By Craig Thompson
A few years back, I wrote about a senior citizen who told me she had a hard time focusing on my sermons because my pants were too tight. It’s still one of my favorite stories of criticism. However, it’s only a good story because it makes me laugh.
In reality, most of the criticism we encounter doesn’t make us laugh; it makes us uncomfortable. Sometimes we’re uncomfortable because the criticism is wrong (as in the case mentioned above). But other times we’re uncomfortable because the criticism hits right on the mark.
Not all criticism is created equal. Destructive criticism should be dealt with appropriately, and I’ve written about that in my article, Responding Rightly to Wrong Criticism. Constructive criticism, however, is a different animal altogether.
Destructive criticism often comes from those who aren’t supporters and who have no desire to see you succeed. Constructive criticism is friendly fire intended to sharpen you up, not tear you down.
Even though the person who says your sermons are way too long may have good intentions, it can be a difficult thing to hear. It stings to be told your children are a distraction in the service. It’s frustrating when you find out the music in the worship service was a turn-off to visitors. When friends offer criticism, their goal is to see you improve and see your ministry thrive.
But for constructive criticism to be effective, it must be received well and acted upon appropriately. Here are five pieces of advice from the Proverbs and from Psalms I’ve used when responding to constructive criticism.
Consider the source.
Proverbs 27:6 reminds us, “the wounds of a friend are trustworthy.” One of the best ways to determine whether criticism is constructive or destructive is to consider the source. Does the person who offered the criticism have a history of supporting you and your ministry? If so, assume the best about his or her intentions.
Listen so you can grow wise.
Proverbs 15:31 says, “One who listens to life-giving rebukes will be at home among the wise.” The NLT version of the same verse says it this way, “If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise.” Don’t defend yourself; just listen and watch God work in your own heart and life.
Practice what you preach.
Pastors are not above the ministry of the local church. If the church has a responsibility to hold each other accountable, then the pastor is certainly subject to the same expectations as the rest of the church body, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
Grow in humility.
God uses the humble, and nothing humbles you faster than receiving criticism well. I had to apologize once for allowing my anger during a sermon to speak louder than God’s Word. I didn’t enjoy that kind rebuke from the other pastors in our church, but they were right and that slice of humble pie made me a better pastor because, as Psalm 25:9 says, “He leads the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.”
Pride will lead to destruction.
Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride comes before destruction, and an arrogant spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 11:2 puts it this way, “When arrogance comes, disgrace follows, but with humility comes wisdom.” If you refuse to submit to constructive criticism, your days in ministry are numbered. You can choose between pride and faithfulness, but you can’t have both.
After nearly twenty years in vocational ministry, criticism hasn’t stopped stinging. And I doubt criticism will be enjoyable in the next twenty years. But I can honestly say I’m learning to listen closest to the criticism that comes from my biggest fans. If criticism comes from those who love me and long to see our church thrive, I need to give it a listen.
When your best friend points out the use of Arial font on your church website, you thank him for saving you public embarrassment. When you leave a pen light on in your pocket during a candlelight service, you thank the person who helps you avoid embarrassment. If your sermons have become dull and dry, be thankful you have friends or a wife who are willing to tell you hard truth in love.
Not all criticism is equal. But if you have friends who love you enough to say hard things to make you better, work diligently to treat those wounds as blessings.
Constructive criticism is just that—criticism that’s given to be constructive. Consider how God is using it to form you into a more helpful vessel for His kingdom.
CRAIG THOMPSON (@craig_thompson) is the husband of Angela, father of four, and the senior pastor of Malvern Hill Baptist Church in Camden, South Carolina.