Everyone, without exception, has at some point faced a harsh critic or two. For those in leadership, the target on our backs is much larger than for other roles, making criticism—the helpful and the nasty—one of the most hazardous and potentially hurtful challenges a leader will face. It comes in all forms, and often without warning. It can be as mild as a simple misunderstanding or as severe as personal slander with malicious intent. Curtis Thomas lends his practical insights to the inevitability of criticism:
[Complaints] will come from those who are often unhappy and simply have a complaining spirit. Others will present complaints regarding matters about which they have little information and that they have not thought through to any degree. Others will be attempting to help us in our walk, teaching, administration, or leadership. Some will be good suggestions and should not be considered complaints. These should be welcomed and used beneficially. Some will come with hostile attitudes, and others will be brought to us with a very gentle spirit. But they will come…. They are a fact of church life.
On one occasion, while on my way to teach a Bible class at church, a man stopped me and said, “I’ve been bitter at you for the last four years.” I was shocked! I hadn’t had a negative thought about this person for as long as I had known him. Obviously stunned, I asked, “What in the world did I do to offend you?” I’ll never forget his answer: “I said ‘hello’ to you one morning in passing and you never responded.” For some, that’s all it takes to hatch a serious criticism. Thankfully, we were able to be restored, and the man even acknowledged his lack of love in holding a long-term grudge over a misguided perception.
Not all offenses and criticisms end so positively. But handling any criticism with wisdom and patience is essential to godly and effective leadership. Alexander Strauch rightly notes the urgency: “A lack of patience in a Christian leader is a serious deficiency. An impatient leader is as destructive to people as an impatient father is to his children or as an impatient shepherd is to his sheep.” Nobody likes to be criticized. Nobody! But spiritual leaders are called to respond in a biblical manner regardless of the source. A critic’s perspective may be totally uninformed or right on target; either way we must learn how to use criticism to our leadership advantage.
Learning How to Listen
A number of years ago, while working for a large military defense contracting company, I would often cross paths with the CEO’s top chauffer, Joe. He was a comical little figure who never seemed to notice anything that was going on around him. My co-workers often joked that if you told Joe any bit of information, no matter how dire, he would probably respond with “great, great, that’s great” and move along unaffected. One day I decided to test this theory with my co-workers watching via security camera. I met Joe in the elevator and said “hello.” Still looking down, he responded, “How ya doin’?” I quickly replied, “Well, my mother and father were both killed recently in a car accident!” Without, as they say, missing a beat, Joe said, “Great, great, that’s wonderful.” My family and I have laughed over that incident for years because it illustrates how self-absorbed and distracted people can be when someone is trying to communicate what’s on their mind and heart. How often have you “heard” what someone said and moments later had no idea of the content? What about times when we’re already formulating an answer long before someone has finished expressing his or her burden? Facing criticism well requires undistracted and careful listening. It’s not easy, but the Scriptures command leaders to model how it’s done (2 Tim 2:24-26).
Listening is not simply “hearing,” but involves receiving with genuine interest all that is being communicated. In my experience, a lot of criticism can be diffused before it becomes ugly by the simple practice of skilled listening. When a criticism is offered our natural reaction is to become defensive, looking for all the reasons why that person has both misunderstood our intentions and misconstrued the facts. Defensiveness, however, clouds our judgment and our perspectives suddenly become subjective and self-oriented. A defensive posture is all about self-preservation and never leads to genuine interest and care for the welfare of others. If you believe a criticism to be false, you must be patient, listening carefully to the heart behind what is being said. James 1:19 says, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak,” and Proverbs 18:13 is even more pointed: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”
Being genuinely interested requires the discipline of self-control. Leaders are to be concerned, not for their own comfort and ease, but for the spiritual growth of those under their care (2 Tim 2:25-26; 1 Pet 5:1-4). We cannot speak into someone’s life until he or she sees us model submission to the truth. Take time to listen carefully before you offer a response. A man with a pure heart and life doesn’t speak rashly or harshly. Solomon hits the mark: “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Prov 15:28). When you listen with a critic’s spiritual best in your mind, you’re able to see more objectively the real heart behind the criticism.
Skilled listening also involves the understanding of terms and context. We should not neglect asking questions when greater clarity is needed. Be careful, however, that questions are not an attempt to divert attention from the central issue being raised, nor should they be asked in a challenging or inflammatory manner. Terminology is used differently by all of us, and we gain much ground when those involved can agree on the meaning of what is being said. A lot of criticism boils down to poor use of the English language and/or simple misunderstandings.
I recall one time when I was asked to review and approve a women’s Bible study outline for an upcoming study. The main points were stated using metaphors, making it a bit difficult to understanding the biblical principles I was supposed to be approving. I wrote the teacher, mentioning that the outline was “metaphorical,” and that I needed clarification on the biblical principle behind each metaphor. Suddenly, I found myself embroiled in a conflict I never intended. My request was transmitted through a third party (always risky), and when it reached the teacher, she thought I had accused her of using material that was too “metaphysical”! She was deeply hurt. I didn’t even know what the word “metaphysical” meant, and I’m quite certain she didn’t either.
The conflict was unnecessary and rather hilarious looking back on it. But the unfortunate misunderstanding brought no small amount of criticism against my leadership until I could help the women’s ministry leaders see where the mistake occurred. Thankfully, the tension was short-lived, but simple misunderstandings don’t always turn out as well. Asking good questions for clarification is essential to good listening. We must learn to respond to criticism with phrases such as “Help me understand…” or “Please be patient with me and tell me again what the issue is.” Most people don’t mind taking more time to explain themselves, and working toward fresh clarity is always safer than pushing for quick, but superficial, solutions.
Jerry Wragg is one of our seven TES campus pastors—having served as the Pastor-Teacher of Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, FL since 2001. He also serves as President of The Expositors Seminary. This article was adapted from Jerry’s book, Exemplary Spiritual Leadership: Facing the Challenges, Escaping the Dangers (Day One Publications, 2010).