Improve your sermon prep with our brand new study tools! Learn all about them here.
Preaching Articles

Criticism accompanies leadership. The only way to avoid criticism is to do nothing. If a pastor is taking a church somewhere—and really even if he or she isn’t—someone will criticize his or her efforts. The way a leader responds to criticism says much about the maturity of the leader and the quality of his or her leadership.

Here are five wrong ways to respond to criticism:


1. Finding fault with the critic

Instead of admitting there might be validity to the criticism, many leaders immediately attempt to discredit the person offering it.

2. Blaming others

Many leaders realize the criticism may be valid, but they aren’t willing to accept personal responsibility, so they pass it along to others.

3. Throwing back criticism 

Often a leader will receive criticism, and instead of analyzing whether there is validity or not, the leader begins to criticize other organizations or leaders.

4. Ignoring an opportunity to learn 

This is a big one, because criticism can be a great teaching tool. It needs a filter, and the person and circumstances need to be taken into consideration, but with every criticism rests an opportunity to learn something positive for the organization or about the leader.

5. Appeasing 

Many leaders are so fearful of conflict that they attempt to satisfy all critics, even if they never intend to follow through or make changes because of the criticism. If there is no merit to criticism, then don’t act like there is merit.

What else would you add as a wrong way to respond to criticism?

I’ve been guilty of all of these at one time or another. Awareness is half the battle. Identifying the wrong ways to respond to criticism and working to correct this in your leadership is part of growing as a leader.

Let’s be honest! Criticism can hurt. No one enjoys hearing something negative about themselves or finding out that something they do isn’t perceived as wonderful by others as they hoped it would be. Criticism, however, is a part of leadership and, if handled correctly, doesn’t have to be a bad part of leadership. There is usually something to be learned from all criticism. Allowing criticism to work for you rather than against you is a key to maturing as a leader.

 

Here are five right ways to respond to criticism:


1. Consider the source

In a stakeholder sense, how much influence and investment does this person have in the organization? This might not change your answer but may change the amount of energy you invest in your answer. Our church meets in two schools, for example, so if the Director of Schools has criticism for me, I will invest more time responding than if it’s a random person who never intends to attend our church.

2. Listen to everyone 

You may not respond to everyone in the same way, but everyone deserves a voice, and everyone should be treated with respect. This doesn’t necessarily include anonymous criticism. I listen to some if it, especially if it appears valid, because I’ve learned from that, too, and always wonder if my leadership prompted an anonymous response, but I don’t “criticize” leaders who don’t. I don’t, however, weight it as heavily as I would criticism assigned to a person. (Feel free to leave a comment about anonymous criticism and how you respond.)

3. Analyze for validity 

Is the criticism true? This is where maturity as a leader becomes more important, because there is often an element of truth even to criticism you don’t agree with at the time. Don’t dismiss the criticism until you’ve considered what’s true and what isn’t true. Mature leaders are willing to admit fault and recognize areas of needed improvement.

4. Look for common themes 

If you keep receiving the same criticism, perhaps there is a problem even if you still think there isn’t. It may not be a vision problem or a problem with your strategy or programming, but it may be a communication problem. You can usually learn something from criticism if you are willing to look for the trends.

5. Give an answer

I believe criticism is like asking a question. It deserves an answer, even if the answer is that you don’t have an answer. You may even have to agree to disagree with the person offering criticism. By the way, I save answers to common criticism received, because I know I’ll be answering that same criticism again.

One of my favorite is movies is It’s a Wonderful Life. In one scene, George Bailey responds to criticism that the Bailey Building and Loan is going to collapse. I love how he takes the criticism seriously, considers the importance of the critics, responds as necessary, attempts to calm their fears, and refocuses on the vision. What a great leadership example during times of stress! Obviously this is an extreme example, but it points to a reality that happens everyday in an organization. Many times, people simply don’t understand, so they complain…they criticize. The way a leader responds is critical in that moment.

What would you add to my list? Where do you disagree with me here? I’ll try to take the criticism the “right” way!

Ron Edmondson is a pastor and church leader passionate about planting churches, helping established churches thrive, and assisting pastors and those in ministry think through leadership, strategy and life. Ron has over 20 years of business experience, mostly as a self-employed business owner, and he's been in full-time ministry for over eight years.  

Browse All

Related Preaching Articles

Talk about it...

Chaplain Shawn Kennedy

commented on Oct 1, 2011

Under right ways to respond, 1 and 2 seem to contradict. I attended a church as a visitor once and heard the preacher completely mangle a passage of scripture (the parable of Matthew 13). Although I didn't attend the church I had an opportunity to show the minister where he contradicted scripture. Not giving much weight to a non-attender seems to be limiting God to who He can use. Re: Anonymous criticism- newspapers don't publish anonymous letters and I don't know if we should regard anonymous criticism either. Seems to go against MAtthew 18.

Jerry Haley

commented on Oct 1, 2011

In church life many members can not distinguish between criticism and ridicule. To often the comments of members and clergy are not to help but to put someone in there place.

Spencer Miller

commented on Oct 1, 2011

When we are placed in leadership positions in the church by the pastor of that church we need to be mindful of one thing. He has entrusted us to provide leadership over the same church member that God Himself has entrusted that pastor to provide overall leadership to. With that said, if the pastor in particular has a little criticism towards your leadership it may be due to him being answerable to God for the care and concerns of the flock.

Fernando Villegas

commented on Oct 3, 2011

Chaplain, keep in mind these are general principles, and we need to wrestle daily with how to apply them. Right Ways #1 and 2 may seem to contradict, but I think the point he is trying to make is that no criticism must be automatically dismissed, each should be given a fair hearing, but the source of the criticism can help you determine how much to invest in that hearing. The example he provided would probably apply more towards criticism of operational matters; i.e., some random person who doesn't regularly attend and isn't invested in the life of your church, but gives some criticism over how the church is run, probably shouldn't be given as much weight as someone who is fully integrated in the life of the church. The example you provided, however, is different; and in fact if we correctly apply Right Way #1, it actually does work out well: you may not attend that church, but if the pastor considers the source--a peer in the ministry who has had theological training--then of course in this context--a criticism of the content of a sermon--your point of view will be given more weight. So if you correctly understand and apply Right Way #1, then I don't believe you are in danger of limiting God. As far as anonymous criticism, I do see your point. I've had to deal with it in the past, and the frustration is that I'm really limited as to how to respond to it, seeing that there's no tangible person to respond TO. Which is why anonymous criticism may be cathartic for the person offering it, but otherwise it is quite useless. Mr. Edmondson does make a valid point, however. If nothing else, receiving anonymous criticism should make us pause to reflect on why there is not sufficient trust in our relationship with the church for a person to be able to come to us personally, and to figure out if part of the responsibility for the lack of trust lays in us. Overall, this is very balanced article. Too often, article for leaders on how to deal with criticism seem to be written on the assumption that the leader is right and the critic is wrong. It's important to remember that sometimes the leader is in the wrong!

Adeniyi Abiodun

commented on Oct 4, 2011

I am always very fearful to criticise others because sometimes I might not have seen correctly. The second reason is that I have discovered that many people do not have the ability to stomach criticism and use it positively, it end up derailing them and making them chasing the shadows ( perceived enemies ). The culture in this part of the world is also very critical of criticising an elder or senior rather we find other means that might not be perceived as criticism to pass our message of correction across.

Adeniyi Abiodun

commented on Oct 4, 2011

I am always very fearful to criticise others because sometimes I might not have seen correctly. The second reason is that I have discovered that many people do not have the ability to stomach criticism and use it positively, it end up derailing them and making them chasing the shadows ( perceived enemies ). The culture in this part of the world is also very critical of criticising an elder or senior rather we find other means that might not be perceived as criticism to pass our message of correction across.

Very Rev. Sam Aidoo-Bervell

commented on Oct 6, 2011

Thank you for educating me on how I can effectively handle criticism. God bless you.

Joda Collins

commented on May 16, 2012

Criticism is valuable no matter who it comes from. Our enemies will be overly critical, but often speak a grain of truth that our friends will not state.

Zachary Bartels

commented on May 16, 2012

Nice article, but it seems like it was already posted here a few months ago. Or was it just a very, VERY similar article?

Join the discussion