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.