Unfair criticism

The conference speaker asked: ‘Why are the diaries, the personal calendars, of leaders so overcrowded?’ His answer: ‘When you’re constantly criticised, opposed or thwarted, the one thing that props up your self-esteem is your packed calendar because it proves you’re needed’. His message: we use busy-ness to counter criticism.

The pastor of a flourishing church told me people often talked about his harmonious, committed, and loving congregation, and how good it must be to lead that church. ‘If only that was true,’ he said with a wry smile. ‘The reality is that when a church is growing, there’s also a pastor who is hurting.’ In other words, his church wasn’t so ‘harmonious’ he didn’t have critics.

Criticism has been around for as long as people have been around. Probably one early cave dweller criticised the cooking smells from the neighbour’s cave. And the next door cave dweller criticised the rowdy children he heard squabbling through the stone wall. Criticism has always been a fact of life.

But if criticism is inevitable, there can be only one of three responses:

  1. Stop it. That’s a nice idea, and we may be able to silence specific criticisms or super-critical people. But new critics and criticisms will always emerge.
  2. Soften it. Maybe we can improve someone’s situation. Or we accept their comments and we change. But neither of those can happen when the criticism is unfair.
  3. Survive it. Usually all we can do is live with criticism. We can’t resolve every person’s issues, gripes, or preferences. We can’t satisfy everyone’s preferences or be the leader each critic would like us to be. Either we get out or we get on.

Many times I wanted to ‘get out’. I was the pastor of a lively and engaged congregation of people with great faith and gifts. They were good folk but with strong opinions about what the church should be doing. I encouraged them to share their ideas, and they didn’t hold back. ‘More evangelism’ ‘More social care in the community’ ‘More emphasis on young people’ ‘More attention on older people’ ‘More time for worship’ ‘Less time for sermons’ ‘More comfortable pews’ ‘Less money spent on the church building’. And the inevitable, ‘Better toilets’.

People had every right to express their ideas, grumbles and views. What I hadn’t expected was that they’d direct them all at me. They thought the senior pastor was responsible for everything, so they bombarded me with innumerable visions and grievances. They assumed their pastor would listen, agree, and bring about change. Well, I could listen, but I couldn’t always agree. Nor did I have the power to effect every change someone wanted. Some proposals were simply bad. Others could go ahead only by tearing up someone else’s wish list. So, not everyone got what they wanted and I got the blame.

That happens in every kind of organisation. A constant stream of disappointed or disapproving people guarantees a constant stream of criticism. It’s unfair to pile their angst and anger on leaders, but it happens. And it wears leaders down.

It wore me down. I remember joking that I knew work was going better when I considered resigning only three times a day. It used to be ten. Except that wasn’t really a joke. When your whole purpose is to serve people, it’s hard to listen to constant criticism and not be discouraged.

How did I deal with that? Honestly, not always very well. Somehow the weight of a criticism is heavier than the weight of a thank-you.

But Alison, my wife, would share wise words with me. ‘Remember,’ she’d say, ‘if you resign you don’t just leave your critics behind, you also leave the far greater number who deeply appreciate what you do and are helped by it’. Those words – spoken many times – kept me going.

Leaders can’t stop criticism happening. But criticism – especially unfair criticism – is survivable. Here are five measures that have helped me.

One  As well as assessing a criticism, consider who it’s coming from

I always thought carefully about a problem or criticism brought to me. Rejecting all complaints would imply the organisation was perfect and there couldn’t be any faults.

But I learned to think carefully about who was raising the complaint, and especially about ‘frequent flyer’ complainers.

I encountered at least five categories of constant complainers and critics.

  • Those who could never be pleased. Two church members lived together, and anytime I visited or met them they had fresh complaints about the direction the church was going and how I went about my ministry. They told me the church was at its best 55 years earlier which, it turned out, was when they joined. Changes since then were always bad.
  • Those who thought their way was the only right way. Some colleagues knew exactly how the organisation’s finances should be presented, or the publicity should be done, or which new staff positions should be created – which was remarkable since they had no qualifications in financial management, or marketing, or human resources. But lack of experience or credentials never hindered them. They believed passionately in their own opinions, and never hesitated to express them.
  • Those with a bottomless pit of opinions. Some people can think of ten ways to make a simple task complicated. They share every one of those ideas, causing confusion and slowing progress. These people aren’t arrogant or bad. It’s just that their inventive minds are in constant overdrive, and their barrage of suggestions creates cluttered thinking.
  • Those who think an opposing view should always be considered. The leaders meeting would reach a consensus, ready to vote, and then Martin would propose an alternative course of action. Martin would have said nothing earlier, but at the last moment present his different view. When working with volunteers, you can’t tell someone you won’t listen to their idea. So, back we’d go through the issue, reconsidering everything from Martin’s point of view. We’d finish back with the original proposal, I’d put it to the vote, and everyone would vote for it, including Martin. After the meeting I’d ask him why he’d brought out his alternative idea so late on, and why he’d then supported the initial proposal. His answer: ‘Well, I didn’t believe in the alternative, but I thought we should discuss it’. I kept my cool, but Martin continued making late interventions, which was infuriating for everyone. He and I talked. In Martin’s mind he wasn’t criticising, just ensuring a more complete discussion took place. I told him that was fine, but he must bring forward his ideas early on, and never right at the end. Mostly that worked.
  • Those with an insatiable need for attention. Some people need to be noticed, especially by the person ‘at the top’. And one way to get noticed is to criticise, especially if you do it in a large meeting because then everyone’s attention is on you. There are remedies for an attention-seeking child to ensure they get healthy attention. I have yet to find the complete remedy for an attention-seeking adult. But over the years I did get increasingly firm with people like that to stop them stealing time and support from people with far greater needs than theirs.

I haven’t tried to give quick-fix answers for these constant critics because there aren’t any. However, here are two suggestions:

Recognise what’s motivating them. For example, identify who can never be pleased, or who simply wants attention. Knowing why people criticise changes how you respond.

Don’t be overly gentle. In church life some people think they can criticise as harshly as they like, and the pastor and other leaders will simply absorb their rudeness. Leaders shouldn’t. Let’s be clear: unjust and harsh criticism is wrong. It’s a sin. Even done once, it’s bad. Done repeatedly, it’s unacceptable. Identify unfair criticism for what it is, and exercise discipline as appropriate in your circumstances.

Two  To cope with unfair criticism you need good friends

Strong leaders suffer two disadvantages when it comes to criticism. One is that critics assume they have to be extra forceful to ‘get through’. Unless their words are loud and harsh, they suppose leaders won’t listen. Second, critics often assume their verbal blows bounce off a strong leader, as if leaders are immune to hurt. We are not immune. Sometimes I wanted to shout ‘I bleed too!’ Unjust criticism hurts short-term and long-term.

So, how do we survive? My number one answer is that we need good friends. And they are of two types.

First, you need encouragers, people who’ll reassure you that you’re a good person doing good things, or that your faultfinder is a known critic of almost everyone and everything. Earlier, in the never pleased category, I mentioned two ‘always-critical’ church members. Their criticising was well known, including by Will. He was a delightful older church member who’d been a leader and confidant of every minister for 50 years. Will called me, named the two awkward people, and asked: ‘Are these two getting you down? Are they being difficult about your work as pastor?’ I told him I was okay, but certainly nothing I did seemed to please them. ‘Well, don’t be discouraged,’ Will said. ‘The pair of them have complained about every pastor the church has ever had. One of your predecessors told me he could wallpaper his rooms with their letters of criticism. They are the problem, not you.’ If Will hadn’t been on the phone I’d have hugged him. His concern for me meant a lot, and his ‘wallpaper’ comment has helped many times since. We need encouragers like Will.

Second, we need loving friends who are also honest friends. Friends like that care so much they won’t only tell you what you want to hear, they’ll also tell you what you don’t want to hear. But they do it lovingly. We don’t always say or do the right things. And we can be blind to our mistakes. So sometimes people are upset with us for legitimate reasons. We need a friend loving and honest enough to tell us we were wrong. And we’ll listen because the only motive that friend has is to help us. My loving and honest friends saved me many times. Sometimes I didn’t like what they said, perhaps even argued back, but in the end I had enough wisdom to listen, apologise and change.

Three  Accept that criticism goes with the territory

I used to dream of the day all problems were solved and all critics silenced, because then I could forge ahead with the real work. That day never came, and never could come. Why never? One reason is that problems, and critics, are part of the work. The second reason is that we deal with people. I’ve kept a quote by Anatole France[1] on my desk for many years. It begins ‘He who undertakes to guide men must never lose sight of the fact that they are malicious monkeys…’ There’s humour there, but France is actually making a serious point. The human race is made up of flawed people (including us), who, alongside many virtues, have weaknesses, vices, eccentricities and problems. So it was, and is, and forever shall be. Therefore there will always be criticism, including unfair criticism.

Four  Even unfair criticism comes from people with good hearts

How do we react to unfair criticism? Argue back? Get angry? Dislike our critic? Those reactions are common because our instinct is to defend ourselves. But that just hardens attitudes. A soft response is usually the better response. There’s wisdom in the biblical command to bless and not curse those who persecute you, and, as far as it depends on you, to live at peace with everyone.[2] Even if we can’t bless our critics, let’s respect them. Most critics are sincere people, perhaps misguided in what they say, but they’re not our enemy.

Five  Ultimately you are your own judge

Only you know whether a criticism is fair or unfair. And only you can decide how to react. We tend to one of two responses: a) reject the criticism; or b) condemn ourselves for our failings. Each of those can lack wisdom. Dismissing criticism is a protective, emotional reaction. It’s understandable but means we learn nothing from the experience. Self-condemnation is also understandable, but it often goes too far and lasts too long.

Instead, be your own judge and be a kind judge. You may decide there’s no truth in someone’s criticism, so don’t let their opinion hold you back. Or you may realise there is some truth in what’s been said. You got something wrong. So, learn and change, and don’t condemn yourself. Being at fault is not being a failure. After all, did you think you were perfect? Hopefully not. Now, by recognising and learning from your error, you can be a better person than before.

There is no route through life that avoids unfair criticism. It happens. But it’s not awful, and not a reason to give up. Plenty are grateful for what you do. Never forget that.

[1] French poet, journalist and novelist, winner of the 1921 Nobel prize in Literature. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatole_France

[2] Romans 12: 14, 18