Coping with Criticism - thoughts for pastors

“I hate all criticism, especially the constructive sort, 
because then you have to do something about it” (Adrian Plass).

Ministers are usually acutely aware that when their parishioners go home on a Sunday, they often have ‘roast pastor’ for lunch. People feel they can say anything they want about a pastor and there’s little accountability that checks if criticisms are true or even relevant. Church leaders are called as shepherds who must give account of their work before God (Hebrews 13:17), and while they are not technically employees, they are appointed under Terms of Call to be answerable to the church governance. But harsh criticism of, and gossip about, leaders is not ‘conduct becoming' of followers of Christ; the epistles tell us not to criticize and judge each other, (James 4: 11),and to honour those who work hard at both preaching and teaching (1 Tim 5: 17).

So why do parishioners feel they have the right to judge their pastors and their fellow believers? I read recently that when compared with other organisations like public libraries or sports clubs, churches have relatively low “satisfaction” scores. Why is that? Are Christians more judgmental or is our faith life so important to us that we hold church leaders to higher standards than our yoga teacher? The 2012 Barna Group research “Unchristian” did find that Christians are perceived by outsiders to be “prideful and quick to find fault in others” as well as being “very convinced they are right about things in life.” This critical spirit can present as sweeping, hypocritical and overly-harsh judgements about leaders. 

According to a ministry blog, parishioners,regularly dispense unsolicited advice about your personal life, the way you dress, your use of colloquialisms, your kids, your personality, and how much you spend on a car,  but HR experts say feedback is inappropriate when it is based on a  personal preference, characteristic or habit. Particularly inappropriate are the judgments Christians make about God’s view of someone, their worth or destiny. This is what Jesus was referring to in his Matthew 7: 1 “Judge not that you be not judged” statement;  we are to leave intentions, motives, and final worth to God. 

In my research into pastor review, I found that some churches were quite savage about their ministers, at times even to their face. One participant was said to have been “only in it for the money” (interestingly he had come to ministry from a highly-paid professional role). I also heard about ministers suffering from burnout who were told they should “harden up” or confess hidden sins, and others who were held responsible for key metrics over which they had little direct control. A feedback conversation that engages church leaders and helps them develop professionally is one that focusses on ‘relevant’ specifics. That means clergy reviews today need to look at visionary leadership, and change management skills, but parishioners might baulk at the idea their minister is being encouraged to challenge their inward-looking mindset. They may think no further than the Sunday services and apply evaluations that are profoundly subjective. (I preach in a number of churches, and find that a 25 minute sermon is too long for some, who would rather have the “8-minutes-composed-in-the-shower” homily, but not long enough for those who are used to the “45-minute motivational rant.” You can’t please everyone). That’s why pastor review needs to be firmly held in the hands of people who understand their minister’s tasks, goals, and responsibilities. Where reviews were managed by a skilled assessor who filtered, or at least provided perspective on, outlying or deviant feedback, I found that ministers appreciated the balance of a judging and coaching role. However one of my participants felt their review was not ‘judgemental’ enough. They wanted more insight into where they could improve, and specific ideas of ways to develop as a leader; instead they got “bland cherry pie.”

Perhaps we need to distinguish between criticism and critique.  The second is a helpful pointer to ways to improve, embedded in a warm affirming conversation that brings encouragement and hope. Criticism is more hurtful, and especially so to a person who has made huge sacrifices to obey the call to a ministry role. In face of verbal attacks, says a well-known Kiwi broadcaster, “you need a certain amount of detached arrogance”. Developing emotional intelligence and resilience, helped by regular pastoral supervision, will enable us to deal with unfounded criticism, letting it run off like the water sheeting down a duck’s back. But there’s a caveat; be open to the kernel of truth in the attack:

People can get angry. I've been sued, smeared, threatened, lied about, all the usual stuff…once you've been around the track a few times these things start to feel pretty normal. Or rather, the abuse comes to feel like it's part of your professional life, rather than your personal emotional landscape. Like, when you're a doctor, sometimes you get a drunk patient shouting at you.
At the same time, you have to be careful not to ignore all criticism….you need a bulletproof jacket, but before the bullets hit, you should take a quick look at what's written on the outside of them, in case it's useful. 
Physician and academic Ben Goldacre in NZH Canvas 29 Augt 2016.

That's good advice.

To  Think About: How have you dealt with harsh or irrelevant criticism? Have you seen any 'writing on the bullets' that has actually been helpful?