Hearing God When a Critic Speaks
As a seminary student, I was asked to substitute in a Sunday school class for a teacher who was an uncommonly gifted communicator. I was nervous and not polished, but when I finished, I thought the class had gone well.
Afterward, however, I overheard one student say to another, "If he's coming back to teach again, I'm not."
Since that traumatic Sunday, I've had 27 years of teaching and preaching experience, and I've received a lot of feedback. Though it's never easy to receive criticism, you can turn negative comments into positive experiences.
I've learned that when I receive criticism, God is in it somewhere. That doesn't mean that criticism is always on target or that it must be taken at face value. But God can be doing a number of different things when I am being critiqued.
God could be correcting me or trying to bring balance into my life. Two years ago at our annual staff retreat, our church's five pastors spent three days critiquing one another's lives and ministries. We have good personal relationships that enable us to share honestly without fear of being rejected. At one point, I critiqued one of the pastors, suggesting he needed to address some issues he didn't think needed attention.
To my amazement, the rest of the staff turned my critique around and confronted me. They said I was the one who wasn't sufficiently aware of the effect my words had on people.
Though this confrontation was painful, it became a turning point for me. As a result, I've made a commitment to offer casual critique of others only after first reminding myself of the special weight my words carry.
I've also committed myself to showing grace to at least one person every day. This might involve nothing more than taking initiative to talk with another about something that is important to them and not just to me.
In another's harsh words, God could be giving me an opportunity to teach others how to react to criticism. I want to show people how to respond not defensively but with grace.
One of our staff members received an e-mail from someone who was disappointed with my sermons. When the staff person passed the e-mail on to me, I immediately responded via e-mail to the critic: I thanked the person for his critique, paraphrased what I understood the critic to be saying, and then asked, "Am I hearing you correctly?" In this reply, I also acknowledged in what ways I agreed with the critique. I wanted to make it safe for the critic to be honest with me. This non-defensive reaction encourages people to give me their honest feedback. I want my critics coming to me—not going to others talking about me.
Another time, when two people were critical of my sermons, I invited them and one other parishioner to meet with me every Thursday in my home over bag lunches. I asked them each to study the text I would be preaching on. We discussed the previous Sunday's sermon, and they suggested ways the upcoming sermon might apply to their lives. These ...