Coping with criticism

ONE of the things leaders often find hard to handle is the criticism and questioning to which they are often exposed. They get frustrated and baffled by it, sometimes hurt and bitter.

Criticism is rarely very far away, leaders find it attached to the job like a permanent price tag — only nobody ever warned them about that beforehand. Criticism can come from opponents or adversaries, it can come from leaders in other churches or it can come from within our own ranks, from the very people we are trying to serve and lead. Criticism from outside is easiest to handle. After all, we reason, our critics must have a personal axe to grind and we can put their attacks down to prejudice, ignorance, spiritual blindness or willful opposition to the truth.


Coming from fellow Christian leaders, criticism is harder to bear because we are supposed to be on the same side in spite of differences in denominational labels, doctrines or worship styles.Criticism from within our own ranks is the worst of all because here we really are on the same side and complaint or criticism smacks very much of disloyalty or rebellion. We can be excessively hurt when it comes from some of the very people who only a couple of years ago cheered us into leadership. Suddenly our most avid supporters have become our detractors. We feel betrayed and decide we can never really trust anybody and wonder if we should take them on at their own game and fight fire with fire.

Why does criticism arise?

Criticism is an inevitable part of the environment that surrounds the role and function of leaders. As the saying goes — If you cannot stand the heat, you better get out of the kitchen. A necessary characteristic required of leaders is the strength of purpose to press on and accomplish whatever they have set out to do, even in the face of negative feedback. If a leader lacks this capacity, they will end up not leading at all but merely following the public mood of the moment.
Criticism arises because of the following:

l Leaders, are not doing their job properly or, are generally dealing with change. To most people change is uncomfortable and often threatening, even when it is change for the better.

Therefore, the status quo will always have its resolute defenders, who resist change for no other reason than that it is change and they see the leader as being the instigator of their discomfort.

l Leaders are dealing with the future and working towards goals and objectives that lie in the future, therefore, the present is always incomplete and the objectives only partially accomplished.

Even when the current goals are reached, and even if they are perfectly accomplished, the leaders — if they are doing their job — are already on their way towards the next set of goals. Again, there will be shortcomings and incompleteness that can be criticised.

l Criticisms and questions often arise simply because people cannot see the future as clearly and as compellingly as the leaders can.

The leader’s task is to articulate the vision and keep on pointing the way ahead. The existence of questions and doubts may only mean that they are not doing this job adequately.

l There may be criticism because people do not have access to the full information possessed by the leaders and are drawing conclusions from inadequate data.

l In difficult times, the vision wanes.

When the going gets tough, obstacles and obstructions begin to loom larger and more convincingly than the goals. The problems are real and present while the goals are still further off in the future. Fear-based questioning and grumbling are common. The story of the exodus teaches us about the dynamics of criticism. (Moses and the children of Israel trekking through the wilderness).When things are going well, anybody can lead, leaders can even feel superfluous. It is when things are going badly and everybody else is ready to call it a day and go back to Egypt – that is when leaders come into their own.

l Sometimes criticism is voiced because people see genuine dangers and mistakes that leaders have overlooked.

The truth of the matter is that absorption with and commitment to long-term goals can sometimes render leaders blind to traps under their feet.

Immediate and short-range dangers are sometimes detected more clearly by those that are not in leadership.

l Questioning occurs because our perception of situations is different and thus our basic motivation is different.

The person who requires a clear and precise definition of a task before he can get going will always be asking for more specifics. A problem-solver will always be looking for potential problems and the person who needs time to prepare for something new will always resist an immediate response.

l Leaders handle power differently and power used carelessly can maim.

Authoritarian, insensitive leaders can leave a trail of hurt and scarred congregants. Many of these hurt congregants find it impossible to trust any leadership again because they have been badly injured. It takes discernment to perceive, and wisdom to deal with the criticism that comes from woundedness.

l Again, because leadership handles power, and, therefore, appears glamourous and exciting, it can even invoke jealousy among those who would like to be leaders and are not, or who have aspired for the position and have been passed over or rejected.

Jealousy or envy can come out in criticism or personal attack as it did against Moses. Psalm 106 vs 16, “When they envied Moses in the camp, And Aaron the saint of the LORD.”

l Finally, we often criticise just because it is very much easier to find fault than to create.

To initiate or build something is difficult and requires time, energy and the willingness to take risks. Moreover, there is often a lot at stake, even if only the initiator’s reputation. But as Gene Edwards says: “The ability to see faults is a cheap and common gift.” Criticism is also an attractive option for another reason — it carries the unspoken implication that we would have done much better than what has been done, without us ever having to demonstrate whether we really could or not.

lBishop Colin Nyathi is a senior pastor and founder of Harvest House International Churches

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