Special note: This is a chapter excerpted from a book I’m working on entitled, “Mountains and Minefields- Survival Stories from Veterans of the Trenches of Ministry.” I thought my blog followers might also enjoy reading it.
Dancing with Your Critics
Early in our ministry, elders from a church we served called my husband, Ken, in for a special meeting. They presented him with a list of “observations” brought to them by disgruntled church members. The anonymous items ranged from petty criticisms to character attacks. Ken did not dress appropriately, speak correctly, preach the “right” books of the Bible (are there wrong ones?) and so on.
When Ken asked for specifics, none were given. Asking about the people behind the complaints generated a solemn declaration. “It doesn’t matter who they are. You need to make changes.” Ken came home stunned and decided he did not hear correctly from the Lord concerning his ministry call.
There are different ways of dancing with your critics. The scriptural pattern in Matthew 18, is that you work through forgiveness and reconciliation and move forward together like ballroom dancing partners. My reaction to the meeting more closely resembled two boxers in a ring. Not only did I want to toss a few left hooks at the elders, I verbally punched Ken a few times, disappointed that he hadn’t stood up for himself. Today, we are united on how to handle such things Biblically. Back then, we lost our footing. Ken disappeared into a re-tooling of himself to meet other’s expectations, becoming withdrawn and cautious. I thought about the elder’s behavior and started a list of my own, about them.
Did these elders and church members handle this in the wrong way? Absolutely. Did I respond rightly? No. God tested me, and I flunked. From then on, I nurtured bitterness towards anyone I imagined to be list contributors or any other critic. Every interaction with church members, I tried to determine if they were part of the merry band of character assassins. I knew that refusing to forgive is sin, but I justified my emotions as righteous indignation. I nurtured sin in my heart, no differently than Ken’s critics.
Some items on the list contained sharp words that slashed deep wounds into us. A few folks found everything about me and Ken to be wrong. Neither of us understood that all leaders encounter critics, sometimes haters. My rage lasered into a single point; people assaulted my man’s ministry. Simmering anger felt reasonable.
My bitter spirit became entrenched. I kept a mental “A” list and a “B” list, of supporters and detractors. Faultfinders received polite treatment when I couldn’t avoid them. Growing up in a confrontive culture, I applauded my self-control. The fact that I didn’t behave outwardly ugly toward certain members, I deemed a victory.
The irony is that during this time, we experienced successes and growth in our ministry. Most of our congregation supported Ken’s leadership. Many worked tirelessly, side by side with us. Despite that, I dedicated too much mental real estate to the opposition. Since we knew little about scriptural conflict and resolution, this emboldened sinful behavior amongst a few.
I mulled over every hurtful word and deed and carried on imaginary conversations with their perpetrators. Thank God, he kept me from speaking any of that nonsense out loud.
Without God’s grace, I might still maintain lists. Eventually, I became aware of a heaviness around me. It haunted my dreams at night. Daily, I carried the weight in my soul and sometimes it felt like a physical sensation. After attempts to ignore it for several months, I knew I needed help. I called a seasoned pastor that we’d recently met at a conference.
He listened while I described the situation. After I spilled it all, in his Texas drawl, he said, “Well, darlin’……… let me just ask you this. Is there anyone you need to forgive or anyone that you maybe hate, even just a little?”
“Yes, there’s a list,” I said.
“A list? Like a hit list?”
I assured him I lacked mafia connections. “I keep a running tally in my head,” I mumbled.
“What did these rascals do?” he questioned. I shared.
“So, if I hear you rightly,” he reasoned, “There’s a list of injustices in your head, and you keep that information handy. Honey, you done opened a door of unforgiveness and put out a welcome mat of bitterness for Satan to mess with your life. You need to repent and forgive.”
After he prayed for me, he shared key verses and assured me that all leaders encounter conflict. I chuckled when he said in closing, “Every church has some fruits and nuts. I know mine surely does.”
The sorrow I felt for harboring sin, made verses like 1 John 1:9 fresh. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (NIV). Other verses prodded my guilty conscience. “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:1 NLT). I understood I’d grieved God deeply.
I asked God to teach me, change me. During times of honest prayer, he reminded me of occasions when I’d judged people, with no thought to grace. I needed to confess and renounce my critical spirit. This I did, many times. Some criticism I experienced, probably came as a harvest from nasty seed I’d sown in my own fields. Undoing a negative habit is a process. I devoured teachings about forgiveness and became desperate to learn the nuts and bolts of how to go forward in truth and grace (John 1:14) when people attacked my character and motives.
Ken and I continued to experience divisive behavior in our churches, as all leaders do, but with diligence and time, I learned to respond to criticism instead of reacting to it. Here are some strategies I learned.
- Be prepared
People will oppose and criticize. Memorize pertinent scripture. Satan will be nearby to entice you to sin. Resist him with the Word. Here are two of my favorites:
– “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:1 NIV).
– “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (I Peter 2:23 NIV).
- Feel what you’re feeling.
Don’t pretend words can’t hurt. They possess the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21). A wise pastor once told me, “Feelings are what they are, it’s what we do with them that matters.” Acknowledge emotions and deal with them so you can move on.
- Turn to God first.
We tend to run to others when we feel besieged. Sympathy doesn’t mature us. In fact, it can handicap us and cause us to develop a victim mentality. I recall retreating to closets or restrooms to be alone with God and recover from verbal attacks that occurred between worship services. Those quiet moments empowered me far more than a friend saying, “You poor thing.”
We should only share specifics about a conflict with someone who possesses the authority or skill to be part of reconciliation. Sharing the ugliness with anyone else is gossip. Let your circle of folks know you are struggling and ask them to pray for wisdom, grace and resolution. No more detail is necessary. God is the only One who will think no less of someone because of your words.
- Ask God for truth.
Once you are past the initial shock, it’s time to consider whether there’s any validity in your critic’s words, regardless of attitude behind them. Under assault, we instinctively give our attackers zero credibility. Writing folks off as contrary sheep is easier than examining ourselves. We need to own our failings and missteps. God may use a mouthy sheep to get a shepherd’s attention.
Sometimes, there is no truth in criticism. One couple accused Ken of stealing. Although it was false, we needed to know the truth behind this accusation. This couple did not want our church to grow. The influx of new members rankled them, and they blamed Ken for “ruining their church.” Their goal was to run Ken and me off.
I recall other times when someone launched on me due to stress in their personal lives. When life goes sideways, people might misdirect their anger. However, what’s in our hearts comes out of our mouth. Even though someone may apologize and explain their backstory, it’s wise to investigate whether there is a seed of negativity there.
- Work for reconciliation.
When a fellow believer attacks you, it creates brokenness in the body of Christ. Matthew 18: 15-17 is clear as to our responsibility. We need to go to that person and initiate reconciliation. If your critic agrees to meet, use “I” language. Avoid starting sentences with “You.” They will feel attacked and defensive. Try phrases like, “I feel hurt and confused by what happened between us recently. If I’ve offended you or hurt you, I want to make that right.”
Often, this attitude opens doors, sometimes not. Occasionally, critics lack interest in reconciliation and will instead use the conversation to chew us out further without taking any ownership of their own behavior. If this occurs, I suggest step six.
Sometimes people explode because they feel powerless. Restoring a relationship with them doesn’t mean that you abandon your God-given vision for ministry. Ask the Lord for insight as to how to bring this person on board with the leadership’s vision. Can you turn an adversary into an advocate? As a high school teacher and as a ministry director, I watched people change from opponents in the ring to partners on the dance floor, when I used this approach.
Be honest. Ask forgiveness for ways you caused pain for the other person, even if they don’t initially ask you to forgive them. You cannot make someone be at peace with you. All you can do is obey God’s Word and offer an olive branch.
Sadly, some people will use the branch to smack you on the head. They don’t want peace; they want you gone. So, what is to be done when people refuse reconciliation?
- Seek out higher authority.
That will vary according to your situation. In ours, it involved our denomination’s ruling body. Chronic sin cannot be allowed to go unchecked. Paul uses yeast, as an illustration, in Galatians 5:9, of what can happen when we don’t deal with situations forthrightly and Biblically. Sin becomes a poison in the bloodstream of a ministry. Ultimately, people who simply opposed Ken and me at every turn received instruction from higher authorities, to reconcile with us. When they refused, they were asked to leave our church and find one where they could support the pastor. Sadly, they left, and carried their pain along to the next church.
God wants us to forgive, release and bless the people who sin against us. (Luke 6:28) Ultimately, I began to view critics as God’s refining tools. Qualities like humility, patience and compassion, can grow in a trial, if you handle it rightly. I learned to see the pain behind harsh words. I developed tougher skin and stopped feeling like I’d been kicked in the stomach every time someone opposed me.
To be a faithful Christ-follower, involves rejection and sorrow. Jesus knows, intimately, the pain of false accusations. He sees your pain, and he cares deeply.
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” Matthew 11:28.