Thought Question: How to Deal With Criticism

criticismI’m a big Thom Rainer fan. Thom has written numerous books on church leadership as well as regularly posting thoughtful articles at his blog.

Several days ago, he posted a list of five ways to respond to criticism —

Overall we heard five common themes on how the leaders respond to anonymous letters. They are listed in order of frequency of response:

  1. They quickly dispose of the letters. By far the most common response was to get the letter out of sight as quickly as possible. Many leaders simply do not believe an anonymous critic warrants any attention.

  2. They never see them. A significant number of leaders have assistants who read their mail. They have been instructed to dispose of anonymous letters before the leader sees them. Some give the assistants the latitude to make exceptions if they deem the content really warrants it.

  3. They ask confidants if any of the criticisms have merit. Only about one-fourth of leaders responding take this path. Some say they will go to their spouses first for insight and perspective.

  4. They pray for the critic. Though the number was relatively small, some leaders did take this action. “The critic is obviously angry or hurting,” one leader responded. “The least I can do is to pray for that person.”

  5. They make the criticism public.  A relatively small number of leaders will actually send copies of the criticism to a larger body. They then ask the group for any perspective they can offer.

What do you think (the comments at Thom’s blog are well worth your time as well)? How do you preachers and elders handle anonymous criticisms?

As I was finishing this post, I stumbled across a blog post from Jeremy Carr that offers this wisdom —

It’s been said that “hurting people hurt people.” When facing criticism, answer the person behind the issue, not just the issue itself. Your critic may have some previous hurt or current struggle prompting the criticism targeted at you. The criticism is sometimes a manifestation of experienced brokenness.

If we accept the premise that hateful, anonymous letters are in fact a cry of pain arising from brokenness, what should our response to such letters be?


About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to Thought Question: How to Deal With Criticism

  1. Skip says:

    When anonymous letters are coming in the church culture is already broken. The Bible plainly teaches us to go to one another and discuss grievances one-on-one. The leaders must teach this AND be approachable. Dense elders and leaders are clueless as to how individual members are feeling. Get to know the sheep. Be proactive. Then members will feel free to speak freely.

  2. Skip says:

    As a follow-up to the last comment… Great church leaders know the sheep. They are friends with members. They are approachable. They are accessible. They don’t hide behind closed doors and speculate what the members are feeling. They have members into their homes. They engage in long lunches to discuss how people are feeling. They don’t fear the members nor avoid them. Great leaders are proactive and seek out the members who struggle with attitudes.
    Questions like this should be normal in a leaders communication: “How are you feeling?”, “How do you think the leaders can do better?”, “What do you suggest we change in the church?”, “How do you feel about the elders?”, “What don’t you like about the Church?”, etc…
    If elders and preachers are preemptive like this, the members won’t be compelled to submit anonymous letters.

  3. mark says:

    When I sat on a board, we never considered unsigned or anonymous letters or emails sent from strange accounts. We put out the word that you had to send it from your normal email or put it in writing and sign it.

    As for Skip’s questions, I have never heard them asked at any time in my life. I would probably drop my jaw if I ever did hear any one of them.

  4. Jeremy says:

    When receiving criticism (good or bad), why not receive it as if Christ is giving it to you. Then we can respond.

  5. The preemptive rejection of anonymous letters is a sign of defensiveness. I can understand not placing as much credence on anonymous letters as ones where the author lends additional credibility. Shepherds who protect themselves from the flock are not shepherds.

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