Sometimes my best movie-watching experience is an old favorite vs. something new—and I think the same can be true about blog posts. Back in July before the Vertical Church Tour, I posted something I hoped would be helpful to pastors facing criticism, from the trenches of a guy who has gotten and sometimes deserved a lot of it. If that’s what you’re facing in ministry now, I can tell you the principles below have proven both biblical and beneficial in our ministry. As I am deep into my study of the Gospel of John and don’t have a second post ready this week, I hope this ‘rerun’ will be helpful for you.
“A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” (Proverbs 29:11)
A complex issue for ministry leaders is how to process the incredible amount of feedback that comes from so many sources, both in and outside the church. It falls into some basic levels, regardless of the source:
• General input (random and one time)
• Persistent input (continuous on many topics, not always negative)
• Irreconcilable disagreement without sin (Paul and Barnabas)
• Constructive criticism (always negative, but goal is helping)
• Destructive criticism (always negative, with goal to wound)
• Harsh unjust criticism (intended to tear down)
• Personal attack and character assassination (intended to destroy)
The further what you’re facing is down that list, the more this article is intended to guide you.
Part of the puzzle in processing feedback requires evaluation of the person who brings it (let’s save that for another post). A.W. Tozer and many other men of God have had, throughout their ministries, a policy of ‘no attack, no defense’ when the opposition involved unjust or untrue statements from those outside of their own churches. Instead they chose silence, and I believe we should do the same.
1: When Answering Would Cause You to Sin
Every question does not need an answer. For those outside the information flow, the interrogative can be more appealing than the prerogative of love, as the former expands the ego while the latter deconstructs it. Knowing the whole story is a burden that leaders must bear in plurality, so the company or the congregation or the country does not have to carry the weight of full disclosure. In a culture where journalists dictate the information flow, we start to think getting the full scoop is the ultimate good. But seeing firsthand the failings of others without becoming disillusioned is what leaders are called to carry for the sake of all. To keep serving and loving and giving while knowing every detail of every disappointment with yourself and others is a deterrent to sanctification, not an accelerant. Parents, pastors, and all in authority learn that those they lead are better at asking questions than they are at living with the answers they often demand. If the questions are misplaced, badly motivated or beyond the petitioner’s need to know, the wisest thing to do is remain silent. If the answers requested require betrayal or gossip or casting pearls or dignifying someone’s disdain, it’s better to bite your tongue.
“[Herod] plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.” (Luke 23:9)
2: When Refusal Turns to Reviling
When the answers don’t come in the right amount at the right time to those who demand explanation, they will sometimes become caustic. Your child will attack your withholding of explanation, your employee will question your loyalty, your friend at church will question your fidelity. Can you continue to keep your mouth shut when your heart wants so badly to set the record straight? Can you wait on God for vindication when you have the information that would silence the scoffers in a second? Can you remain quiet when the incensed strike you in anger for your silence? Can you bear the reproach rather than return fire to injure those whose words are wounding you? Jesus did.
“And while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats…” (1 Peter 2:23)
3: When the Weight Seems Too Heavy
As you wait for God’s vindication you may begin to fear that you will be crushed by this burden. Is that so bad? Maybe crushing is just what the Lord has in mind for the pride that insulates our souls from greater grace. God’s sovereignty is so awesome and all-encompassing that He can capture what others meant for evil and use it for your good (Genesis 50:20). God can utilize the misplaced zeal of the ignorant and the well-intentioned crusade of the uninformed as the crushing that increases your Christlikeness. Often what we think is the worst season to endure will become the best season of our lives, if we handle it God’s way.
“Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him…” (Isaiah 53:10)
4: But Jesus Was Silent and Innocent
The obvious difference is that Jesus was silent while 100% without guilt, and we never are. Jesus could give it over to the Father, knowing that His complete innocence would eventually come to light. However, only by self-deception can we view ourselves as innocent. It’s so tempting to run to the part someone else is getting wrong, or camp on the corner of a third party’s misperception—but is all the opposition without merit? Isn’t it better to find the truth that exists in almost all criticism and embrace your own responsibility? Don’t make the mistake of hiding behind the parts of the problem that flow from the faults of others. Get a mirror and focus, with the help of those you trust, upon the portion of the reviling that is legitimate. Covenant with God and those around you that collective regrets will turn out for better service to God and others in the future. A continued focus on learning what you can from your own mistakes will help suppress your desire to retaliate and keep you focused on the one person you can change, yourself.
“Do not be wise in your own eyes.” Proverbs 3:7
5: But My Silence is Making Matters Worse
Can you sit quietly even when you see people you care about get picked off in the crossfire? Shouldn’t you stand up for the innocent who get drawn into the campaign to criticize by telling the ‘whole story’? Don’t allow yourself the rationalization that you are breaking your silence so the sheep don’t get scattered. Yes, any leader should be grieved deeply to see a formerly supportive participant become disgruntled or disillusioned. As hard as it may be, though, we must look to a purpose beyond helping those who know better than to listen to self-appointed arbiters of orthodoxy, who do little more than guess and gossip. Your choice to be silent when reviled is not about the 10 that are caustic or the 100 that are curious—it’s about the 1000 that are calling out for a space and time example of how to handle injustice. Scan the horizon of our world and see how seldom those that are falsely accused hold their tongues. Hear the hurting pleas of the men in loveless marriages or the women who keep serving in humility when affection and appreciation are not forthcoming. See the overlooked, underappreciated and often maligned all around us who truly want to handle injustice as God has commanded. Those who think silence means there isn’t a good answer are naïve. Maybe something much bigger is at stake. Maybe it’s not about you or your detractors at all—maybe it is about those who are watching.
“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to what is honorable in the sight of all.” (Romans 12:17)
6: Give it Some Time
The most important partner you have in a season of injustice is time. The season will end, the false criticism will be eclipsed by your growth in grace, the loyalty of those with all the facts and the love of those that know you best. The problem with most of us is that we want the issue settled, handled, inventoried with all blame assigned and everything back in the place it belongs for our own peace of mind. Yet Scripture exhorts, “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (1 Corinthians 4:5). And while you await your appointment before God’s throne, be sure you are preparing for shock at the things you were wrong about, with a vigor at least equal to your anticipation of vindication. Sit back, listen to those closest, keep silent, and wait for the Lord.
“Avoid foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” (2 Timothy 2:23)
7: Can I Ever Say Anything?
I have written a post about when to answer a fool and when not to, but the key is to answer only once and then remain silent. Silence may enrage the foolish, but it will model something important for those you are called to lead. If a fuller defense becomes essential, as in Paul’s ministry at Corinth, let others do as much of that talking as possible—you are not Paul, none of us are apostles. Beyond that, your silence helps you turn down the volume on fixing others and focus in on what God is trying to teach you. When I have gotten this wrong I have deeply regretted it, and purposed afresh to keep my focus on what God is teaching me. I am in the midst of a month largely without email or twitter or much of the internet at all. I am following no one and keeping up with nothing, except my relationship with Jesus, my family, and the wonderful leaders of our church. It has been incredibly refreshing to my soul, and the silence has given me a much clearer picture of what God is growing in me.
“The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” (Lamentations 3:25-26)