Pastors and Their Critics: Pastors

With due awareness of the liabilities, I would like to venture on to the delicate ice of how pastors should receive - and congregants give - criticism. The reason I feel emboldened to do so is that I have had, in my years as a minister, some very good critics and I pray that others would benefit from their sage advice. So, over the next couple of days, I will be posting some on this topic.

To the first thing first: how should pastors receive criticism? The blog posts and articles on this subject are legion, for they are many - and, very often, helpful. However, one can get the impression that pastors, as a general rule, are insecure, defensive, and terrified of criticism. Perhaps many are. But if we believe our theology as Calvinists, these traits should not characterize the Reformed pastor. Moreover, it is not just the pastors who can be faulted; congregations often fail to criticize their pastors in ways that are even remotely Christian.

With these things in mind, the pastor should know that he will receive criticism; not if but when. Therefore, let us ministers, as the Authorized Version has it, "quit ourselves like men" and prepare for it. Here are some things to consider as we gird up our minds:

1. Recognize that, as a minister, you are a sinner, first and foremost. Say to yourself: "I have nothing to commend myself to God. I am not only likely to err, but inclined to do so apart from his amazing grace in Christ." Sing with the hymn writer: "Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love." Beginning here will put the axe to the root of defensiveness.

2. The second follows from the first. If I am as sinful as the Bible says I am (and all of us are), then whence pride? Whence the defensive posture? Surely it's madness to think that I am really as great as I am convinced other people think I am. After all, God looks on the heart - and that is a very scary truth. So, knowing that my heart is deceitful above all else, I must receive criticism with the eyes of my heart wide open: the person bringing the complaint against me is being very charitable, no matter what he or she says. He doesn't know the half of it! In fact, my heart could supply a rap sheet that would make a Chicago cop blush. Thus, no matter the criticism, there are far worse things I have thought and entertained than what the person is bringing to my attention.

Remember the words of Samuel Rutherford when a woman praised him after a Lord's Day service: "Woman, if you knew the blackness of my heart, you would gather your children and run." That's sure to cause some coffee to go down the wrong pipe on a Sunday morning, but truer words would be hard to find.

3. Given (1) and (2), the third thing is, cliched as it sounds, to go straight to Christ. What does that mean really? Well, to borrow the title of a lecture I heard Dr. Ryken give once, it means we do pastoral ministry in union with the risen Christ. We go to no dead Savior, but a living one, who loves us and has called us to the ministry. Therefore, confess to him your pride and bask in his grace. The Holy Spirit has brought you here; your sanctification in this area is intensely personal: God the Spirit brings you here and God the Son cleanses you!

Ministers are especially good at being practical Pharisees - looking good on the outside, but inside full of all manner of wretchedness. Nevermind - God sees this and loves us anyway in Christ. He shatters any pretense to pride by reminding us that we are simply servants of Christ. 

Fix this firmly in your mind: our work as ministers will largely be forgotten when we die, save for a few family and friends and souls we have ministered to. Another will take our place. Praise God, the next one will do better than us! And so it goes until Jesus returns. This is not a depressing but liberating truth: since I am not the sum of my ministry but my life is hid with God in Christ, then I am free to labor with reckless abandon.

Criticism, offered in love and received with humility, provides ministers with tremendous opportunities to grow. It gives us the opportunity to become more effective for the advance of Christ's kingdom. And it reminds us that we really are as bad as the Bible says we are. So let us listen carefully, weigh our responses thoughtfully, and be grateful for wise critics. Tomorrow, we'll look at the duties of those who criticize.