Coping with Criticism in the Ministry
On Monday 10th September 2012 I had the privilege of attending a minister’s fraternal in Mount Merrion Free Presbyterian Church, Belfast, where the guest speaker was Dr Joel Beeke. Dr Beeke is minister of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and President of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
The subject he had chosen to speak to us on was that of ‘Coping with criticism and discouragement in the ministry’, and the one hour plus session was a mine of helpful and biblical counsel from a wise Pastor-theologian. The content of his address will be published in due course by Day One publications in book form, but below are some highlights – a mere synopsis really – of his highly informative and Christ-honouring message:
85% of ministers in the United States state that criticism is the biggest issue they face in their ministry. All over the world ministers are hurting, and are grappling with how to handle criticism. If Satan can get you and your flock divided from one another he will destroy your ministry. Dr Beeke recounted an experience of travelling on one occasion in which conversation with the stranger seated next to him on a flight revealed that the man was praying to Satan that the relationship between 30 ministers and their congregations would break down in the United States.
How, then, can we cope with criticism without being too cynical? How can we maintain a positive attitude in the face of it?
Eleven ‘commandments’ were offered on how to deal with criticism:
- Consider criticism inevitable: there is a Dutch saying, ‘he who stands up at the front, will get kicked in the rear’. There will always be someone to raise a red flag about what you do, as everyone is examining your ministry. Dr Beeke recounted visiting Ernest Reisinger during the first year of his current 26-year pastorate, and pouring out his heart that nobody was neutral to him. Reisinger replied, ‘if nobody is neutral, that means you’re getting through!’.
- Consider the source: there is a good chance that much criticism can come from the fringe of the church, from uncommitted people. The key question to ask when criticism comes is if there is a constructive motive behind it. If an office bearer or member who is normally supportive offers criticism then it is wise to take it seriously. The more we welcome constructive criticism, the more our ministry will benefit. It is important to try to affirm criticism when it is constructive. In this regard the quality of the complainer and the complaint are important.
- Consider timing and prayer: some ministers have the hide of a rhinoceros, others have the heart of a child, and it is important to know where you fit within these categories. Dr Beeke shared that he often likes to take 24 hours before he responds to critics or criticism. In 24 hours one can pray, talk to one’s wife and wise friends, and bounce potential responses off accountability partners in confidence. Prayer is crucial here, as it it hard to pray for someone and stay angry at them.How and when we respond matters, as we will become better known for our reactions than our actions: bad temper can destroy a ministry, and often forcing hasty solutions can make matters worse. There may even be times in the face of particularly hostile statements when the best answer is no answer.
- Consider yourself: the Holy Spirit uses critics to protect us from justifying and protecting ourselves. If we have an ear for Christ we will have a better ear for those disciples of Christ who have criticisms. You will complain less if you realise how much less criticism you receive than you deserve – if people knew how corrupt you were they would have more to say.It is important to consider these words ‘I was wrong’ and ‘I am sorry’, and ‘Will you forgive me?. It’s amazing how resolute people are to forgive their minister when he is willing to say sorry.In most criticism there is something you can glean: what are they getting at? Is there is a truth here? It is important when engaging with criticism to be reflective in our listening ‘So you are saying . . .? So you are feeling . . .?’.
- Consider the content: some of our best friends are those who differ from us. What are critics saying that might help me in my ministry? If the criticism is true . . . change and move on. If the criticism is untrue . . . don’t change and move on.In almost no cases does justifying yourself really help. There are times when explanations are pointless: your friends don’t need an explanation, and your enemies won’t believe it anyway! Don’t ever render evil for evil. If you fight God’s battles and not your own, God will fight your battles for you.
- Consider Scripture: as ministers we need to develop better emotional muscle. Passages such as Ephesians 6:10; Romans 12:10; Romans 8:28 and John 13:7 are all helpful resources to turn to when facing hostility. The way to live life in the ministry is always to look at primary causation – God sends critics and criticism to us as a means of growth. I know when I look back on my life, I’ve needed every affliction I’ve ever had.’Sometimes God uses even Satan to be a physician of our soul, because he turns Satan’s purposes on their head’ – John Calvin.When faced with criticism we need to show strong tenderness and tender strength: we need the hide of a rhinoceros and the heart of a child.
- Consider Christ: ‘Consider him that endured such hostility by sinners against himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart’. 1 Peter 2:21-23 tells us that Christ left us an example to follow. If Jesus Christ was spat upon, mocked and crucified, what can we expect as sinful pastors? Why should we expect to carry out our ministries without being criticised and betrayed?My Saviour endured everything; all I’ve endured is only a shadow of his substance. When we are told that Christ was tested in all points as we are it means just that – all points! He was reviled, and he didn’t revile again.Focus on Christ’s greater power: trust him once more, he’ll bring you through. He is faithful and won’t let you down.
- Consider biblical saints: there are too many to list, but Nehemiah serves as a great example. He was faced with his Sanballats and Tobiahs and he engaged in a 3-step response:
- He prayed
- He remembered the vision
- He revised his plans according to circumstance. A failed plan does not equal a failed vision.
- Consider love: it is vital to love the one who criticises you. Two quotes from Spurgeon on this issue are striking:’Unless you have forgiven others you read your own death warrant as you repeat the Lord’s prayer’ and ‘When you bury a dead dog, you don’t leaves its tail sticking out of the ground’.When you love your critic, your own wounds will heal more rapidly.
- Consider long term vision: we must never abandon long term biblical vision in the face of immediate term criticism. We’re in it for the long term, and after a while it is important to shake periods of criticism off and move on.
- Consider eternity: whatever happens in life you will be one thousand times rewarded in eternity. Jesus will wipe every tear from your eye, and in heaven there will be perfect unity, no denominations, no divisions.Believing critics will embrace us then, and we will embrace them, and we will see that the Potter was preparing us for Immanuel’s land through criticism. Criticism should make us homesick for heaven.
Don’t resign, but re-sign to the work of ministry. We are called to the most glorious occupation – we never have to wake up midlife and wonder if life has been worthwhile.
We can start complaining when we have given more for Jesus Christ, than he has given for us.
Andrew Roycroft is Pastor of Millisle Baptist Church, Co. Down, Northern Ireland.
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