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Slow Burn: Handling Criticism in Your Ministry

Scott Kinner

How to keep from being singed when your critics ignite a blaze.

"Maybe I'm not called to children's ministry after all."

"I've failed."

"I've tried my best, but this isn't for me."

"Where did I go wrong?"

You may not have actually uttered these words, but they might sound familiar. Perhaps a parent pointed out something he feels you did drastically wrong. Or a team member shared with the leadership team her concerns about the direction your program's headed.

Criticism brings an entire range of feelings that can slowly burn out your energy level and passion-and eventually your ministry. When you step back and reflect on the feelings that led to the previous statements, you find yourself asking, What happened? When I started in this role, I had energy even the youth pastor couldn't surpass. Where did it go?

Thoughts about hanging it up typically aren't sudden realizations about your success in ministry. Though usually ignited by one event or one critical comment, these thoughts are the result of a slow burning process over months or years. And that slow burn is often fueled by criticism from the most well-meaning individuals in your church. And the actual delivery of the criticism is usually more difficult to handle than the issue itself. You need practical ways to handle the different-and inevitable-negative criticism from staff members, leaders, parents, and even children in your ministry. Knowing how to handle the five different kinds of burning agents can stop and maybe even reverse burnout in ministry.


Too much change too fast resulted in fireworks for Larry Shallenberger, a children's pastor in Erie, Pennsylvania. During his first year on the job, he changed the children's curriculum, without training his leaders on the educational philosophy behind the change. As a result, one woman criticized the ministry to other leaders. Shallenberger admits he probably deserved the criticism because of his rookie mistake.

"However," says Shallenberger, "her criticism was particularly harmful because it was never directed to me."

Fireworks are the most common criticism because they're easiest for critics to perpetrate-behind your back, garnering support against you. Fireworks can be most dangerous because they often lead to an explosion. Fireworks get your attention, but they get everyone else's attention, too. Critics who choose this method of delivery tend to put on a show, though maybe not intentionally. As a result, many hear criticism about you that should've been directed to you. And when fireworks ignite, they can burn down the energy of an entire ministry or church.

Extinguishing Fireworks

Next time there's a fireworks display of criticism in your ministry, try these methods to stop the show.

• Get direct. Step up and take control. When you learn who's behind the fireworks, have an immediate conversation. Sincerely try to understand the concerns. Shallenberger says his situation taught him to "find the persistently vocal critic and sit down and have a pointed conversation about the issues."

• Learn. "There's almost always something to learn from a critic," says Shallenberger. "The worst-case scenario is that you've got an opportunity to practice graciousness."

Use this opportunity to learn something about your ministry, your leadership, even your grace. You may even learn that direct communication in your ministry needs work. Encourage people to bring issues directly to you rather than sharing them.

• Keep communication private. Though tempting, the worst way to handle fireworks is to set off your own competing show. When you're dealing with a vocal critic, no one else needs to know. Deal directly with the critic; don't discuss your thoughts about the situation with others.

Low Heat

Any good casserole that's left in the oven too long-even when the heat is low-will turn into dry rubber. Likewise, not all criticism comes in the form of loud explosions that burn you on impact. Subtle criticism can slowly burn out any leader over time.

Your senior pastor doesn't give positive feedback on your big Fall Festival. A teacher complains her kids aren't learning anything with the new curriculum you chose. This criticism is subtle and hard to pin down. Low heat is the most difficult criticism to handle because you may not realize until too late that you're completely burned out.

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