How Should a Pastor Handle Criticism?
I wish I could say that I handle it well. Criticism is hard to take and Pastor’s are especially susceptible to turning it into a game of pulpit & pew dodge-ball. Currently I’m reading a book called Why Johnny Can’t Preach by T. David, Gordon. Believe me when I say it is a difficult read, and a pastor should not pick this book up unless he is ready and willing to be brought very low. The book is brutally honest about the ministers task, and does not fall short of levelling the proud heart. Believe it or not, I am very appreciative of Gordon for his honest appraisal of the current condition of the pulpit. I have much to work on as a preacher, and see afresh, my great need to be a better ambassador of Christ behind the Sacred Desk.
In Gordon’s book he states that in his latest charge, in exchange for a reduced salary, he asked the elders for 2 things: first, more time off to study, and second, be given an objective preaching review once per year. Gordon believes that the best way to improve as a preacher, is to have a review of his main duty. Other professionals are subject to review, so why should this be any different for ministers? (Note: a minister is not a professional. Gordon recognizes this, but believes the principle still applies.) This is the point in the book where most preachers will begin to feel a bit uneasy and perhaps look for a more encouraging read. Thoughts run through one’s mind like, “What would my elders say?”, and “Would I be able to handle it?” The question came loud and clear to my own heart, “How would I handle such criticism”? Scary stuff. This presumes of course, that the eldership knows something about the art and science of what they have governance over. The elder should make a complete study of the “art of prophesying”, and know from whence he speaks. This goes without saying.
The truth is, some criticize because they firmly believe that “The Lord wants you to be humble, and has appointed me to do it”. There is never an encouraging word from this kind of person, who always has a list of things you could do better, different, or like the last minister “Rev. So-n’-So”, who by the way, was near perfect. There are others however, who are genuinely trying to help you become a better preacher, and to do so they need the opportunity. None of us like having our shortcomings exposed let alone hung out for others to scrutinize. We’d rather admit that we don’t have the problem, the criticizer does. But this is not biblical. Solomon says, “A wise son heareth his father’s instruction: but a scorner heareth not rebuke.” (Proverbs 13:1) and, “A scorner loveth not one that reproveth him: neither will he go unto the wise.” (Proverbs 15:12). I remember Dr. Beeke saying once (and I wish I could remember where), “There is always a shred of truth, even in the harshest criticism.”
A wise preacher will examine the criticism he receives although it may be painful to do so. He knows it is dangerous to dismiss such simply because he doesn’t like it. “He, that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy“(Proverbs 29:1). This goes for preachers too. David knew something of this when he said in Psalm 141:5 “Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head.” This text also says something about the one doing the criticizing doesn’t it?
I think the Lord has set in place the proper mechanism for this kind of review; the local consistory. It is not the place for every armchair preaching expert in the congregation to point out the flaws present in the pulpit; it is the prerogative of the elders (and that, perhaps an appointed one or two). The consistory alone has the oversight of the preaching. Even then, the criticism should be motivated by love. Further, the criticism should be objective in nature, not based on personal preference. When it is objective in nature, it will almost always be helpful. When I was a student minister several years ago, just beginning to preach, I was told by an elder, “I don’t like your preaching. I don’t know what it is, but I just don’t like it.” Massively unhelpful. But loving, reinforced, objective criticism from an appointed source can be very helpful. I remember preaching a sermon several years ago in a congregation I had never been in before. After the service was over, I was approached by the kind old minister who said to me, “I liked your sermon very much. There was one flaw however; the Christology could have been stronger.” He then went on to point out at least 2 places where I missed the direct link to Christ. Massively helpful. Further, he did it in such a loving way, I could not help but receive it with gladness.
Bad criticism often points out the flaws but never suggestions for fixing them. What makes matters worse, bad criticism can be so entirely subjective that it has no footing in reality. “Lloyd-Jones preached on this text, and let me tell you, you’re no Lloyd-Jones.” Like that’s some kind of revelation. I think in the case of unhelpful criticism, it is best to turn the conversation to the Scriptures, and humbly demonstrate, from the Word, how what you are doing is approved of God. Move from the subjective to the objective. Ask for scriptural passages that point out the inadequacy. By doing so, the conversation moves away from personal preference toward objective truth. If this cannot be done by the criticizer, don’t take it personally. Anyone else who does the same thing, will receive the same sort of criticism.
In short, preachers should welcome constructive criticism from the right sources (other ministers, elders, wife, etc.) done out of a spirit of genuine love. Further, those doing the criticizing should make their motivation plain: the strengthening of the preacher as the servant of Christ. Also, encouragement in the things done right can often help in the right reception of criticism. May the Lord help ministers, and student ministers to receive criticism with grace, and make it a matter of prayer.
When the criticism is subjective and unhelpful, do not defend yourself. Simply thank the person for their words, and tell them that you will lay it prayerfully before the Lord. Then do just that. If Beeke is right, that even in the most unloving criticism there is a shred of truth, then we must take it before the throne of grace.
And if, by chance, the criticism is unfair, let me leave you with the words of Peter, “For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed (1 Pet. 2:19-24).
A possible helpful link, 7 Ways to Deal With Haters.