth, but on His piercèd hand;
The Lamb is all the glory of Immanuel’s land.”
When can you start complaining? When we have given as much for Christ as He has given for us. That day will never happen.
Look and live Christward, and say with Paul, “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”