It is inevitable that pastors and other church leaders will face criticism. Some critics will be well-intentioned while others will be bent on destruction; some will be attempting to do the right thing (even if in a ham-fisted way) while others will be attempting to wreak havoc. Yet the prideful and troubling temptation can be to treat them all the same. In his book The Heart of the Preacher, Rick Reed lists four common critics and offers appropriate and constructive ways to respond to each of them.
Anonymous critics shoot from the shadows. They place unsigned notes in the offering plate or send letters with no signature or return address. (What to do about them: “If someone is unwilling to own up to his or her critique, I don’t feel obligated to give it much weight. In fact, a scathing, unsigned letter may best remain unread. Another option involves giving the letter to an ally to read. This allows someone you trust to filter the criticism and distill any valid comments.)
Analysts don’t see themselves as critical, just concerned about accuracy. They delight in pointing out areas where a preacher misspoke. They rush up right after the sermon to tell the preacher he gave the wrong month for the moon landing in his opening illustration. Analysts are picky about particulars and tactless in their timing. (What to do about them: I’ve found analysts are normally harmless and genuinely want to help. What they say often has validity; however, their comments can also be relatively unimportant and poorly timed. If their input comes infrequently, pastoral wisdom calls us to graciously hear what they have to say, thank them, and move on. However, if they start making comments on a regular basis, set gracious but firm boundaries.)
Antagonists mean to be critical. For reasons we may or may not know, they’ve become hard and cynical toward us. They no longer give us the benefit of the doubt. They interpret our words in the worst possible way. If they listen closely to our sermons, it’s only to look for ammunition to fire back at us. These folks can break our hearts and boil our blood—at the same time. (What to do about them: When dealing with antagonists, don’t try to go it alone. Alert other leaders to the situation and ask for help. One of the reasons God designed the church to be led by a group of elders was to guard against “fierce wolves” (Acts 20:28-29). Elders and wise allies can help determine how to best respond to antagonists—seeking resolution while providing protection.)
Allies remain on our side even when they get on our case. Their words can hurt but they never mean to be hurtful. Proverbs 27:6 speaks about allies when it says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” If married, your spouse should be your closest ally. (What to do about them: When an ally speaks a word of correction, listen closely and respond gratefully. Wise pastors identify allies in the congregation and invite them to offer constructive feedback on their preaching and other aspects of their pastoral ministry.)
We must always remember the simple but profound wisdom of Proverbs: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).