I knew I shouldn’t have read it. They taught us in seminary to never read anonymous letters. My assistant screened my mail, and when she informed me that I had received an anonymous letter, my curiosity was piqued. I had to know what it said, and as I read through the letter, my heart sank. The content of the letter was an outright attack on me, and it stung deep.
It was a pivotal time in the life of our church. I had been the pastor for a little over a year, and I had just spent several weeks casting vision for the church’s future. I saw our church becoming a church that was focused on taking the Gospel not only to our community but to the ends of the earth. I saw our church becoming more focused on intentional discipleship. I saw our making necessary changes to our structure and worship style to reach our diverse community. I had plans, and apparently my plans were very different than the author of the anonymous letter.
The letter criticized my desire to lead the church to be more active in international missions. In my first year of ministry, I had led my church to be on mission in Russia. We sent a mission team that spent two weeks helping a local church in Russia build playgrounds for the community as a way to help the church establish a Gospel presence in their community. The author of the anonymous letter stated that I was far more interested in “building sandboxes for commies” than I was in reaching my own community. Ouch.
The letter criticized my leadership. The author stated that I was a poor communicator, and that I wasn’t building unity within the church. The author also stated that I had a weak handshake. I’ve shaken a lot of hands over the years, and that was the first time I had been told my handshake was weak. That hurt.
The letter felt like a slap in the face, and I let it affect me much more than I should have. Thankfully, that’s the only anonymous letter I’ve ever received, but it’s not the only time I’ve been criticized in ministry. In fact, I’ve been criticized far more harshly than how that author criticized me in that letter. Criticism comes with the territory of ministry.
It’s so easy to be critical. Our digital world has opened up so many avenues for us to vent our frustrations, to tear people down, and to be downright hurtful in the way we communicate. So, for those of us who find ourselves in ministry, how do we handle the onslaught of criticism that is sure to come our way? Let me give you three ways to handle criticism that has been helpful for me over the years.
(1) Don’t take criticism personally.
I don’t know what was going on in the life of the person who sent me the anonymous letter, but I can guess. The author’s church was changing, and he/she didn’t like it. Before I arrived at the church, the church had gone through a split and people were still hurting. I assume the author’s letter was written out of hurt from the past. If the pastor had been someone other than me, he probably would have received an anonymous letter as well.
I’ve tried to learn over the years to be sensitive to people who lash out at me. I don’t know what’s going on in their homes, on their jobs, or in their walk with the Lord. I don’t know what sins they are struggling with. You’ve probably heard the statement, “hurting people hurt people.” Instead of taking criticism so personally, I need to remember that there’s probably something else going on under the surface that has nothing to do with me at all.
(2) Don’t let criticism derail you.
If you are a pastor or church leader, everyone will have an opinion as to how you should lead, and people are not afraid to share with you what they think you should be doing. It’s good to listen to wise counsel. However, it’s not good to let every critic sway you in your decisions. Lead as God leads you. Pleasing everyone is impossible, and it’s not your calling to please everyone. Your calling is to honor the Lord in the way that you lead His people to know Him and be on mission for His Kingdom. If you are being faithful to God’s Word, loving God’s people, and being sensitive to lead in a way that builds people up and points them to obedience in Christ, keep on moving forward and don’t let criticism derail you.
(3) Don’t let criticism harden you.
It’s easy to become bitter and cynical, and if you dwell on criticism and take it personally, you will find yourself quickly becoming bitter and cynical. Be quick to notice evidence in your life of a hard heart. Be quick to notice when you are becoming short-tempered or short in the way you communicate with others. Be quick to notice when you are letting criticism steal your joy. It is not fun to receive criticism, but it does not have to destroy your sense of calling and purpose.
(4) Don’t ignore your need to change.
While you shouldn’t take criticism too personally, and while you shouldn’t dwell on criticism, you should discern if there is any grain of truth in what the critic is saying, even if the critic delivers the criticism in the most ungodly way. When I received that anonymous letter, I realized that I probably needed to make a better effort to be sensitive to the past hurts in our church that had been caused by the split. I realized I needed to communicate more clearly why changes were necessary, and I also needed to spend more time with people on a personal level to help them think through the direction of our church. I even started making sure that I used a very strong grip when I shook people’s hands! Even the most stinging criticism can be helpful if you use it as an opportunity to evaluate your leadership.
I pray that God will help you be able to endure the toughest critics and help you to show love and grace even when it’s difficult. Most of all, I pray that in spite of hurtful criticism, you’ll place your eyes firmly on Jesus and be obedient to the calling He has placed on your life.