Handling Criticism

No one wants to be cared for by a doctor that faints at the sight of blood.  And, no one wants to be cared for by a doctor that isn’t affected by the sight of blood. Like a good doctor, ministry leaders must be both resilient when under criticism, as well as response to criticism.

Two weeks after becoming senior pastor someone asked, “Has anyone left the church yet?”  “No!”  I responded incredulously.  “Oh,” he said, “then you haven’t cast any vision yet. Have you?” Vision inevitably separates people, and he was right.  I hadn’t cast any vision.  It had only been two weeks after all. But deep down I hated the idea that when I did cast vision someone would criticize my leadership. I steeled myself, and was reminded of the importance of having “thick skin.”

John Piper wrote, “One thing is for sure: if you begin to lead others, you will be criticized.  No one will be a significant spiritual leader if his aim is to please others and seek their approval.” Leaders that faint at the sound of criticism are like doctors who faint at the sight of blood.  You probably need to find another line of work if that’s how criticism affects you. But it is also the case that leaders who pretend to be unaffected by criticism, as if criticism never hurts them, will have a hard time doing our job.  As leaders we need to be both resilient when receiving criticism, so that we can continue leading, as well as responsive to the criticism, acknowledging our feelings as leaders.

I had a season in ministry, not too long ago, in which the criticism was almost unbearable, and I foolishly tried to pretend that it wasn’t bothering me. Some staffing situations within the church had grown chaotic, criticism was everywhere, and I felt like an ER doctor covered in blood. I told myself that I needed to tough it out, endure, persevere, all of which were true at the time. But what I learned was that we endure and persevere best as we admit our pain. We demonstrate our toughness as leaders, not by ignoring the way criticism makes us feel, but rather by acknowledging the impact criticism has upon our souls.

As the criticism grew during that difficult season, I began to have some physical symptoms associated with all the stress. Thankfully, with the help of counselor, I was able to learn how to acknowledge and process the criticism, which empowered me to continue on.  The counselor actually told me at one point, “your skin is too thick.”  His point was that I needed “thinner skin,” which would allow me to acknowledge the pain I was feeling.

Paul seemed to strike a good balance.  He said, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8).  Paul neither disregarded his feelings, nor let his feelings control him. Leaders who claim that they feel no pain, are in fact pretending that they aren’t human. Everyone feels pain. The truth is that good leaders perhaps feel it the most.

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