As ministry leaders, you probably have a parental affection for not only your students, but your gathering as well. That feeling grows as you work to create a space where students enjoy being in an atmosphere where they will find, follow, and become more like Jesus. It is natural, and not a surprise, that when anyone, especially a student, starts to put down your ministry you get a little…defensive.
You might begin to feel like Nehemiah of the Old Testament, building things that are helpful and necessary, while others stand by threatening and opposing your work. In this situation there are good and bad ways to deal with this criticism, harsh as it may sometimes be. Here are a few principles for handling the Sanballats and Tobiahs of the church.
Take it with a grain of salt
Sometimes criticism comes rocketing out of nowhere and blindsides us. We may feel hurt or defensive right off the bat, but we need to understand that sometimes the comments or actions come from a person who does not have the whole story. They do not know why you stopped singing that one song, or why small groups were moved around. All they know is that they do not like something and no filter caught their thoughts before coming directly to you to ask for clarification. Not all criticism is grounded in fact or is cause for you to change.
Respond after consideration
Make a point not to reply in like manner. We might want to shout back or give a snarky remark to shut down the individual, but oftentimes that will hurt your cause rather than help it. It is important to reply at that time, but a comment of acknowledgement rather than a retort will always go a long way. Your best response might simply be, “Let’s talk about that later.”
Make time to connect with them
The “E” on the eye chart of negotiating naysayers is to create space for a face-to-face conversation. Maybe they need to hear your heart for ministry and get some background on the “why” of your ministry. Or maybe, just getting some attention from you is all it will take. Set up a separate time to meet where you can discuss the concerns of the individual involved.
Use it as a chance to evaluate
As always, learn from these moments. Maybe you think your event is perceived in a way it is not, or maybe you have not communicated enough about the expectations for students during worship. Evaluate and see what sticks out. I am going to say something bold here: maybe your ministry is not for everyone. Maybe the ministry that God has guided you into will not fit each kid’s preferences or concepts of youth group. That is OK! You being faithful is more important than pleasing each person that finds an issue with the rooms paint color.
Stand up for your ministry
While all the other principles are good to practice, what if the criticism is public? What if it happens within the group during a ministry event? What if it is a student that makes the comment? Because you are the leader in the ministry, you cannot just ignore comments that degrade what other students might enjoy. I have had students talk about how the music is not as good as that other group, and how the youth room of this church is so much cooler; right in front of other students. It might be disruptive, but you do need to address that issue with the individual. If you do not champion your gathering, who will? Please do not call them out and create a presidential debate-level argument in front of everyone, but do respond to the student with kindness, affirm their feelings, and even pull them aside if the situation warrants.
I will admit that this is a struggle for me. I dislike confrontation and compare myself too often, so this is something I am always working on. Not to sound defeatist, but we have all been compared to the church down the road with the booming youth group, stellar music, great mission trips, and soft-serve machine. But the truth is, your students have CHOSEN to come to your group. Do not lose heart. Do not take the criticism as a personal attack. If the ministry you lead is achieving its mission then the grumbling of dissenters will do nothing more than remind you to continually evaluate. And when these moments do come, make your prayer the same as that of Nehemiah; “Now strengthen my hands.”
SCOTT OSBORNE is the Student Ministries Pastor at Portage Free Methodist Church in Portage, MI. He lives with his wonderful wife and three sons and enjoys anything that gets him in the woods. He has been serving in ministry since college and is passionate about relationally engaging teens with the story of Jesus and walking with them in their journeys. You can follow him at his blog: THOUGHTSFROMAROLLYCHAIR.WORDPRESS.COM.