By Bob Russell
However unpleasant, effective leaders must learn to live with the criticism. Someone said, “If you’re going to carry the ball, you’re going to get tackled.” If you’re going to lead, you’re going to be attacked.
The Bible says, “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:3). Nobody received more vicious or frequent criticism than Jesus—yet He didn’t quit.
And, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4). So don’t grow weary and lose heart.
Criticism of leaders is nothing new. Over 2,500 years ago the prophet Nehemiah was doing an effective job of rebuilding the broken-down walls of Jerusalem. His determined team was on schedule to complete the task in less time than expected. He had enthusiastic support from the vast majority of his people.
But Nehemiah was also the target of vicious criticism. Two local residents, Sanballat and Tobiah, despised the Jews and made fun of the wall. “Even a fox could knock it over,” they scoffed.
When Nehemiah refused to be intimidated or distracted by their ridicule, Sanballat and Tobiah wrote him a letter expressing their displeasure and requested a meeting to discuss their objections.
Nehemiah’s response was classic. He basically said, “I’m doing an important work and I don’t have time to hear your gripes.” That wasn’t cocky—it was smart. It wasn’t flippant—it was the wisest use of his time.
In my time as a pastor, I had to learn to cope with criticism. In my younger years any disagreement really discouraged me.
Friends and family spent considerable energy nursing my wounded ego. But eventually experience and Scripture helped me cope with criticism more effectively.
Perhaps some younger Christian leaders can benefit from some of the lessons I learned.
1. Remember all effective leaders are criticized.
If you are on the front lines of battle, you’re probably going to get shot at. It’s that simple.
We are involved in an intensifying spiritual war and the enemy is becoming increasingly malicious and mean-spirited. One gets the impression that if the world can just prove enough Christians are phony then they’ll feel vindicated in their unbelief.
If you dare to speak God’s truth or attempt to lead God’s people, you are going to be attacked as a hatemonger, hypocrite, or a fool. Expect it and toughen up.
Oswald Sanders, in his classic book Spiritual Leadership, suggests maturity is moving from a thin skin and hard heart to a soft heart and tough skin.
2. Consider the source.
Is it a petty, small-minded person who is griping or someone you respect? If it’s from someone you hold in high regard, evaluate it carefully. Maybe the Lord is using them to point out a blind spot in your life or your work.
However, if the criticism comes from a puny-minded Sanballat or Tobiah, then it’s not worth the time and effort to answer it.
3. Evaluate the objection.
If the criticism has some validity, then receive it with grace and make the necessary adjustment. If it doesn’t, then ignore it and move on.
I almost never answer a mean-spirited criticism. I conclude the critic is too angry to listen to reason. They just want to vent. It’s a waste of time to answer grossly untrue criticisms, and it usually gives more validity to the objection than it merits.
4. Keep your focus on the ultimate goal.
Don’t mumble and grumble about the critics. That takes your mind off your primary responsibility. Don’t let Satan distract you from what needs to get done.
Your assignment is to please Christ, not men. His is the only opinion that ultimately matters. People are so fickle. The same people who criticize you today may be singing your praises tomorrow.
5. Find a way to get it off your mind.
If I can’t get a criticism off my mind and it’s affecting my mood or distracting me, I will type out exactly what I’d like to say without any concern about being kind.
However, I don’t mail that unguarded communication immediately. I wait a day or two and never wind up mailing it in its original form—and seldom mail it at all.
But by venting my feelings in a letter I get them out of my mind and onto the computer screen. Then it’s easier to forget it and refocus on the task at hand.
6. Get bolder.
The temptation is to become timid and avoid controversy altogether. That’s what the enemy wants! But Jesus warned, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my message, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in his glory.” (Luke 9:26 NLT)
Don’t let the enemy’s bullying tactics intimidate you. Speak the truth in love, but speak the truth. King David urged, “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” (Psalm 107:2 KJV)
The first-century Christians were threatened with imprisonment and death if they continued to speak about the resurrected Jesus in public. They didn’t retreat or get more cautious.
They prayed, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness . . . And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” (Acts 4:29, 31)
7. Give God thanks for persecution.
Jesus urged us when persecuted to “rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” (Matthew 5:11–12) When we can praise God and be thankful for criticism, then we know we are growing in spiritual maturity and following in the footsteps of prophets like Nehemiah.
That’s pretty good company.
BOB RUSSELL (@BobRussellKY) retired as pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky in 2006. Through Bob Russell Ministries, he continues to preach throughout the United States. An accomplished author, he has written over a dozen books, including Acts of God and After 50 Years of Ministry.
This excerpt is taken from After 50 Years of Ministry: 7 Things I’d do Differently & 7 Things I’d do the Same, ©2016 by Bob Russell. Used with permission of Moody Publishers.