Carol Howard Merritt: How (and how not) to take criticism

All leaders can become overwhelmed with criticism. Four keys to responding well.

I remember the first church member who came to me and criticized my preaching. My first reaction was to become defensive. I wasn’t sure if the complaint was entirely fair. I also wasn’t sure if this complaint was a symptom of a larger problem within the congregation -- namely, a desire for control over what I said in the pulpit. I was new to this congregation. It was a small church with a complicated history.

I called my former professor and mentor, Michael Jinkins. “Should I be worried about this?” I asked.

“No, you shouldn’t worry. He came to you directly. That shows he wants the best for you,” Michael responded.

I took Michael’s advice, and within a short year, the member was one of my closest allies and friends. The member did indeed want the best for me. I learned that day how helpful it is to take down those defenses and listen to what people have to say.

As a pastor, I receive all sorts of complaints, not only about my sermons, but also about programming, pastoral visits, or even my wardrobe. As a writer, as my audience grows, so do my critics. It is often difficult to know how to respond. Do we answer each complaint? Do we try to defend our beliefs, our congregation, or our denomination each time we feel that we are unfairly condemned?

As leaders who often work in institutions in the midst of decline, we can become overwhelmed with criticism. It is easy to become defensive, even when our main goal is to love God and to serve our neighbors.

How do we respond?

First, know who our friends are. Sometimes this is hard to figure out. I have often been a friendly complainer within the church, and I’ve had different reactions. I have been shut down. I have been told that my concerns were my own fault. And I have had people take the time to listen to me. I bet you can guess which responses have been the most constructive.

Second, listen to minority groups and the stories of individuals. As church leaders, defensiveness can be a dangerous position, especially if we are in power and we are insensitive to the complaints of a minority group. When men, women, or children claim to be victimized, we must be especially attentive. In this highly litigious society, we might be cautious about what we say, but we cannot allow the concern of legal matters drown out justice. When there has been systemic abuse, oppression, or discrimination, the original damage that was caused only becomes magnified if we build up our defenses.

Third, when a criticism is launched, it is the wrong time to highlight the pain of the powerful. As public leaders, we feel things just as strongly as the next person, but we might need to find a private place where we can grieve. It’s insensitive to the real victims when the powerful highlight our own difficulties in public forums. This happens in small ways, like when an institutional leader who must lay off an employee repeatedly laments how difficult it is to do so. Or it can happen in big ways, like when church leaders complain of their victimization when their institutions have shuffled the deck with pedophile clergy and allowed continued abuse.

Fourth, know when to say, “I’m sorry.” Why is this so hard for Christian leaders? In the heart of our spiritual practices and liturgy we proclaim that we are broken people. We confess that we have been wrong and we ask for forgiveness. And in this world, where we are criticized by everyone from our grandmothers to new atheists, sometimes the only thing to do is to admit that we are wrong. And we are sorry.