Preaching is bittersweet. On the one hand we get the privilege or communicating the timeless truths of God. We have the incredible privilege and high calling of representing God to our congregation. But on the other hand we are vulnerable and exposed in our preaching. Every week every pastor is put under the microscope and scrutinized. Is he (or she) interesting, doctrinally sound, funny, long-winded, practical, deep, relevant? And what makes this doubly challenging is that our people can go online every week and listen to the uber-gifted communicators.
Every week as a pastor you feel the pressure to “bring it”. I remember walking out on the platform to preach recently and a church staff member kiddingly said “just don’t stink”. I know he was kidding, but that is a pressure I often feel when I preach.
What takes the scrutiny to another level of intensity is when the scrutiny turns into criticism. I know what it is like to have someone on their way out of church challenge what I just said in my sermon. I know what it is like to open my e-mail and find a caustic note from a disgruntled church member. It just comes with the territory. But what do you do when someone criticizes your preaching?
Maybe there are a few pastors who are healthy enough to just blow it off. But I think most of us have enough people-pleasing in us that the criticism grinds on us.
Someone once said that
Compliments are written in the sand and
criticism is written in wet cement
That statement captures really well how criticism has affected me through the years. So, let me give you 4 steps you can take to handle criticism in a healthy way.
1. Listen for the nugget truth that you need to hear.
This assumes that you have the mindset of a learner. No matter how long you’ve been preaching and leading, there are still things you can learn and areas where you need to grow.
Sometimes in a harsh e-mail or in the words of a frustrated congregant, there is something I need to hear. So, rather than reacting or becoming defensive, I try to ask “what is it I need to hear in their criticism?”
But I would also say to you… “don’t own more than you need to”. Listen for the nugget you might need to hear, but then discard the rest like last week’s trash. I know, that’s way easier said than done. The truth is, some people are just angry, crotchety, mean-spirited and don’t deserve to hijack my week.
2. Remind yourself of your identity.
When I am emotionally healthy, I am anchored in the unconditional and unchanging love of God for me. And I don’t find my worth in what someone thinks of last week’s sermon.
Criticism stirs our insecurities and brings to the surface feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. When someone criticizes me, it is like they hand me a magnifying glass with their criticism. And, I take their criticism and blow it out of proportion.
The lie I have often believed is that my worth is tied to what people think of me or think of my preaching. In those moments when I start down the path of self-condemnation, I try to be self-aware enough to change my self-talk. I start reminding myself that I am a beloved child of God. I remind myself that there is no condemnation in Christ. I remind myself that God delights in me completely apart from my performance.
3. Remember who you serve
I have found it very helpful to remind myself that my calling doesn’t come from that person and at the end of the day I don’t live to please them.
One day a journalist asked a very insightful question of a woman who played in the Boston Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. The journalist asked “How does it feel to get a standing ovation from the crowd and then the next morning, get a negative review in the newspaper?” She said that over time she had learned not to listen to the applause or the critics. She only looked to the conductor for his approval. He was the only person who really knew how she was supposed to perform.
So, when it comes to your preaching, don’t pay too much attention to the compliments or the complaints. Just look to the conductor.
4. Extend grace to yourself
I have found that many of us as pastors have two different theologies. We have one for everybody else in the world and one for us. All the time as pastors we extend grace to imperfect people. Why not do the same for yourself?
So, even if their criticism was completely founded and your sermon was a complete dud (I’ve preached a few of those)… let me remind you, it’s just a sermon. Your identity and your significance and the worth of your ministry are not tied to a 30 minute message.
This week when you stand to preach, do so unapologetically. Accurately teach the truth of Scripture. Preach with authority and boldness. And, when you are done, keep your eyes on the conductor.