How (and how not) to take criticism

[This is cross-posted on Duke’s Call and Response blog]

I remember the first church member who came to me and criticized my preaching. My first reaction was to become defensive. I wasn’t sure if the complaint was entirely fair. I also wasn’t sure if this complaint was a symptom of a larger problem within the congregation — namely, a desire for control over what I said in the pulpit. I was new to this congregation. It was a small church with a complicated history.

I called my former professor and mentor, Michael Jinkins. “Should I be worried about this?” I asked.

“No, you shouldn’t worry. He came to you directly. That shows he wants the best for you,” Michael responded.

I took Michael’s advice, and within a short year, the member was one of my closest allies and friends. The member did indeed want the best for me. I learned that day how helpful it is to take down those defenses and listen to what people have to say.

As a pastor, I receive all sorts of complaints, not only about my sermons, but also about programming, pastoral visits, or even my wardrobe. As a writer, as my audience grows, so do my critics. It is often difficult to know how to respond. Do we answer each complaint? Do we try to defend our beliefs, our congregation, or our denomination each time we feel that we are unfairly condemned?

As leaders who often work in institutions in the midst of decline, we can become overwhelmed with criticism. It is easy to become defensive, even when our main goal is to love God and to serve our neighbors.

How do we respond?

First, know who our friends are. Sometimes this is hard to figure out. I have often been a friendly complainer within the church, and I’ve had different reactions. I have been shut down. I have been told that my concerns were my own fault. And I have had people take the time to listen to me. I bet you can guess which responses have been the most constructive.

Second, listen to minority groups and the stories of individuals. As church leaders, defensiveness can be a dangerous position, especially if we are in power and we are insensitive to the complaints of a minority group. When men, women, or children claim to be victimized, we must be especially attentive. In this highly litigious society, we might be cautious about what we say, but we cannot allow the concern of legal matters drown out justice. When there has been systemic abuse, oppression, or discrimination, the original damage that was caused only becomes magnified if we build up our defenses.

Third, when a criticism is launched, it is the wrong time to highlight the pain of the powerful. As public leaders, we feel things just as strongly as the next person, but we might need to find a private place where we can grieve. It’s insensitive to the real victims when the powerful highlight our own difficulties in public forums. This happens in small ways, like when an institutional leader who must lay off an employee repeatedly laments how difficult it is to do so. Or it can happen in big ways, like when church leaders complain of their victimization when their institutions have shuffled the deck with pedophile clergy and allowed continued abuse.

Fourth, know when to say, “I’m sorry.” Why is this so hard for Christian leaders? In the heart of our spiritual practices and liturgy we proclaim that we are broken people. We confess that we have been wrong and we ask for forgiveness. And in this world, where we are criticized by everyone from our grandmothers to new atheists, sometimes the only thing to do is to admit that we are wrong. And we are sorry.

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4 thoughts on “How (and how not) to take criticism

  1. I agree with all of your points. I am adding my comment, not to be contrary, but because the approach described here has been what I have tried (imperfectly) to follow and have learned a few things along the way.

    1- Not all people who come to you with complaints want the best for you, or really are complaining because of something you did. Some of them just need to spew, or vent. Listen, but don’t take it in. Don’t give a complaint more legitimacy than it deserves.

    2- You can tell when a complaint is not really about you when: It is overly aggressive and insulting, the person complains habitually, they continually reference past events or persons or situations beyond your control.

    3- Rarely respond to a complaint immediately. Let it sink in. Confer with people you trust. If you’re a human being responding when your ego is fragile will almost always be a mistake.

  2. I was at a conference a couple days ago where this subject was addressed. One piece of advice that was given is to remember that every criticism comes to you by someone who has incomplete information and/or imperfect tactics.

  3. I learnt powerful ways to listen to feedback from Wendy Palmer who leads workshops in Conscious Embodiment and also from a Leadership Programme I attended. The key is to allow the feedback to ‘land in the space’ – so instead of taking it in immediately and reacting to it from a defensive or apologetic space, you imagine it landing gentley outside you. You can then get curious about it – ask the person questions? Then you can decide how you will deal with this information – and again, it’s all just information! It might be there is alot of truth in what they are saying – and it might be a grain of truth. But you don’t need to take it personally – it doesn’t mean we are bad people! That has helped me ALOT dealing with feedback!

  4. Thanks for sharing! Last night I had a Session meeting where I was wondering if the criticism was constructive or designed to tear me down as a pastor. I tried to be silent last night but everything in me wanted to lash out and scream. I ended the discussion by saying letting them know I wanted to be evaluated based on a job description and not on anything. Seeing this post today, just helps me put a little bit different perspective on it. The person starting the conversation is one who plays devils advocate frequently, but I think she really did want it to be a positive experience, even if that wasn’t how I received it last night.

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