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How you respond to or handle criticism as a church leader is significant. After all, criticism—that constant companion of every pastor—is often exactly what you need and comes with the job. (As an aside - The Lead Pastor team has prepared a list of industry-leading church management tools to equip you to manage and lead your church well.)

In my role as president of Recentered Group, I walk with many pastors and church leadership teams. I help them build healthy church cultures defined by trust... and there aren't many things that erode personal trust more quickly than a poor response to criticism.

Key Takeaways

Foe or Friend: Criticism is an essential tool for growth. Embracing it can significantly improve trust and the health of church culture.

Builder or Breaker: A leader's response to criticism can either construct or corrode personal trust within their team.

Never Do This: Responding to criticism via text, email, or social media only equips your critic with more ammunition.

Your response to criticism deeply affects your influence

One of the most significant goals of my mentoring of pastors and other church leaders is to help them build a new relationship with criticism. This is especially true of pastors and church leaders because the criticism is unrelenting and often unfair from your perspective.

Critical remarks before or after church wind you up, landing you in a bad place emotionally and spiritually. Negative comments in a staff or church finance committee meeting often trigger defense mechanisms that leave you blind to your faults, flaws, and weaknesses.

You must not yield to the temptation to respond poorly to criticism. Easy to say, but hard to live...for any of us. 

Ed Underwood
Mixed signals much? We tend to think we're more open to criticism than we truly often are in practice.

Whether you realize it or not, you need to build a better relationship with criticism.

I want to show you how God works in your life to help you stay on course and even grow in the face of what may seem to you to be the most unjust criticism. You’ll be relieved to know that you never have to carry that burden alone again. 

1. Criticism can make you better at ___________.

Very early on in ministry, I learned how much I'd have to handle criticism as a church leader. In my first days as a preacher, a man of great influence in our church called me. He left this message, “Ed, I need to talk with you about what you’re doing wrong when you preach.”

When I called him back, he told me that the only transition I used in my sermons was “and so.” He challenged me to be more creative in my transitions to bring the audience with me. I listened to a few sermons and discovered how right he was.

For about two years after that man criticized my sermon transitions, I would write on the top of each page of my sermon notes Don’t say ‘and so’! Though uninvited, his criticism made me a better preacher.

As much as I hated to admit it at the time, I needed that man's criticism. Countless sermons have benefitted since then. (As a side tangent, these excellent podcasts are a goldmine for sermon development.)

2. Don’t dismiss criticism just because it comes from an unhealthy or negative person

You’ll remember King David’s response to that idiot throwing dirt clods at him on his way out of Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 16. His mighty man Abishai wanted to cut off the guy’s head. David forbade it with this explanation, “It may be that the LORD will look on my affliction and that the LORD will repay me with good for his cursing this day” (16:12). 

I think David is saying, “It just may be that God is speaking to me through even this moron.” Unlike many church leaders who need a lesson in humility, David wasn’t trying to be perfect. More importantly, David wasn’t trying to prove to everyone else that he was perfect, even though he knew he wasn’t. 

Author's Tip

Author's Tip

Before you filter criticism through your mental grid of constructive vs. unconstructive criticism, ask “What could God be teaching me through this?”

When you receive unwarranted criticism, take it to a few trusted friends. Ask them, “Is there anything to what this person said? Could there be a lesson from God in this remark?” 

3. Live ready and able to accept criticism as a church leader

If you can’t tolerate negativity, if handling criticism as a church leader is too hard, you won't last long in church leadership. More than that, you'll miss out on feedback that will make you a better leader. Of course, this means you’ll have to trust God as you’re receiving and responding to criticism. But isn’t that a good thing? If you’re looking for a model, look no further than His Son. 

As you do, you’ll discover the amazing impact your mature response to criticism will have on your entire leadership culture. Before we go on, think about your answers to these questions: 

When do you find it most difficult to see anything good about criticism? Why do you feel this particular type of remark has such an impact on your heart? 

4. Your mature response to criticism will build a healthy leadership culture

Think of the ways Jesus did not express his humility to his followers. He never said, “Oh, golly gee, don’t make a big deal of me being the Son of God.” Surprisingly, he often told those he healed to keep it quiet because his “time” of completing his mission to die for us had not yet come. Jesus demonstrated his humility by submitting to and trusting his Father’s love. This created an attitude of trusting love in his little band of ragamuffins that would soon turn the world upside down for him and his cause. We must model our approach to handling criticism as church leaders after His example.

5. Nothing pollutes good culture faster than hypersensitivity to criticism

I remember an awkward moment when I asked a new children's pastor I’d hired to tell me how I might be failing him and what I could do to help him be more effective in his role. The color drained from his face as he struggled to reply. 

When I asked him what was wrong, he answered haltingly and honestly. “In my last church,” he timidly explained, “handling criticism as a church leader wasn't a thing. In fact, any criticism of the senior pastor brought down his swift wrath, followed by weeks of dismissive responses to every idea and question. What you just asked me to do would have invited grave consequences.” 

I quickly apologized, remembering how counterculture our leadership community had become over the years. Leaders at our church knew this was a safe place to receive and offer criticism. We had done the hard work of establishing an atmosphere of grace.

One of the greatest gifts you can give to those you lead, especially young believers, is to provide a safe space where they can disclose what they are truly thinking, and they don’t have to hide anything, fearing the consequences of the so-called mature. 

Ed Underwood

Tactics to Handle Criticism Graciously (and Defuse Your Critics):

In this section, I’m going to give you words to say, sentences that I’ve found remarkably effective in modeling servant leadership without enabling a critical spirit. These are words and sentences you won’t find in a book. They were formed in the crucible of leadership mistakes made over decades of handling criticism as a church leader. 

Handling a critic who disagrees with your theology and challenges you in public:

While teaching soteriology, a student accused me of promoting "cheap grace." I clarified that grace is not cheap but free and costly, as it cost Jesus his life on the cross. She was upset - and people were watching.

I responded to her by asking her to repeat what she had heard me say, to make sure she understood my words. When she did so, accurately, I said

“That’s exactly what I believe the Word of God teaches. It seems to me that we’re going to disagree here. But that’s fine with me. I never claimed to have a corner on the truth, but I do need the freedom to teach what I honestly believe the Bible teaches.” 

Handling a critic who interrupts you in the middle of an event where you have responsibilities: 

My first caution is that you should try to be better than I was for years. Rather than being honest with them, I tried to be a super-sensitive pastor man and act as if I was actually listening while I fumed with unsanctified thoughts. Over the years, I’ve learned to respond in the following way:

Smile, and calmly reply,

“Everything in me wants to let you know how much this conversation means to me. However, I’ve learned the hard way that I’m going to forget most of this because I’m pretty preoccupied right now. Would you mind writing this out and putting it on a comment card or catching me after the sermon?” 

Handling the ‘broken record’ critic:

That persistent criticism you’ve already heard and responded to many times: I always think of these as broken record gripes. These were the most difficult for me because I felt like I was driving around a cul-de-sac hearing the same objections and offering the same answers. Usually, it had something to do with music, an already-discussed problem with a staff member, or a theological disagreement.

This criticism requires a kind but firm response. 

“I’m sure you remember that we’ve already discussed this in some depth. I have no more insights to offer you. As a leadership culture, we’re firmly resolved that this is the direction the Spirit wants us to go.”

And then, shut up. Do not say another word. No matter what you say it’s just going to upset them more because they’ll “exegete” your words to look for any opening or angle that proves their point. 

Handling criticism as a church leader is NOT about taking care of our reputation.

Ed Underwood

Handling a criticism that brings up a past mistake: 

In answering this criticism, you must be extremely vulnerable and full of grace. If you’ve already done the hard work of repentance, asking for forgiveness, and submitting to the guidance of those you lead with, here’s your answer: 

“As far as I know, I’ve owned that terrible mistake that still grieves me today. I pray I’ve learned a hard lesson, but if you ever feel as if I’m moving toward that dangerous place again, please get my attention. If you feel there is someone I’ve hurt that I haven’t tried to reconcile with, please let them know. I’m more than willing, even anxious to reach out to them.” 

NOTE:

If you haven’t done the hard work of repentance, asking for forgiveness, and submitting to those you serve with, you’re living in a dangerous place. This will not go away. Ignoring your mistake and failing to own it will seriously erode the trust you need to lead. 

Handling a criticism that begins with “a lot of people...”: 

Every pastor and church leader I’ve talked to (including me) hates that phrase, “A lot of people...” We identify it for what it normally is, a manipulative tool that globalizes a specific criticism of the sermon, music, programs, or another leader that isn’t a concern for “a lot of people” but a select group of people. 

FIRST: be sure not to discount the criticism just because it begins with “a lot of people...” There may be a legitimate and constructive lesson for you in there somewhere.

Respond with a kind but firm, “Wow, a lot of people, that sounds serious.”

This is a great way to begin your response. Follow that with the real need to clarify if this is indeed a problem you need to address:

“If you could gather these people together, I would love to meet with them, hear what they have to say, and sincerely consider their views. When and where do you want to meet?”

Typically, that’s the end of the conversation. 

Handling a criticism that charges you with “not listening”: 

I discovered that this criticism is often valid. 

It wasn’t that I hadn’t listened to them, it was that they felt as if I hadn’t listened to them. The two are not the same. As maddening as it is, the best way to address this criticism is preemptively.

This took me years before I had that “aha!” insight that came from my days as an Army officer. One of the ways we made sure that a soldier knew what we were telling them to do was to ask, “What did I just tell you?” The answers sure did train us to be more careful with our instructions. We were also taught to respond to a soldier’s objections and gripes by repeating what we just heard and asking, “Is this what you just said to me?” If they answered yes, we would say, “Do you feel as if you’ve been heard?” 

In this context, we need to be careful not to respond with assertive statements. Clarifying questions is far more effective. After a session with an unhappy person, when you know that the only answer you can give them is no, ask these two questions: 

“Tell me if I’m understanding what you want or why you disagree with our decision?”

Then offer your summation of what they just said. If they agree that you have accurately understood them, move on to the next question. 

“I’m sorry that the answer is still no, but it’s important to me that you feel as if you’ve been heard. Do you feel as if you’ve been heard?” 

People are looking for humility and kindness. So, if we ask for permission to lead people, we have to love them deeply. We do not need to worry about taking care of our reputation. Rather, we need to worry about whether, through our response to criticism and the relationship we’re building with them, they will come closer to God. 

I’ve covered the most common categories of criticism most of us under-shepherds experience

Hopefully and prayerfully, you’ve found this advice practical and helpful. Below are a few questions for you to consider. If you would like some feedback on your answers, email me with your responses to these questions so that I can help you even more. 

  • Is there another scenario you struggle with that I haven’t addressed up to now? 
  • Is there someone in your church or a fellow leader you need to contact because you now realize that you’ve mishandled their critical remarks? 
  • How can I help you reconcile the relationship? 

The WORST Way to Handle Criticism as a Church Leader:

PLEASE: Resist the temptation to use email, texts, and social media in response to criticism. 

Over my years as a lead pastor, I asked our staff to refrain from using email to respond to criticism. Still, there were instances when they just couldn’t help themselves. The outcome was always disastrous. 

This is one of the enemy’s favorite tactics for creating division in the church. 

Email, texts, and social media unleash the flesh in ways people would never feel comfortable with in face-to-face conversations. Emails, texts, and social media are the wordy version of angrily honking your horn or cutting someone off on the freeway. Most of us would never display these behaviors in a supermarket or social setting. But somehow, we permit ourselves to rage in text form.

In the same way, for some reason, we feel free to write mean, accusatory, and self-defensive sentences on a screen. Passive-aggressively, we let words fly to get something off our chests. The more we churn, the more we’re vulnerable to displaying the fruit of the flesh rather than the fruit of the Spirit.

When you respond to criticism in writing, you’re providing a “legal document” the critic can exegete, read into, spin, and use to reinforce their case against you.

Ed Underwood

“I have it right here in writing. You said... and that’s not what happened. I can’t believe that you said this about me!” You’re giving those people a paper trail of evidence that the unhealthy person will file away as they build their case. 

Emails, texts, and social media exist in an environment without grace and multiply unresolved issues and unreconciled relationships in everyone’s heart. What I hope you realize, unless you’ve been living under a rock for a few decades, is obvious: 

Author's Tip

Author's Tip

When you post words in an email, text, or on social media you haven’t just told the person you’re aiming at, you’ve told the world…

Once you’ve hit send or share, it’s out there... forever. And Satan is licking his chops, knowing exactly how he’s going to use this to create chaos in your life and build a toxic environment in your church. 

Do NOT handle criticism as a church leader through email, texts, or social media. Let me say this again: Never, ever, EVER respond to criticism through email, texts, or social media. 

Take time to consider the following questions. 

  • Brainstorm at least five options other than email, texts, and social media you could choose in response to criticism. 
  • What bothers you most about not responding in the same way your criticizer accused you? 
  • What do you think Jesus would say about how you feel annoyed by this barrier to defend yourself immediately? 

No matter what leadership position you hold in the body of Christ, when you look into the face of the criticizer, I hope you see a wounded and vulnerable sister or brother, who, like you, needs a lot of grace. 

 Here are some final questions to help in handling criticism as a church leader:

  • Is your true base of security your fleshly capacity to win arguments and defend yourself? 
  • If so, how can I help you move toward becoming a more authentic and vulnerable leader? 

Contact me or my team with any questions or concerns. I’d love to hear from you and walk with you and your church leadership team.

More Practical Advice Worth Checking Out

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Ed Underwood
By Ed Underwood

Ed Underwood is the founder and director of Recentered Group, a nonprofit focused on helping pastors and church leadership realign with Jesus’ heart to build healthy communities where discipleship thrives. Ed’s experience ranges from fighting wildfires with the Fulton Hotshots to serving as an Army Officer during the Cold War to being a Lead Pastor for over 40 years at the historic Church of the Open Door. A gifted author, he has written several books, including Beginning in Grace, a discipleship manual thousands have used to deepen their relationships with God and others.