When Criticism Comes Calling
I just left yet another youth pastor. I was trying to be a friend to this youth leader who, in his words, is “getting his head kicked in.” The issue? Criticism. And in his mind, a discouraging and deafening amount of it right now.
I think that maybe criticism robs more youth leaders of their joy and fulfillment in ministry almost more than anything else. It’s not really a question of “Will I be criticized?” The more realistic question is, “How can I be successful in youth ministry while being criticized?” Your grandma really was right when she told you, “Criticism will either make you bitter or better.” Aristotle even weighed in on the subject. He wisely said, “Criticism is something you can avoid easily…by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”
So let me share some of the ways I try to think and respond when, like my friend said, “I’m getting my head kicked in” by criticism…and take encouragement knowing that it happens to me all the time. Did I mention, “All the time?”
- I try to evaluate the difference between constructive and destructive criticism.
Proverbs talks about the importance of constructive criticism when it says, “Let my brother smite me for it will be a kindness to me.” So one of the greatest ways we ever grow in ministry and life is to have people give us constructive criticism, even when it feels humbling and painful.
- Look beyond the criticism and try to see the critic.
I’ve learned not to put much stock in the nameless criticisms that abound in ministry, ie. “Lots of people think…” To take a criticism seriously, I need to know the names associated with it. Some people criticize so often that they act as though it is their “spiritual gift”! When a criticism comes from them, I just realize they are living up to their standard performance. But other times, when I hear a name, I immediately get on the phone to say, “Can we talk?” The difference is because I know those people are not characterized by a critical spirit. I often tell myself, “Instead of trying to put others in their place, try to put yourself in their place.”
- Remember that even the best parents can occasionally become defensive and reactionary when it comes to their own children.
So when criticism comes from them, try to graciously hear them out and see things from their perspective. It is agonizingly easy for normally sane parents to “go on the war path” if they perceive that their teenager has been wounded or treated unfairly. Just give extra grace in those moments. One day, these same parents will probably tell others that you were “the best youth leader” their student ever had.
- Remember that even Jesus was often criticized and deeply misunderstood.
Christ was constantly criticized, most painfully from inside the church world. He was accused of being a glutton, a man who hung out with sinners, and even of being a Samaritan (one of the lowest accusations possible back then). 1 Peter 5:21-23 says it well, “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example to follow in His steps. He committed no sin…but while He was reviled, He did not revile in return. While He suffered, He did not utter negative threats. He just kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.”
- Remember that jealousy and criticism are often the “trophy” that mediocrity pays to excellence. So if you feel that jealousy and insecurity are at the root of the criticism, don’t allow the criticism to become too huge in your own mind.
Allow time to prove the person wrong. The day after Lincoln gave his famed Gettysburg Address, a prominent newspaper wrote, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat utterances of a man who now serves as the President of the United States.” So take courage from Abe Lincoln, and remember that time will often be your vindicator.
- Guard carefully your own attitude toward the critic. A negative attitude toward criticism can sometimes cause you more internal damage than the actual criticism itself.
So fight to not let yourself respond negatively. Just remember that you cannot sink someone else’s end of the boat and still keep your own end afloat. So ask the Lord to help you be bigger than any pain, anger, or misunderstanding that you feel. He will celebrate that request. I promise.
In short, I’ve often made the mistake of taking other people’s opinions of me too seriously while not taking God’s opinion of me seriously enough. So when criticism starts to “kick your head in,” try to focus on the Lord’s opinion of you more than that of others. He always understands what you are facing and remains solidly in your corner, cheering you on along the youth ministry journey. For extra encouragement, remind yourself of what the history books say about Abe Lincoln these days!