These 7 Questions Will Help You Handle Criticism

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Handle criticism, don't let it defeat you.

What leaders do matters to the people who follow them.

When a pastor preaches a poor sermon, makes a bad decision or does something embarrassing, people are affected by it.

Often these people will express their feelings to your face, which can be helpful. Some of the best advice I've received has come from people who have been frustrated with me.

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Criticism hurts. How you respond to criticism can heal. "My brothers, count it all joy when you fall into diverse temptations, knowing that the trying of your faith develops patience. But let patience perfect its work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing" (James 1:2-4).

Criticism comes in different styles. It may:

  • Come in the form of personal correction for things you need to do better.
  • Come in the form of suggestions or ideas for ways the church should get better.
  • Come in the form of hurt because of how someone was harmed, or felt harmed.

Here are seven questions, two life-giving perspectives and some words of wisdom to help you handle criticism with less hurt and more growth.

7 Questions to Ask Before You Respond to Criticism

Thank the critic for sharing their thoughts with you and ask them to give you time to think about it. Before you say anything more, work through these seven questions to sort out what's going on.

1. What part of this is true? And what should I do about it?

If you're stinging because it's personal, resist the temptation to complain to someone about it. Instead, go workout, then grab your Bible and take it to Jesus. Pour out your complaints to your friend and master.

Then talk it over with a confidant. Maybe your spouse, your mentor or an old pastor friend in another city.

Remember that an ally is not a confidant. Your board and staff should be allies, but they may not be able to handle being your confidants. So don't dump the criticism and your complaints about the critic on them.

Give yourself a day or two to get over the sting and discouragement, to sort out the truth and see how to move forward.

Doug Fields says, "I will definitely inhale the criticism ... but I don't always swallow the criticism."

2. Hurt people hurt people, so how is my critic hurting, and how can I help him?

Sooner or later every pastor gets criticized for a lack of "deep teaching" in sermons.

I've found that this particular criticism usually stems from some other place of disappointment. The person may be spiritually stagnant and relying on the preacher to rescue him or her from their personal spiritual doldrums. There may be personal pain that gets translated into frustration at the church's alpha male.

Most often, people who appear dissatisfied are lonely.

Whatever the cause, painful sermon feedback can always be harnessed to help the preacher improve. And if the person is lonely from lack of church friendships, that's an issue in your church's health that deserve attention.

You might consider befriending this critic yourself.

I once preached a sermon that elicited a scathing email from a newcomer to our church. She criticized the content of my message in a way that was so far off the message itself that I suspected there was something deeper to her pain. Turns out, I was right.

I invited the lady and her husband to lunch, and listened.

During the meal, I discovered that they had begun attending while I was away on my annual writing break. The staff member who had preached during my absence had somehow led her to believe he was the pastor of the church. My critic was in pain, not because of my message, but because she thought that I had somehow come on the scene and usurped the staff member with whom she had started to bond. Once she got to know me, she decided she liked us both and happily stayed at New Song until the military moved her husband to his next duty station.

Don't let criticism from a hurting person go into your heart, but mentally put it in a folder on your desk. Focus on your loving interaction with the critic and deal with the point of the criticism later as warranted.

3. How important is this issue to the health of the church?

Some criticism is less about you—your ability or character or what you shouldn't have said—and more about how your church functions.

Leaders sometimes come across as critical because they can see a preferable future. If the criticism comes from someone who wants to make things better, ask if they will help bring about the solution.

And congratulations, you have just turned a difficult conversation into a new leader.

If you're hearing the same concern from more than one person, for the sake of your church's health, it's time to do something about it.

4. How easy would it be to make the changes being suggested?

Seriously consider if the idea your critic has suggested is viable.

Use the Decision-Making Grid to evaluate the feasibility of the suggestion.

  • If it's not too hard to do, and it would be an improvement, go for it.
  • If it's not helpful, skip it.
  • If it's valuable, but hard to do, put the idea on a planning agenda for further consideration.

And tell your idea-bringing critic that you're seeing what you can do about it.

5. What would improve if I implemented this suggestion?

Do a little strategic thinking and dream about what it would look like if you did what the critic suggests.

Make a list of the things that you can see would improve.

You may have to dig to find a suggestion for improvement in the criticism. It may be that all the critic gives you is the downside of the complaint, and it's up to you to find the upside.

6. What might be hurt if I implemented this suggestion?

Now do a pre-mortem and think about what might go wrong if you implement this suggestion. It's not a win to fix one thing if you're harming something else in the church.

Again, make a list, only this time list the things that might be hurt if you do what the criticism proposes.

Think about unintended consequences when you respond to the complaint that you don't have a program for kids on Wednesday night. If you do, you'll consider the ramifications a Wednesday program would have on the children's volunteers on your already-stretched weekend team.

This is where the perspective of other staff or key leaders come into play. They'll see things you might miss.

7. What does my wife think about this criticism? Does she see some truth in it that I am missing?

I love the old story of the pastor who asked his wife, "Honey, do you think I should put more fire in my sermons?" She replied, "I think you should put more of your sermons in the fire."

Not a true story, but good for a laugh the next time you need one in the pulpit.

Your spouse knows you better than anyone. When you feel ready, ask for her perspective on the criticism. Ask her to help you understand and grow from it.

And then listen carefully to what she says.

Hal Seed is the founding and lead pastor of New Song Community Church in Oceanside, California. He mentors pastors who want to lead healthy, growing churches with resources at pastormentor.com.

This article originally appeared at pastormentor.com.

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