Lecture 12 – The Bull-Loving Matador: A Man with a Red Cape
“Brothers there is scarcely a thing in your ministries that will be more important than this.” -Joel Beeke on handling criticism
I. Prepare for Criticism
Question: How can I prepare for criticism?
There’s one way for a matador to avoid confrontations with bulls, and that’s never to get into the ring! There’s only one way to avoid criticism in the church, and that’s never to do anything!
But that’s not just true of the church. That’s true of all walks of life – sport, politics, entertainment, etc. You will never achieve anything in any walk of life if you are unwilling to receive criticism or are easily defeated by it. John Wesley once questioned in his journal if he was truly right with God since had had received no criticism for an entire day!
So, if criticism is inevitable, can we prepare for it? Yes we can. Just as no matador steps into the ring without thorough preparation, so the Christian leader should also prepare – spiritually and physically – for the inevitable “charge.”
1. Spiritual preparation
(i) Walk humbly with God.
Pride comes before a fall. If we are over-confident or self-confident, we are going to stumble, make some big mistakes, and receive just criticism. Seek a deep sense of your own spiritual vulnerability.
(ii) Pray to be kept from sin and foolishness.
You will be criticized even if you never sin or do anything foolish (remember Jesus!). However, you will be criticized even more if you do. So why give extra ammo?
(iii) If you make a mistake, admit it asap.
Pre-emptive strikes can take the wind out of the sails of criticism.
(iv) Develop and deepen love for your critics.
You will eventually realize that there are a few people who are going to criticize you no matter what you say or do. Instead of developing resentment and bitterness towards such people, ask God to give you a love for them.
(v) Practice self-control with your tongue.
Ideally you will work at a deeper heart-level in quelling and quenching anger that leads to bad-tempered retaliation. However, in the meantime, practice simply saying little or nothing in response to criticism. Perhaps think of a stock phrase to use like: “Thank you for taking the time to speak to me about that. Please give me some time to prayerfully think about what you said, and let me get back to you on it.”
2. Physical preparation
The matador’s preparation involves the mental, the emotional, and even the spiritual at some levels. However, he must also prepare physically if he is to be sharp and agile in his art. Likewise, the pastor has to prepare physically for verbal attacks. A lack of sleep and a lack of exercise will leave us physically run down, which has a knock on effect on our emotions and thinking patterns. If we are fresh and fit, it is so much easier to react in the right way to those who charge at us![footnote]Saw and Ski, Moses on Management, 177.[/footnote]
II. Distinguish the Criticism
Question: What are the different kids of criticism I can expect?
The matador has to distinguish between different bulls. He observes them from a distance and close up. He sees how they interact with other bulls and how they react to other matadors. He analyzes their character and anticipates their attacks. Some bulls are very aggressive and determined to kill. Others treat it like more of a game. While still others treat the matador with the utmost respect. The matador’s strategy will be determined by the nature of the bulls and the nature of their attacks.
Likewise the pastor has to carefully distinguish between different kinds of critics and criticisms:
- Invited criticism: Scheduled or regular evaluation and review by one or more people in one or more area of ministry.
- Uninvited criticism: Regular or one-off by people whose opinion you did not ask for.
- Justified criticism: Accurate reflection of the truth.
- Unjustified criticism: Inaccurate, false, untrue, imbalanced.
- Constructive criticism: For my good and to help me to become better at what I do.
- Destructive criticism: To discourage, damage, dishearten, demoralise, diminish me.
- Sensitive criticism: Expressed with love, wisdom, balance.
- Insensitive criticism: Insensitive tone, content, situation.
- Backstabbing criticism: Cowardly undermining of you and your ministry in your absence.
III. Respond to the Criticism
Question: How should I respond to criticism?
So, you’ve prepared for the criticism, you’ve distinguished the nature of the critic and their criticism, but now you have to respond. Will you be gored, injured, or with a flourish of your cape will you let the bull pass by? How you deal with criticism will determine the whole course of your leadership.
1. Four steps to avoid
- Reject: without a moment’s thought you simply dismiss the criticism, minimize it, and move on.
- Retaliate: again, often without even a pause, you attack the attacker or criticize the critic.
- Resent: while you may seem to accept what was said, you inwardly seethe and bitterly brood.
- Resign: you just give in, give up and run away.
2. Four-step plan to follow
Step 1: Receive the criticism
Whether it comes in verbal or written form, the first thing to do is pray for grace to listen to what is being said. If the person is in front of you, pray inwardly, look them in the eye, project calm, avoid hostile body language or facial expressions, and ask for time to think and pray about what is being said.
You may want to clarify the complaint by re-stating or re-phrasing it just to make sure you both understand the problem. Give a rough idea of when you plan to respond (within a week, say), and ask him what action they would like to see in response to their complaint.
End by thanking the person for coming to you in person and pray together. In your prayer set the specific complaint in the context of a wider relationship and experience of the Lord’s blessing.
Step 2: Reflect on the criticism
Questions to prayerfully ask include:
- Is it true? Is it even slightly true? Try to find the grain of truth in it if you can.
- Is it proportionate? Is this making a mountain out of a molehill? Or is it in the context of previous and appropriate appreciation for the pastor? Does the criticism extend beyond one sermon? Is it balanced in its expression or does it become hostile and exaggerated?
- Who is making the criticism? If it is a godly and faithful Christian, then you will pay much more attention to it than to someone who is not professing to be a Christian. If a particular Christian has an imbalanced theology or some particular “theological hobby horses” then this too should be taken into account when weighing the criticism’s validity.
- Is there something else behind the criticism? Could there be stress or trouble at home or at work?
- How many times have you heard this criticism? If it is coming from a number of independent sources, then it is time to sit up and take close note.
Sometimes it might be worth seeking advice, getting a second opinion from a trusted elder, fellow pastor, or friend, someone a bit more objective than yourself. Maybe also ask them to hold you to account as you respond to the person and relate to them in the future.
Step 3: Respond to the Criticism
In your response, try to think of building a long-term relationship. It is easy to win a short-term victory but lose a long-term opportunity to do a person spiritual good.
If at all possible, meet in person rather than respond by email or telephone. Pray together then calmly explain what aspects of the criticism you accept (for which you thank him), and what you don’t. If you have admitted that you were wrong, explain how you plan to apologize to offended parties and put things right. In very extreme circumstances it may be appropriate to offer your resignation. Ask if your response is satisfactory. Close with prayer, asking the Lord to bless your relationship, not let the devil in, and grow in mutual love and respect.
Step 4: Repent of your error/sin
When a matador is injured, he will review film of the incident, learn from his mistake, and put things right for the future. Likewise the Christian leader should respond not just by accepting he said or did something wrong, but also by putting things right for the future. Repentance does not just include sorrow for sin, but turning from it to new obedience.
IV. Recovering from Criticism
Whatever the merits of the criticism you receive, and however well you deal with it at the time, it is important to move on. Here are some helpful tips from Tim Ferris on “dealing with haters.”[footnote]Tim Ferris, “Dealing With Haters,” fourhourworkweek.com, accessed 5.21.14, http://fourhourworkweek.com/2010/05/18/tim-ferriss-scam-practical-tactics-for-dealing-with-haters/[/footnote] They are not drawn from the Bible but they do contain a lot of common sense.
- It doesn’t matter how many people don’t get it. What matters is how many people do.
- 10% of people will find a way to take anything personally. Expect it.
- “Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity.” (Colin Powell)
- “If you are really effective at what you do, 95% of the things said about you will be negative.” (Scott Boras)
- “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” (Epictetus)
- “Living well is the best revenge.” (George Herbert)
- Keep calm and carry on.
To these I would add:
- Do nothing to further inflame the situation.
- Keep praying for the person and for love to them.
- Don’t take sneaky swipes at them from the pulpit or in public prayer.
- Try to find an early reason to do good to them or visit them and their family.
- Do not become a people-pleaser whose life and ministry is dictated by the insatiable demands of others.
- Set up accountability structures that can help to pre-empt criticism and also help you to weigh it when it comes.
Every matador carries wounds and scars from too-close encounters with hostile bulls. Some of them have been deserved. Others result from a lack of skill or ability to let the bull sweep past in its irrational rage. I hope this guidance will help you avoid inflaming the bulls, dodge the angry and irrational ones, but also learn from your own missteps that have left you justly wounded and scarred.