How Sensible Pastors React to Harsh Criticism

By Sam Rainer

A group of people circulate a petition to fire their pastor – collecting signatures in the foyer as members walked into church for Sunday services. Another pastor suffered the creation of a Facebook page dedicated to criticizing every aspect of his preaching and leadership. In a small town, a pastor became fodder for regular op-ed pieces in the local newspaper. They were not flattering.

In each of these cases, some would claim the criticisms were warranted. Perhaps they were right. Or maybe the critics had impure motives and were overly harsh.

Criticism can be either constructive or destructive. Constructive criticism comes from a pure motive to help the one criticized. Destructive criticism grows out of selfish motives and desires to tear down the one criticized. Criticism also can be either public or private. Both have a place. Typically, the critic should start with private conversations and escalate to more public statements when others are at risk. In rare cases, a whistleblower may need to inform the world about a particular situation.

Consider the below matrix. This article addresses destructive and public criticism, which is often harmful. How should sensible pastors react after receiving unwarranted, harsh, public criticism?

Decide if a public response is necessary. If the critic intends harm, a response—private or public—may cause more problems. This kind of criticism is often short-lived (less than 24 hours), and people will move on to other targets. The first step is to determine the likely duration and damage of the criticism. If the critique has legs and will trample on a lot of people, then you will likely need to offer a public response.

Don’t expect fairness. Perhaps an ideal church, organization or business exists where leaders are treated with total equity. I have not found one. The reality is, positions of power must be checked by bottom-up accountability. But this accountability comes from people who often are not aware of efforts you made to solve problems. You make a decision and people question it. At times, you will receive unfair public criticism. Pastors must shoulder this burden. Is it fair? No, but leadership ultimately is about sacrifice and service, not fairness.

Keep calm and use facts. Maintaining a good reputation is a biblical requirement for pastors. I can understand the visceral defensive reaction when faced with a public attack. Most want to defend their good name. The problem is you escalate the issue when you respond emotionally. In most cases, a calm and matter-of-fact response is best.

Attempt to learn from unwarranted attacks. When faced with harsh and public criticism, you will expend energy. It’s up to you to determine what type of energy. Will you learn something? Or will you waste the opportunity and devolve into rage, paranoia or exasperation? Perhaps the critique has no basis at all. Nevertheless, you can still learn from why and how the critique was offered.

Use humility as your tone and transparency as your tactic. Public criticism often requires a public response. Grandstanding will make the critic look like the victim. Holding back information will raise suspicions of you and give credence to your critic. Respond with a tone of humility. Give everyone all the information at the same time. Generally, you’ve got one shot at a response. Do it right the first time. People can sense gaslighting. When information dribbles out, you appear as if there is something to hide. Be sensible, not sensational.

Show empathy to your critic. Your feelings about your critic’s feelings are irrelevant. Church members need to know you have empathy, even for the most erroneous detractors. You can build a bridge by demonstrating an understanding of their emotions, while at the same time refuting their claims with facts.

Public criticism is inevitable in pastoral ministry. It will happen but hopefully not often. You are especially vulnerable when the complaints are overly harsh and out in the open. Sensible shepherds will respond in a way that benefits the church, even if it hurts personally.

This post originally appeared at Church Answers.

Published April 7, 2023

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Sam Rainer

As president of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time pastor at West Bradenton (Florida) Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.