Thriving leaders expect criticism. They know ways to learn from, cope with, and survive denigration from others. Leaders who fail in this area tend to wilt, get angry, retaliate or quit the job altogether. Here are some examples (chosen from many) in my years of serving the church.
The leadership board accepts a program staff leader’s resignation without reason given. The departed leader has followers who learn of the change. A church member calls a board member demanding to know more. The board member honors confidentiality and refuses to answer the caller’s demands. The church member maligns the board member to members in the congregation. The board member dreads going to worship the next few Sundays.
A pastor, seeking to be faithful to the Word, gets an anonymous note saying, “I don’t care what you preach, just make it above a 7th grade level.” The pastor tosses the note and lays awake at night wondering who wrote it and what it meant. The pastor is hurt deeply and wants to forget the note altogether but finds it impossible to let it go.
Twenty church members drive to a school in a needy part of town whose Hispanic children speak little English. The members read English to students so the students can hear how English words are said. The children then read back to the volunteers. The school children love the volunteers who come each week, often hugging them when they enter their classroom. The teachers are grateful. After two years, the school’s grade point average rises. Yet a church member openly criticizes the ministry because “some of the students are not U.S. citizens.” The members who read to the students suddenly become objects of scorn from an upset church member.
It is not an overstatement to say that if you want to make a difference as a leader, you will be opposed. Many decisions you make will be contested. To be a leader is to be misunderstood and often criticized. The only way to avoid reproach is to do nothing, to say nothing, to be nothing.
Yet thriving leaders know how to respond to criticism. What do they do?
Thriving leaders see God’s hand in the matter.
The Heidelberg Catechism says, “All things…come to us not by chance but by God’s hand.” An old Yiddish proverb puts it well: “If one man calls you an ass, pay him no mind. If two men call you an ass, go buy a saddle.” Thriving leaders ask, “What might I learn from the criticism? What might I need to deal with in myself? Can I consider the criticism and not the source? What can I learn here?”[i] God often gives us over to wounds because they help make us what God intends us to be.
Thriving leaders don’t repay the accusations, curses and criticisms.
One church Father, Justin Martyr, said, “Jesus’ greatest miracle is that he did not retaliate.”[ii] We work to love the critic with a love beyond our own, knowing our security is being in God’s caring hand and God’s will as best we understand it.
Thriving leaders forgive their critics.
Even if the criticism is groundless, the leader will not be defensive but gracious. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27). I remember Dietrich Bonheoffer saying in Life Together that when we pray for our enemies we can no longer hate or despise them. We become free to forgive them, even if the accusation is unwarranted.
David Roper quotes George MacDonald, “O God, make me into a rock which swallows up the waves of wrong in its great caverns and never throws them back to swell the commotion of the angry sea from whence they came. Ah! To annihilate wrong in this way – to say, ‘It shall not be wrong against me, so utterly do I forgive it.'” [iii]
At times the leader can meet with the critic to learn more by listening.
When possible and when appropriate, such a meeting can be a growing experience for both parties. Understanding can increase. Love can abound in many cases.
Thriving leaders expect criticism and know how to deal with it, even if it takes a lifetime of learning how.
[i] Seeing Through: Reflecting God’s Light in a Dark World. by David Roper. Multnomah Books. 8435 NE Glisan St., Portland, OR 97220 C 1995. pp. 124-125.
[ii] Ibid. p. 128
[iii] Ibid. p. 131