How to Best Deal with Criticism

December 8, 2016 Rev. Daniel Ross

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Someone once told me that being a church worker is like living in a fish bowl. What they forgot to mention was that sometimes people threw rocks at the bowl. Anything public will draw criticism at some point. Sometimes it is a valid criticism, and other times it's not. So, how do you deal with and respond to it as a church worker?

Is it public or anonymous?

This is not rocket science, and I am not asking if a committee got together and took a vote before they talked with you. However, it is impossible to respond to the phrase “Some people are saying …” Anonymous complaints can cause untold aggravation. But, and this might sound harsh, they cannot be responded to. It is impossible to follow a Matthew 18 outline if you cannot talk to the person. So, can you put a face to the complaint?

There is only one exception to this, and that is if the person or persons went to the elders. Unfortunately, some church workers can be bullies. If that is the case and the elders have talked with the person or persons making the complaint, then they can go to the church worker. This keeps the worker from retaliating toward a parishioner.

If it is a public complaint, is it valid?

Not all complaints are valid. Many are just an expression of a person’s opinion. “I don’t like how you wear your stole” is an example of an opinion. It is not necessarily a valid complaint. This might be better talked about as the difference between constructive and destructive criticism. Destructive criticism seeks only to damage and cause hurt. Constructive criticism is given by those who have a valid concern and wants to help you be better. “Pastor, I don’t think you should park in the visitors’ parking” is a valid and constructive criticism.

Accept the truth: you are not perfect

This is hard for church workers. We read Paul and we want to be “all things to all people.” But then somebody says something that makes us realize that we are failing at that. Accept the fact that you are going to fail. If you were perfect, where would Jesus be? If you are feeling a lot of stress to “be perfect,” ask yourself who is putting that expectation and pressure on you. Chances are, it is yourself.

Do not take it personally

The number one way to shut down somebody who is trying to help you is to get defensive. A criticism is not an attack on your being or your character. Instead, the person giving the criticism typically wants to help you be a better church worker. So, for instance, if after a children’s message a parishioner says, “I really wish you would end the messages in prayer,” do not get in a huff. Instead, take your ego out of the equation and ask yourself, “Would that help?” or “Would that make it/them better?” If the answer is yes, then do it.

Is there something underlying or behind the criticism?

Not everything can be taken at face value. Your sanctuary has ugly olive green shag carpet left over from the ’70s. You finally get the trustees and council to replace it. They put in a beautiful and easy-to-care-for carpet in a neutral color. But sweet old Grandma Schmidt calls it ugly and a waste of money and wants to know why you wanted it replaced when the previous carpet was perfecting serviceable. Maybe she really liked shag carpet? Maybe her favorite color was olive green? Or maybe her family donated the olive green shag carpet right before her husband died, and now she feels like nobody remembers him or cares for her. Dealing with criticism means understanding what the actual message might be.

The Sunday School teacher who continuously complains about the material might just be upset because the teachers are no longer consulted about what curriculum to buy. Many times, complaints relate to different issues entirely.

Is there any truth in it?

This kind of goes back to the “accepting you are not perfect.”

“Our DCE dresses like a slob.” That can be a painful criticism to receive. But, take a look in the mirror real fast. Are your clothes wrinkled? Do you only wear untucked shirts? Is your hair style “bedhead” because it is literally bedhead and you do not comb it, even on Sunday mornings?

These are just some examples. But, with any valid criticism, it always pays to see if there is truth to what is being said.

Address it

After all that comes time for action. But before you do that, you need to plan what you are going to do. Address the problem and come up with a game plan to mitigate or correct it. The number one step should be no more excuses. Fix it, do not excuse it.

Thank the person

This might be a hard pill to swallow for some, but it pays dividends. Thank the person for pointing out an area or way you can improve. Remember, the person wants what is best for you. It can take a lot for some people to speak up. Thanking your critics makes them feel better and you too.

What if it is destructive criticism?

Still go through the steps above. However, if there is absolutely no truth to it whatsoever, then ignore it. Every church has a malcontent, often a few, and sometimes too many. They will bide their time and then strike at opportune moments.

Instead of getting demoralized, just ignore it. Sometimes it just does not pay to get into a discussion about the complaint. And, once you start trying to fix the unfixable, those people will just run you ragged. Do your best to not let it get to you. Go to someone you trust and talk with that person. That is the best way to work through the emotions of hurt and anger you are going to feel.

And remember, even Jesus had people complain about Him, and He was perfect!

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