Any leader worth their salt is well familiar with criticism. For leaders the question isn’t, “Will I be criticized?” but rather, “How will I respond when criticized?” I’ve certainly faced my fair share of criticism in my leadership journey, of both the constructive and destructive sort. While I wish I could say I’ve always handled it well, the truth is I haven’t. Even after countless hours spent learning about the value of criticism and knowing all sorts of Biblical texts that speak directly to the need to heed wise and godly rebuke by heart, criticism still has a way of getting under my skin in the worst possible way.
Recently, about a week after receiving some helpful criticism from one of our lay leaders, I realized that I’ve settled into a repeated process of dealing with criticism. While this process is by no means perfect, it has been healthy for me to learn to walk through, and I thought it might be helpful to share a bit of my own journey with you on this issue. Perhaps you’ll see some of your own journey reflected as you read. So here goes. I’ve learned that I’m responding best to criticism when I (in order) get angry, get processing, and get better.
This first step of my criticism journey is the one I’m most hesitant to label “healthy”. In a perfect world I know I’d be able to receive even the worst kind of criticism without becoming angry. But that’s just not the case for me, nor have I seen it to be true for most leaders. That’s because criticism by nature is deeply personal, and that’s especially true in ministry.
As hard as we work to separate our ministries from our identities it’s all too easy for ministry leaders to fail to blur those lines to an unhealthy degree. What that means functionally is that when someone comes to me with a criticism of some aspect of my ministry, I can all too often receive it as a criticism of me.
That’s why in my experience anger of some sort or another almost always follows criticism. Generally it’s not expressed in the moment to the critic (though a defensive spirit is always something to be on guard against). Rather this anger tends to come out later, when I’m alone, or talking about the situation with a trusted confidante. Again, I’m not necessarily saying that this anger is entirely healthy, but it is reality. If there’s anything that is healthy about this stage of my criticism journey it’s that the anger is a reminder that I care. And the moment you stop caring as a leader is the moment you’ve lost the value to your organization. So in that sense, this gut-level anger really can be a sign of health.
While it may not be unhealthy to become angry in the moment one receives criticism, it’s absolutely harmful to stay there. So if we’re going to embrace the need to get angry as a part of the criticism cycle, we must also embrace the need to get processing. As hard as it may be to receive in the moment, the challenging truth of criticism is that there’s most always something accurate contained in the feedback. While the easy thing to do would be to just thrust it aside (especially the harsh, destructive kind) leaders aren’t called to do the easy thing, but the right one.
So when you receive that bit of criticism that gets you riled up get angry that’s fine- just don’t stay there. As your head starts to clear and you get some appropriate distance from the moment of criticism ask yourself, “Is there any truth to this?” If you’re feeling really brave you can even pose the question to others that you’ve shared the criticism with. Considering criticism in this way requires courage, but is worth its weight in gold. As the Scripture says, “It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:5).
But why bother with any of the above? If it’s challenging, and requires a level of honesty and self-evaluation that most people just aren’t comfortable with, why pursue this path at all? Why not just stay angry? We pursue this path of responding to criticism because it’s only after you get processing that you can begin to get better.
Over time I have learned to thank God for my critics, because they’ve made me so much better. I’ve learned that if I can find that inner strength to really and truly consider a piece of criticism at its deepest level- not brush it off or shallowly consider it, but to instead really dig deep down into it, that I’m always better off for it. Every leader has blind spots, and few things expose them better than criticism.
If we can just learn to accept criticism for the blind-spot illuminating gift of grace it most always is our leadership will go immeasurably further in the lives of those around us. Whatever the area you’re facing criticism in, and however harsh the critic delivering it may be I guarantee there’s a way for you to get better if you’ll consider it honestly.
So there you have it. There’s the process I’ve found to be helpful and healthy as I engage with criticism. When criticized I’ve had to learn to give myself space to get angry so I can get processing, and ultimately get better. It may not be the perfect system, but it’s worked well for me so far.