It's a plain fact: If you're in ministry, you'll be criticized. It's the name of the game. And doesn't it seem that criticism often comes when we least need it and when we least deserve it from people who are least qualified to give it?
The effect can be devastating. One ministry couple we know was subjected to harsh criticism as they struggled with a rebellious teenager and were dealing with another family member's serious illness. The elders of the church were aware of their pain, but chose that time to unload a series of complaints on the father. It was the proverbial straw that broke their backs: They resigned from that ministry and are currently in another profession.
If we don't have a plan to deal with criticism and handle the pain, then our ministries and homes can be placed in jeopardy. What can ministers and their families do when people start throwing stones?
On a recent airline flight, we sat through another round of safety information, including how to secure our oxygen masks in case of an emergency. The flight attendant finished her instructions by saying, "If you are traveling with someone who needs assistance, you must secure your oxygen mask first and then help the other person."
That's a good analogy of how fellow pilgrims in ministry must first take steps to be strong before they can help others bear up under criticism.
Examine your heart. Take time to reflect on your thoughts and feelings. Are you outraged and angry? Are you afraid that your future is in ruins? Do you wonder if your mate will hold up? Are you worried that the criticism is true? When you pinpoint your reactions, then you can know what areas to work on first.
Pray honestly. Just as Jesus was honest before his Father as he faced the cross, you can tell your heavenly Father how you feel and ask him to give you his perspective. This comes from reflecting on his Word and praying. If you are struggling with hatred, resentment or pride, confess your sin and accept God's forgiveness.
Don't unload your initial reactions on your mate. It may only drag him down or inflame strong feelings. Take your fears and pain to God first; let him calm your heart. Remember that God, not your mate's detractors, is in control. As Christian psychiatrist and author John White observed, "He has considered every angle."
Find a confidant. Look for someone with whom you can be honest, who will listen to you and pray with you, who will keep confidences and who will offer godly insight. This person should not be involved in the controversy surrounding the criticism; long-distance friends may fill this need.
Be real. You don't want to back up the truck and dump your concerns on your mate. But with wisdom you may want to reveal how you're affected by the criticism. The goal is twofold: to keep your spouse informed and to help him see you are not angry or disappointed in him.
During one period in our ministry when David was subjected to unrelenting, hurtful criticism, Carolyn found herself growing angry and weary from attacks. Sometimes she withdrew or was on the edge of exploding.
David thought she was reacting to something he had done. It helped David when Carolyn said, "Honey, I know I've been out of sorts today, but I want you to know it's nothing you've done. It's just that all this stuff is really getting to me. But I'm talking to God and trying to look at things his way. Please be patient with me."
When is the proper time to open up? There are no easy answers or formulas to follow. But if your struggle starts to adversely affect your relationship with your mate, then you should communicate.
As you gain perspective and strength from God, you will be better equipped to support the one you love. Here are some steps you can take:
Be available. Schedule times to talk and pray together about the criticism when both of you are not tired or exasperated, and when you won't be interrupted. Limit your discussion about the criticism to those times so it won't dominate your lives.
Listen well. Ask your mate what he thinks about the criticism. You don't have to know all the details. Ask and then listen without trying to "fix" your spouse or the situation. Listen not only for details about the criticism but also for clues about how your partner is affected by it.
Ask your mate what he needs from you. Before giving advice, make sure it is welcome. As Dr. Louis McBurney of Marble Retreat has said, unsolicited advice is usually viewed as criticism.
Be honest if the criticism is valid. Pray that God will open your partner's heart to see the truth. Pray that he will give you wisdom to know when you should talk to him and what words to use. Change is possible. Sin can be forgiven and mistakes can be corrected.
Queen Esther risked her life when she approached her husband, King Xerxes, to save the Jewish people from a royal decree ordering their death. With patience and carefully chosen words, Esther helped the king see the treachery of Haman, the palace official who plotted against the Jews, and how the king would commit a great crime if the decree were carried out. The Jews were spared because Esther had the courage to speak up — and the wisdom to know how to approach the king.
Express your care. Garrison Keillor tells about a man who was going through desperate times and had almost given up hope. His wife listened quietly as he unburdened his heart; then she reached out and touched his hand. "You know I care," she said.
"Sometimes," Keillor mused, "that's all a person needs to know."
Let your spouse know that you will be there in the good times and the bad. He needs to know he has a loyal friend who will walk with him no matter what happens.
Provide sincere affirmation. Remind your spouse of God's call to serve. Point out the unique spiritual gifts, experiences and qualities that equip him to minister. Remind him of specific ways God has used him in the past.
Be affirming, but be honest. The first time we watched our seven-year old granddaughter play soccer, she instructed us, "Now don't say I'm the best player on the team, 'cause I'm not!" But she didn't mind at all when we shouted, "Good effort, Sarah!" and cheered when she did score a goal.
Respect your mate's integrity. If a critic complains to you about your mate (who knows nothing about the criticism), there may be no reason to pass it on. You can take the matter to God and leave it there. If the issue is serious and needs to be addressed, however, ask the critic to go directly to your mate, based on Jesus' instructions: "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault" (Matthew 18:15).
Let your partner answer the criticism if it needs to be answered. This problem is not yours to solve. Let your partner deal with it before God and others.
Encourage your partner to find a soul mate. A minister needs to seek a wise and discreet friend with whom to discuss the criticism — someone who will listen, provide feedback and pray.
Listen to Joseph when life's lessons were drawing to a close: "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" (Genesis 50:20).
Behind every difficulty, Joseph saw the good intention and guiding hand of his Father. So must we. God can use everything, even our critics, for our good. The stones they throw can be gathered and use to build a stronger relationship with Christ and a more enduring marriage and ministry.
Our friend and mentor Elaine Stedman, who served with her husband, Ray, for more than 40 years, wrote, "Attacks on a pastor can solidify the spiritual bonding of husband and wife as a serving unit. Anything that drives us to our knees must be counted as a benefaction."
Ever feel like you need to wear a mask to cover up who you are? Are you concerned that, if people knew who you really are and how you really felt, they wouldn't understand?
One minister, two jobs and the family that's at the top of the list. The number of bivocational ministers, those in full- or part-time ministry who carry an additional job, is estimated by some researchers to be as high as 30 percent of ministers nationwide.
"You should see the church they attend," Lucille said, armed with bulletin and newsletter. Creases formed across my brow as celebration gave way to comparisons a trap that had sprung too many times.