Criticism: we don’t like it—we don’t want to hear it.
And sometimes there’s good reason for that. Criticism can hurt—it can cause distraction. It might cause us to question our callings. It could result in us walking away from student ministry, and it can significantly wound our souls in deep, painful ways.
So what do we do? We avoid it—we run in the other direction. We ignore it or attribute the criticism to misinformation or ignorance.
When we do face criticism, we often don’t know how to handle it. Insecurities and fears well up within us, because we don’t know how to process critique. We internalize the criticism and the emotion, allowing them to eat away at us.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
I don’t like criticism any more than the next guy, but I’ve learned that criticism can be helpful to my ministry and a catalyst for personal growth and maturity. Whether we like it or not, criticism is part of being in public ministry. If we put ourselves out there, someone will have something to say about what we’re doing. So it’s important to learn how to properly handle criticism.
This isn’t a get-over-it-quickly model. Learning to receive and benefit from criticism takes time, practice, and patience. I’ve been in student ministry for years, and I still cringe when someone criticizes something I’ve worked hard on. But I try to remember to do the following:
Be open to thoughts and opinions. Whether they’re right or wrong, sometimes people just want to know they’re being heard. This might be especially true if they feel as if they aren’t being heard in other areas of their lives. Try to really listen to what people say.
Try to understand where the criticism is coming from.
Think through what led someone to share his or her thoughts with you: Did this person have a bad experience? Did their child have a bad experience? Did you not do something you said you would? Was it a miscommunication? Do they have a legitimate complaint? Was this person having a bad day and you were the lucky one they saw first? What’s at the heart of the criticism? Listen, and try to find the source.
You want to learn as much as you can so you can understand what’s behind the criticism. Ask questions. Why does this person feel this way? What prompted the criticism? What do I need to hear? What can I take away? Don’t just listen to what’s being said—ask questions that lead to a place of understanding for everyone involved.
Don’t avoid conflict.
Don’t run from criticism—don’t hide out at Starbucks. Face the criticism. No one wants to follow a leader who’s unavailable. Don’t fear that criticism might lead to conflict, but if it does, deal with it humbly, lovingly, and gracefully. When a situation warrants, seek the counsel of a trusted leader, pastor, elder, or mediator. Unaddressed conflict will only produce more pain, hurt, frustration, and stress. It’s best to deal with criticism and conflict as soon as possible.
Look for truth in what was said.
This is important. Criticism can often help reveal something you might not see in your ministry or in yourself. Look for truth in the critique: does the person criticizing you see something you might fix? Is God using them to teach you something, show you something, or grow you in some way? Not all criticism is bad.
Ask yourself, “How can this help me grow?”
Whether it’s a criticism of how you listen and engage someone or it’s the revelation of something that needs to be addressed in your life, you can learn from each critique. None of us is perfect—none of us does everything right. Look for ways to grow and learn from criticism.
Be graceful and loving in every situation.
I’m constantly reminded of God’s grace in my life. I’m a fallen man, yet God deals ever so gracefully and lovingly with me. People don’t always think through what they say, and sometimes their timing isn’t the best. Often criticism will come when you think you’re at your best—such as after that really awesome retreat when a student confided in you and you felt as if you were finally making some progress, or maybe it happened during that incredible concert when three students gave their hearts to Jesus. Satan loves to knock you down—don’t give him a foothold. When you face criticism, face it with grace and love.
Remember the power of forgiveness.
If there’s anything that cultivates bitterness, anger, frustration, and anxiety, it’s lack of forgiveness. When you fail to forgive, you store that hurt and pain within yourself where it becomes a poison that quietly infects your heart, stealing your ability to love others well. Be quick to forgive. I know this can be hard, so seek God’s help.
When it’s the right thing to do, be quick to apologize.
We tell our students all the time to own their junk. When the fault is clearly yours, own it. Apologize. Don’t make excuses or shift the blame. If you do, the truth will come out, and you’ll get burned. You’re human. You’re going to mess up—it’s what humans do. So own your mistakes—apologize. You might be surprised at just how far a sincere apology can get you.
Talk with someone you can trust.
This may be my most important advice. Criticism can be hard to hear, and even if you deal with it appropriately, it can wear you down. Find someone trustworthy you can confide in—someone seasoned, mature, experienced, and wise who will help you carefully navigate the criticism. This should not be someone who will always be on your side. This should be someone who cares for you and can be totally honest with you—someone who can help you work through the criticism in a way that allows you to become more of the person God has created you to be.
Criticism can be brutal, and, sure, it might be easier to avoid it—at least for a little while. But I don’t think we need to fear criticism. When we approach it carefully and wisely, we can turn criticism into a tool that helps us become better youth workers. And isn’t that what we’re after?
How do you deal with criticism? What tips would you add?
JAY HIGHAM is a 25 year veteran of student and family ministry; having worked with students in the local church and Christian camping settings. Jay is currently the Youth Director at Hickory Church, located in Western PA. Jay has been married to Amy for 20 years. Together, they are raising 5 kids. He is passionate about student ministry, family ministry, and resourcing and training fellow youth workers. You can learn more about Jay and his ministry to students and families by visiting his blog at WWW.JAYHIGHAM.COM!