Ministry Survival: Criticism

Listen, let’s just be really honest with each other. Deal? Good. Truth time: People are the worst. I mean, not all people are terrible, some of them are great and you end up marrying them or asking them to be the godparents of your children. But outside of those folks, everyone is just a big dumpster fire of vitriol and criticism. Am I right?

Of course I’m not. But as someone who is in vocational ministry with you, I can attest that it starts to feel that way. Let me tell you a story…

Criticism - Kindred Youth Ministry

Criticism Sucks

Imagine if you will, Little Eddie, the fresh faced associate pastor. Oh those were sweet days! I had endless dreams, a piping hot seminary degree, dry cleaned shirts, and nothing but love and praise from the congregation—until Jerry.

Who is Jerry? Jerry is the guy who, for reasons that I still don’t understand, called a meeting with me and the senior pastor and yelled—like for real—yelled at me for being “unprofessional, sarcastic” and in need of being fired from “his” church. Freaking Jerry, he wrecked everything, and he introduced me to a harsh reality.

People are brutal on their church leaders.

You’ve felt it, you’ve lived it—you know. There are Jerry’s in your church and there are Jerry’s in your history that, when you recall those moments (both dramatic and subtle) they turn your stomach. But why is this? Why do people treat their pastors like punching bags?

It’s You 

I don’t want to go another moment without asking all of us to stop looking at those people (i.e. Jerry) and start looking at ourselves. Because maybe, just maybe, the criticism and pushback you received was valid. Now listen, I know it hurt—I do. It stings to be wrong. It’s gut wrenching to miss a meeting, have a kid break an arm because of your ill-conceived game, etc.

But sometimes, the criticism is just, and we need to allow that to be so. Because we are imperfect, and we are in a business that requires the feedback of others to know if we’re doing our role well.

And while it can be painful to hear (and often delivered in less than desired ways) we still need performance reviews. Learning to cut through your own embarrassment, hurt, and ego in order to hear what’s true in the criticism will do wonders for you actually improving at your job.

But sometimes, you didn’t do anything wrong and…

It’s Them

It’s one thing to realize that someone’s criticism of you is valid and worth internalizing. However, it’s quite another to process that criticism, run it through your filters (more on that later), and then realize that—holy smokes, that person is crazy!

Here’s the kicker though—they’re not crazy. They’re people, whom God loves, and even if no rational person would see their side, you have a higher authority to answer to. So, you do what every good church worker does when the angry email comes in—you take it. Then, you go home in a swirling eddy of emotion—hurt, confused, angry, and wanting justice. But of course you remember, “Oh right, I work in a church and I can’t shoot off an angry reply that calls them out.” You have to be the good guy. Which means there’s a lot of unanswered pain inside that mind of yours. And that pain, somehow, is going to find its way out.

I don’t fully understand why people are so hard on the church staff. Maybe it’s just human nature and no flight attendant, waiter, or youth director is guarded from the shrapnel. But for others, I think that the church—their home church—represents something deeply personal. And it is the depth of caring for this home that drills up some of the most loving and hurtful feelings a person has. They want their sanctuary to be their sanctuary, and if it seems like anyone is messing with that, they can’t control the emotion.

In any event, there you are. Angry, figuring out if it’s you or them (or both, or something else, or the man, or the failed institution of church, or whatever) and you need something to ease the pain.

So what can you do?

Find a Spinning Top

Remember that movie Inception? Well, I barely do because for some reason I fell asleep on three different occasions trying to watch that thing. It’s odd actually. Anyhow, what I do remember was that Leo’s character had a spinning top. And the purpose of that top was to give him some sort of indicator of what was real—or not.

You need a spinning top. So often, when we get hit with a criticism bomb, we go out of control. Especially for those of us who are mildly to severely insecure (i.e. all of us), when we get pushback we can’t see the forest for the trees.

This is when things get dangerous.

Our mind replays the situation over and over. We start to tell ourselves that we suck and we really aren’t cut out for this. We barter with God. We indulge our weaknesses. We cry. In short, we fall apart.

This is when you need your top. That is, someone who you can dump all of this on and get some honest, helpful bearings from. In other words, someone you can tell the problem to and hear what is true. What is actual.

Maybe they’ll tell you you really screwed up. But more likely, they’ll tell you that the situation is not as dire as it appears to be. You need this person (or people) because when the derailing happens, very few of us can course correct on our own. Find someone who will tell you what’s true. Spouses, friends, trusted co-workers, even counselors to a great job filling this role.

Which leads to the next thing you must be doing…

Stay Healthy

I hate it when people tell me this—. Yet despite my shortcomings, the times that I’ve been most successful in dealing with criticism are the times when I’m caring for my body (i.e. God’s creation). There is plenty of science and theology to prove this point, but we really don’t need that proof to know it’s right, do we? A brisk walk and some good foods put us a better place. And we need to be in that better place for our mind to do the work it has to do to settle itself and live to fight another day.


You Can Quit

You really can, you know. It’s okay. Some of you reading this need the permission to start backing away from the role you’re in—and start planning the escape route. Because the truth is, there are some environments that are just too toxic to work in. Now maybe it’s you and you’re kind of messing up, or maybe it’s them and people truly are thrashing you unfairly. Whatever the reason, you must know that the work you’re doing isn’t happening because you’re you—it’s happening because God’s God.

And because of that fact, you must value yourself enough to know that having your soul crumble isn’t what God hoped for when he knitted you together.

The work you’re doing isn’t happening because you’re you—it’s happening because God’s God. And because of that fact, you must value yourself enough to know that having your soul crumble isn’t what God hoped for when he knitted you together.

I don’t want you to quit, I really don’t. I want you to find a way to persevere through the criticism, learn from what’s true, release that which is not yours to own, find some trusted help and try to be healthy. However, if that’s not possible for you, it’s okay. God still has a plan for you and isn’t critical of you at all.

If you want to chat about this more, let’s do that in the comments section below!


About the Author: Eddie Kaufholz

Eddie Kaufholz

Eddie regularly speaks about justice issues and writes on topics of faith and counseling. In addition, he is a podcast host, counselor, and pastor living in Orlando, Florida. He is married and has two daughters. Check out his website and find him on Facebook.