5 Types of Pastoral Criticism

Editors’ note: 

For more reading on long-term faithfulness in ministry with practical wisdom from veteran pastors, see Faithful Endurance: The Joy of Shepherding People for a Lifetime from The Gospel Coalition.

In this video, Dan Doriani provides a filter to help pastors wade through the kinds of criticism they will receive in ministry.


The following is a lightly edited transcript provided by a transcription service. Please check video before quoting.

We are all going to get unwanted criticism. Every pastor will. And some of that unwanted criticism is actually fair and necessary, but other criticisms are uncharitable. A lot of criticism comes from a desire for the pastor to be perfect, and so you simply acknowledge “It’s true, I wasn’t able to do that” or “I wasn’t at my best that moment.” And you basically say thank you and move on.
Sometimes criticism goes like this; “I was in need you didn’t help me. You did not solve my problem. My child has this problem and you and your youth ministry didn’t solve it.” To which we have to say something like this if you can, “I gave it my best effort. I realize I wasn’t able to solve that problem. It didn’t have the outcome that we wanted. You may recall that I then tried to get other help for you.” Some people just get mad, and you have to let them get mad. You have to let them talk until they’re done talking, and sometimes it’s good just to be quiet and let them vent. I’ve actually sat still for as long as an hour and 20 minutes while somebody just told me over and over and over that they were angry and upset that I didn’t solve their problem. That’s unusual, that’s the only time I’ve experienced something like that. But let people talk until they’re done is a good piece of advice. When you have opportunity to respond, say simple things like, “I hear what you’re saying. I recognize that’s difficult.” And when you’re not giving them anything back to fight with them about, they eventually run out of steam and eventually they may even say something like “Well, thank you for hearing what I’m saying.”
Some people just stay mad and there’s not a lot you can do about that. Some people simply become antagonists, and if I can I’ll just give you a typology of antagonists quickly.
There are full blown antagonists––the blow the church down, burn the church down, get you out of ministry kinds of people. The best thing to do is to ignore them as much as you possibly can by remembering who you are in Christ and by remembering you were called to this ministry. They might want to fire you, they might want to see you tossed out in the street in shame, but your leaders don’t and it can become overwhelming. But do your best to remember that you’re created in God’s image, God loves you, you have worth in Christ, and there are people in this ministry that esteem what you do even if this person doesn’t.
Another kind of critic you get is is the person who’s used to being in charge, and they think you’re making a mistake. What you need to do is listen that person because often people who are in charge are in charge because they’re energetic and intelligent and they might be right. Maybe you’re making a mistake and if not at least you can hear what they have to say.
A third main type of criticism is when somebody you’re connected with in ministry makes a mistake. So especially lead pastors get in a lot of trouble when one of their subordinates make a big mistake like a major moral failure or failure to show up for a wedding that they’re leading. And the question is “How did you not supervise this person?” Now a young pastor is not going to be supervising a lot of professionals, but their team can make mistakes and to some extent you just have to deal with it and say, “I’m sorry, my team did not come through and I will try to address that.” And you accept the criticism.
A fourth kind of challenge comes from those who are advocating change, and you may need change in your ministry. So, of all people, Machiavelli had a very good point about this, he said, “Those who favor the status quo usually favor it strongly because they see what they have to lose from a change. Whereas those who are in favor of a change are only mildly attached because they’re not sure it’s actually going to materialize.” I think that’s accurate. People who advocate change are going to receive automatic resistance from some people. Understand that some people are very eager to receive the change that you’re promoting and try to work with them.
The final category criticism, number five, is criticism you deserve for a personal or moral failing. It’s hard but necessary to listen to people who say you were, for example, harsh. I recognize it was the end of a long day, I recognize that you’re sick, I understand that your mother’s dying and they don’t know that. You were still harsh with that person, and you can’t indulge that. Of course there are other criticisms that we receive and if it’s well deserved, you say “Thank you, Lord, for sending someone to give me a chance to grow in my maturity and my sanctification. And I know that you sent me this person in an act of love. It’s painful love, but it’s love, and so thanks for this opportunity to grow.”
The truth is critic number one, a full-blown hateful critic, can actually say things that are true. Hateful critics are often somewhat perceptive but the difference of course is that the first one’s not speaking out of love and this one is. When someone is speaking to you about a failing you have out of love, I would exhort you to listen thankfully.