Worship Leading Requires Leathery Skin and a Buttery Heart

Zac HicksWorship Leading Tips, Worship Theology & Thought6 Comments

I received my zillionth bit of criticism this past weekend.  The jabs come in all forms—to my face, behind my back, anonymous notes, vitriolic emails, sarcastic statements, condescending “suggestions,” anonymous notes dropped in the offering plate, snide remarks.  Those who are pastor-teachers get it a lot, too.  There’s always something to criticize about a sermon.

After 10+ years of being before the firing squad (a.k.a., sadly, the Church), this is what I’ve learned, in no particular order:

  • The Gospel is always the front lines of processing any criticism.  We begin receiving and processing criticism with ministering this reality to our own heart: In Christ, I am fully loved and accepted by God.
  • Worship leaders who do not know and love God’s Word, or who have little grasp of theology and church history, are ill-equippped to handle much criticism.  If that is the case, hit the books.  If you don’t care about “that theology stuff” and don’t think it’s important, resign.
  • Collaborative worship-planning (esp. with other pastors) is a great antidote to criticism, because the team shares in the blame and the defense. 
  • It doesn’t matter how great a church is or how wonderfully you plan and lead a service…you are ALWAYS being criticized.  It never ends. 
  • A few times, people just hate you.  And there’s not much you can do about that until God works on their heart.
  • New worship leaders are often blindsided by this, and they never push through to the other side, quitting before the growth takes place.
  • The only way criticism won’t hurt is if you really don’t care about the church–Christ’s Bride and God’s flock.  And if that’s the case, please resign.  The call to worship leading is a pastoral call, and this is a call (like many others) to share in the sufferings of Christ.  The invitation to lead worship is a call to come and die.
  • Ten words of encouragement quickly fade from memory, but one word of criticism keeps you up at night and is really hard to forget.
  • Criticism, even the hurtful, vitriolic kind, is formative (remember Joseph: “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good”).
  • Pharisaism is alive and well in the Church.  I would say that over 75% of the time, criticism is based on people “adding to the law” and then defending those laws with utmost zeal.
  • Consumerism is alive and well in the Church.  I would say that over 75% of the time, criticism is based on a willingness to be preferential and an unwillingess to love and die to self.
  • The moment you harden your heart is the moment you die.  If you ever find yourself in a place where you deny all criticism without processing and dialogue, you should resign from your job.  You’ve lost the heart of a pastor.
  • Sometimes, criticism exposes blind spots in your ministry.
  • People’s criticisms are often the surface-expressions of deeper wounds, and some people are willing to let you pastor that pain, and some are not.
  • You have to learn the art of “graded response.”  How much time you devote to responding to and pastoring criticism depends on a mixture of the following elements:

(a) the type of criticism (emotional, theological, etc.);
(b) the validity of the criticism;
(c) the seriousness of the criticism (e.g. Are they calling into question your capability or call?);
(d) the commitment of the criticizer to the worship and work of the Church;
(e) the willingness/openness of the criticizer to dialogue;
(f) the intent of the criticizer (e.g. Are they intending to get their way? Are they intending to demoralize you?…of course, this is hard to discern);
(g) the amount of time to give as compared to other responsibilities of your call;
(h) the proximity of the person to Christ (e.g. If there’s question of whether they are a follower of Jesus, I am usually willing to spend even more time with this person in dialogue);
(i) the depth of relationship you have with the criticizer.

  • If you’re married, you need to make sure that your spouse loves Christ’s Church as much as you do, because as you process people’s criticism with him or her, an immature person will start to grow bitter, which leads to resentment of people, resentment of the Church, resentment of your job, and maybe even resentment toward God.
  • In almost every criticism, there is at least a kernel of truth, even if the kernel is something VERY different from what the criticizer is expressing.
  • Emotionally-charged criticism is very difficult to engage in an email-dialogue; it’s better to meet face-to-face.
  • Multi-pointed criticism can get convoluted and drug out in an email-dialogue; it’s better to meet face-to-face.
  • Brief but lovingly direct emails are often great ways sift out whether conversation will require a deeper level of involvement.
  • However, brief but lovingly direct emails in large quantities often make you appear dismissive and unapproachable.  So, tread carefully.
  • Occasionally, a criticizer will come back and apologize later.  When they do, you get a glimpse of heaven and what the church is really supposed to be like.
  • Any time you react defensively, EVEN IF the criticism is blatantly false and unfounded, it is a sign of idolatry and sin in YOUR OWN HEART, and you need to deal with it…ongoingly.  Read Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods if you have no idea what I’m talking about.

In short, worship leading requires leathery skin and a buttery heart.

6 Comments on “Worship Leading Requires Leathery Skin and a Buttery Heart”

  1. Me too, yesterday morning, friend.

    It hurts.

    Thanks for the thoughtful and gracious engagement with this type of thing.

  2. Thank you very much for this. It is very enlightening to me as a church member. I shall be very careful before I speak any criticism after reading this.

  3. Zac,
    Very enlightening blog.
    After my first read through, my heart was weeping for the leaders of my church who obviously pour their blood, sweat & tears into leading, guiding, educating and loving it's members……only to be criticized…WHAT?! Isn't there a parable about a log and a splinter? 😉
    I can't imagine what life must be like to have the job of leading people to know God more, to help them understand that Jesus is perfect, our Lord and Savior…..and to love the Church as Jesus has instructed us to do. I can emphatically say that my family and I have greatly benefited from the ministry of the pastors of CCPC! We have gained a deeper knowledge and understanding of the Word thanks to the teachings of our pastors and the power of the Holy Spirit. I consider it a privilege to sit in a pew each Sunday and hear the Word taught and explained with love and passion.
    Although I was not able to hear your sermon yesterday, the report that I received was that it was AMAZING. I was blessed to have been able to listen to it online….thank you for the lesson & instruction. Please know that your ministry, music and sermons are greatly appreciated by the Knor-Beauman Family!!!!!

    After my second read through…… I am grateful for your lesson on how to receive criticism with grace and a humble heart. My journey in the sanctification process continues……

    Finally, I now know where I can direct more of my prayers….to the brave, courageous men and women who proclaim God's Word! Thank you for loving the Church and following the call of God's voice.

  4. Good thoughts. Receiving and responding to criticism with grace and wisdom is one of the hardest things to do – and something that we get a lot of opportunity to practice when on a church staff.

  5. It's sad that we sometimes bring in the art of 'getting our own way' into the church. More of us try to adjust our happiness levels by buying material things and changing little aspects of our lives. If more people try and live like that, rather than becoming part of the church community, it seems they would complain more. I admit that when I'm not involved playing music on a given Sunday, I am more likely to note how something could be better.

  6. Nice article on this topic.

    I guess criticism/feedback is unavoidable especially when we get into on-stage ministries like worship. To survive in the long-term, the best thing to do is accept it gracefully, deal with it personally with God, analyse it with a mentor, apply what is constructive in it and forget the rest.

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