September 30, 2015

Why Spiritual Leaders Should Care about Criticism

Written By Cary Schmidt

Have you ever considered the value of helpful criticism?

Have you ever known someone, who from your perspective, was too sensitive to criticism? I’ve been on both ends of this spectrum. At times, I’ve been the one criticized, and others thought I was too sensitive. At other times, I’ve seen friends criticized and thought they were being too sensitive.

From the outside looking in, especially with non-credible criticism, it’s easy to take a nonchalant attitude, “Take half a baby-aspirin and go to bed. You’ll be ok…”

Yet, the receiving end of criticism, for a serious leader, is weighty—and not for selfish reasons. Sure, criticism hurts, discourages, and often touches sensitive nerves. Indeed this personal hurt is the very motive of an unjust or non-credible critic. But often criticism is bigger than that. As I search my own heart, and face my own critics, I’ve uncovered three compelling reasons that I take some (not all) criticism very seriously.

I’ve previously written on unjust criticism and on critics I listen to in my blog post “13 Critics You Should Listen To.” But in this post, I want to explore why mature leaders generally take potentially credible criticism very seriously—and should.

For me, being criticized is like being handed an assignment. It sends me into a focused mindset of “taking heed unto myself” and examining my heart and actions—researching my critics words, evaluating their validity, their substance, their motive, their agenda, their authority, their truthfulness—or lack thereof. And it’s not an easy process. Frankly, it’s a soul-searching, time-consuming process of evaluation before three entities—the Lord, His Word, and wise advisers. It’s the least enjoyable thing in all of ministry, but it’s needful.

Here’s why I believe wise leaders should be sensitive to some criticism:  

1. A great sense of accountability to God

God’s Work brings with it a pressure of fidelity in every area of life. Unlike other careers, ministry leadership is intimate and pervasive—it is immersive. Any servant of God with a sense of calling (not a hireling) lives with a broad, underlying awareness of grave responsibility and the ultimate sense of “answering to Jesus” in caring for His sheep. This sense of gravity never goes away—no matter how “light” the moment. It’s always heavy.

Criticism is often an accusation of unfaithfulness in some area of ministry stewardship. It’s often an implication of an area of weakness, oversight, failure, or breakdown—a potential blind spot (which we all have.) Criticism could expose something that needs corrective action.

Therefore, serious spiritual leaders take criticism very seriously. Every carelessly lobbed grenade of criticism or accusation sends a careful leader into serious personal and ministry review and assessment. It sends him to prayer, to the Word, to analysis, and to outside counsel. It sends him into a season of careful, prayerful heart-searching before the Lord.

What is often flippantly stated by a critic, is taken very seriously by a cautious, God-reverencing spiritual leader. No one with a sense of high accountability to God or a sense of the grave responsibility of caring for the souls of others would take potentially legitimate criticism lightly.

2. A great love for the critic

This second reason will surprise those who are critical, but a true pastor really loves the sheep—even the critical or hurtful sheep. A faithful pastor wants everybody in the flock to be spiritually and emotionally healthy. He wants every sheep to be relationally growing and well-fed. He wants every precious child of God to enjoy the church family and have their spiritual needs met.

Criticism is often the revelation that someone’s needs or expectations are not being met. In Acts 6, the leaders didn’t defend themselves or fireback at the complainers. They didn’t use their pulpit to bully the Grecians, guilt them, or dismiss them as “disgruntled.” No, in fact they apparently agreed with the criticisms (which means they first had to listen to them.) They validated the critics and acknowledged that there really was a problem of the widows not being properly cared for. What humility and authenticity! Rare these days!

The end result was a coming together of leaders to choose new leaders and to facilitate unmet needs. The outcome of the criticism was better care, better church life, better need-meeting. The leaders were mature enough to hear, receive, consider, and properly respond to criticism. The goal was resolution, restoration, and greater fruitfulness.

But imagine being the first pastor to hear of the oversights. It may have hurt. It may have seemed unkind. It could have become personal. After all—the people were indeed “murmuring.”

Every time I have been criticized, in the context of the local church body, it has provoked a deeper love for my critic. The criticism at first revealed to me, not a personal attack, but an opportunity to be a better under-shepherd. Each criticism was an invitation to solve a problem, restore a relationship, meet a need, serve God’s people, or somehow influence others with Jesus’ love.

Serious leaders take criticism seriously because they want the critic to have his spiritual needs met. They want the critic to have a resolved heart on the matter so nothing distracts from spiritual health and joy.

There are occasions, however, of people that are pathological antagonists. They don’t want health. They cannot be satisfied. They are looking eagerly for something to criticize. They are addicted to negativity. While a wise leader will consider criticism and love the critic, he will not allow the pathological antagonist to play their game.

3. A great love for the body of believers

A wise pastor takes criticism seriously for the health of the whole body. This plays out in a lot of ways.

First, if one person is criticizing outwardly, there are probably others feeling the same way but not saying anything. A leader wants to help resolve small issues before they become large distractions to spiritual health. In this way, criticism that exposes a need and leads to necessary correction or adjustment is really a great gift.

Whoever complained about the first neglected widow in Acts 6 was really doing all the widows and ultimately the whole church a great favor. Fortunately, the leaders acknowledged and resolved the problem instead of castigating those with concerns.

Secondly, in cases where the criticism is invalid or unfounded, spiritual leaders always want to protect the rest of the flock from a destructive spirit. Part of caring for the flock is guarding against wolves, or those that willfully and seditiously sow discord and disunity. Godly leaders will work to protect others from pathological antagonists who fabricate and relish conflict. They want to insulate the church body from those who prefer to stir up strife rather than resolving it. (More on pathological critics in my post “12 Qualities of Unjust Criticism”)

Here they are in summary: A sense of high accountability, a genuine love for the critic, and a passionate love for the whole body—these are the three reasons that a real shepherd can’t just “shrug it off.” For a serious leader, the possibility of serious criticism having any truth brings with is a grave season of assessment and adjustment.

This is why biblical criticism is so highly valuable. Everybody has blind spots. Every leader needs to know what he doesn’t know and see what he can’t see. Every leader needs to make adjustments and corrections. Every leader needs to grow.

Therefore, those who kindly help us see what we can’t, correct where we can, and grow in grace—those critics are our dearest friends. These are the friends who “have our backs!” They are loyal enough to be honest and to help protect ministry for the long-term.

Credible criticism is valuable—it represents an opportunity to grow! And loving spiritual leaders are eager to weigh it, consider it, and grow through it—even if at first, it makes them want to recoil in discomfort.

Don’t let criticism stop you. Let it grow you! Let it propel you forward in grace and greater effectiveness!