Dealing with Destructive Criticism (Part 1)

December 13, 2016 Rev. Daniel Ross

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Criticism is hard to take. We all want to just have everybody happy with us and our performance. After writing an article on how to deal with criticism I had a few requests to go into further detail about dealing with destructive criticism in particular.

Destructive criticism’s point, unlike constructive, is to cause hurt, damage, and pain. Whereas constructive criticism’s goal is the betterment of all.

First, a quick refresher on dealing with constructive criticism:

  • Only respond if it is public (you can put a face/name to it).

  • Accept that you are not perfect.

  • Do not take it personally.

  • Is the criticism a mask for something else?

  • What truth is in the criticism?

  • Address it by making a plan of action and implementing it.

  • And lastly, thank the person.

Dealing with destructive criticism, while similar, is also very different. It is not meant to build you up or make anything better. Instead, it is given to tear down and destroy. There are many facets to cover so this is not necessarily something to follow straight down the list.

Why is it being said?

The first place to start is understanding the person’s true motives. Why is this person or group saying these things? This could be a plethora of reasons. I heard a story from a fellow pastor one time about how the church treasurer took it upon himself to give the pastor a severe pay cut. Turns out the treasurer was laid-off from his job and was upset that the congregation voted the pastor a small raise.

Now, that is not a criticism, but it illustrates the point quite well. People do things for completely different reasons all the time.

If the church has had a bad experience with a church worker in the past this can cause all sorts of problems for the current workers. I have heard stories of pastors or DCE’s following a particularly authoritarian or abusive church worker. These stories are usually of the conflict that occurs and the absolute heck it can wreck upon the life and family of the current worker. The current workers seem to face a never-ending onslaught of malicious attacks. Why? Because of the hurt leftover in the congregation. It takes a particularly strong church worker to begin the healing process.

Other stories come from churches that suffered some sort of trauma. That pastor runs off with the church secretary leaving his wife high and dry. Or, the worst one I know of, the pastor committed murder. These of course are examples. But, things like these leave scars that sometimes never heal until all those around at the time have died. The very real churches in these examples have had years of conflict, much of it directed at the church workers called to the congregations in question.

In some cases, churches that go through a traumatic event heal. I have personally only heard of it being done when it was intentional. The leadership of the church addressed the issue and sought help. When a conflict arose, the leadership was strong enough to deal with it in a healthy way. However, all too often churches that go through events like this become what is termed a “clergy killer”. A clergy killer congregation chews up church workers (pastors, directors of Christian education, deaconesses, teachers, etc.) and spits them out. They are called clergy killers because the church workers that experience them usually have such a traumatic experience they leave the ministry altogether.

Therefore, it is a good thing when a new church worker learns a congregation’s history when they are called to a new congregation. If not a pastor, then from the pastor and church leadership, for example the church council and elders and those who have great influence on the congregation while not filling an official capacity. If a pastor what I recommend is to get the powerbrokers and church leadership together and do a congregation timeline. Be prepared. Do some of your own research beforehand. Have a printout of the congregational membership numbers. Sudden or major dips usually indicate a major event in the church history. Those things are usually something of which to be aware.

I could spend all day on specific instances. Suffice it to say, the first thing you need to understand is why it is being said. If you can put yourself in the other person’s shoes all the better. Understanding where somebody is coming from will go a long way in resolving the issue.

Is there any truth in what is being said?

This is hard to do with destructive criticism. The first reaction is to get defensive and reject it all out of hand. However, that is a mistake. Do whatever it is that you need to do to calm down and then dispassionately review what is being said. Is there any truth, even just a grain? I find this best and easiest to do by talking with a trusted third party.

The point is not to try and align your allies, but another person can help examine what was said and bring new insights that you might not have had. They might know something you do not about the person or group. Or, because everybody is different, they might think of something else of which you would not have thought.

Sticks and Stones

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” If only that were true. Destructive criticism is meant to hurt. But, you can control how much hurt you feel. Living and dying on everybody’s approval is not a way to do ministry. At some point, more than one person will be upset with you and might lash out. Remember, it is only words. Can words do damage? Yes. But, you can determine how much emotional damage they can do to you.

Every leader has a crisis of confidence at some point. That is what makes memoirs and biographies so fascinating. I grew up learning that George Washington was as strong as granite. The guy could do no wrong and he knew it. It was not until I was older that I learned of the many times he questioned himself, of how he had major uncertainties, how he barely held on at very critical points in time. Sometimes, you just have to fake it, smile at your haters and move on. As Taylor Swift told us, haters are going to hate. You need to be prepared to shake brush it off. This is easier said than done. But, it is critical that you do it.

Keep on keeping on.

If there is no truth in the criticism and it is leveled just to hurt you, keep on doing whatever it is that you are doing. If there is no basis to the criticism just ignore it. Listen, do you care what an ex from college thinks of your marriage? (Hint: you should not). Why should you pay attention to somebody that just wants to hurt you? The best thing you can do is ignore that voice. Or, shut it down.

I took a class in seminary over congregational conflict. I cannot remember if this story was told by the teacher or came from a book we read for the class, but a certain congregation was having some conflict. For whatever reason a man was extremely upset with the pastor. It got to the point that the man would stand in the parking lot before services and there he would wait for visitors and tell them that they should not go to this church because the pastor was a false teacher (something which was not true).

After a week or two of this, the man saw the pastor coming out to meet him in the parking lot. He was ready for a fight. However, the pastor surprised him by handing him a stack of paper. The pastor told him that if he was going to send visitors away he should direct them to the churches on the sheets of paper because they were solid churches with good doctrine. The pastor then walked away without another word. That was enough. Within a few weeks, a reconciliation was worked out between the man and the pastor with the man apologizing for his action.

In this case the pastor did not ignore the criticism. But, he was able to shut it down by addressing it directly. His actions were enough to silence the malcontent and lead to a peaceful resolution of whatever the issue was. What is the tricky part is knowing when to ignore and when to address destructive criticism. Unfortunately, that should be determined on a case-by-case basis. However, talking with a trusted confidant can help with figuring those situations out.

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Dealing with Destructive Criticism (Part 2)
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