One day I was greeting people at the door following the benediction. For the most part this interaction was customary and typically the only personal contact with a majority of the church. A man at the door shook my hand and said, "Now, that was a sermon." Naturally I smiled and thanked him for being a part of our worship that day. Since he wasn't familiar to me I'm thinking it was his only visit to our church. Later that evening another person who was right behind him in line mentioned the comment. He said, "That sure was below the belt". Sure, I thought. Thanks for the reminder. When Harriet and i talked about it I got more than a little steamed. Weasel. If he didn't like my sermon why didn't he just say so. "Now, that was a sermon!", indeed. Or, a bash upside the head.
No one likes criticism. That may be more true of pastors and spiritual leaders since there is a sense of calling or divine appointment about what we do. Just so, the past thirty-five years of receiving criticism about everything from sermons to haircuts to the color of my tie, back when I wore one, the behavior of the children, or Harriet's anniversary presents never set well with me. Some were off-the-cuff, others more intentional, quite a few constructive in nature, and once in a while the criticism was just plain mean. Learning to properly handle criticism became a significant marker in my own development as a spiritual leader. When it was ignored it became more cluttering junk in the church health exam. So, here's how this one guy handled the close scrutiny of spiritually leading a congregation, and the disapproval that often marked how others received it---
1. Always respond to worthy criticism.
Early on my tendency was to ignore most negative assessments about my
ministry. Everybody has an opinion and most people will share it with you.
Later, I learned that overlooking or not responding to critics gave me the
appearance of being closed to suggestion or unapproachable about my
leadership.So, when a less than positive evaluation came my way I weighed it
and generally thanked the person for sharing it. We are a body, by the way, and
the parts naturally communicate or it's dysfunctional. So, my advice is to
receive applause and boos, thank the person for it, and then relate your
decision to that person when it is made.
As a side-note, deciding what criticism is worthy of a response and what isn't is
a matter if spiritual discernment. When their comments were about ministry I
would usually thank them and get back to them with my response. If it was
more personal in nature, something inconsequential, I would thank them and
tell them I'd give it some thought. Anonymous criticism? Read it, digest it,
weigh it, implement the truth in it, and then fughedaboudit.
2. Don't be defensive.
So, there's the mind and word game of destructive and constructive criticism.
When it was aimed at me I always felt it was of the destructive sort and so
defensiveness was the natural response. You know, put up your dukes. Maybe
it was maturity, but later I discovered that most critics weren't issuing a
declaration of war. Their assessment did have a genesis and I needed to get to
the source before flaming out over it.
3. Weigh the criticism.
Our lives as believers are subject to truth and not mere opinions. So, weighing
the criticism involves subjecting the assessment to biblical examination, the
governing documents of the church, church history and tradition, and other
factors that may have a valid influence of how we function.
4. Model biblical behaviors for the people you are blessed to lead.
There's plenty of leadership teaching in the Bible and many examples of
spiritual leaders who had to deal with criticism. Their example should overlay
our leadership in every way, including the ways we receive negative comments
or assessments that may lean to the darker side.
Years ago an older pastor mentor told me he read and studied 1 Corinthians 13 every month. It was strategically written by the Apostle Paul in response to many divisions that kept the Corinthian church at odds. It's the "love chapter" written to show the them "...a still more excellent way" (1 Corinthians 12:31). He read it as a personal reminder of how to navigate the many negatives of spiritual leadership, criticism included. He didn't want any of those negatives to become junk clutter in the church. So, he learned to handle it with love.
Bless his heart. Amen.