Handling Criticism by Ryan Gear, Southwest conference blog southwestconferenceblog.org

Handling Criticism

by Ryan Gear

It’s been almost three years since we launched weekly worship services at One Church. Overall, the process has been inspiring and encouraging with changed lives, renewed hope, and growth.

It’s also true that one of my most difficult challenges since planting One Church has been adjusting to the level of criticism that comes with leading a forward­thinking organization.

I’m sharing this post for two kinds of people:

1. Leaders in any field who are considering starting something
2. Church planters, specifically, who are discouraged

Whether it’s a business, a church, a group of some kind, anything, whenever you hear stories of growth and everything looks rosy, you should know that those stories usually do not include the continual, daily struggles that occur simultaneously with the growth. Some church planters were associate pastors previously and did not realize that the associate pastor is always the most popular person in the world. Once, you’re in the lead role, you have to learn to duck!

Here is the reality of One Church:

  • Since starting One Church, I have been called more names than in junior high and high school combined.
  • I have been accused of heresy several times.
  • 1/3 of the congregation left the church after one sermon they didn’t like.
  • A one-time attendee told me that I’m leading people to hell.
  • I received emails that were angry rants, bordering on threats
  • A Young Earth Creationist ended his final email to me like this, “I have issued the warning I was instructed to give you. Now I shake the dust from my garments.”

That was in the first six months.

The harshest critics have long since gone, but at one point in the life of One Church, sharp criticism was a weekly reality for me. Every week, one or more people expressed that they were not happy about something in the church, usually something to do with me. It might have been a criticism of a sermon. It might have been my stance on an issue. It might have been that they didn’t like something about the music (still, ultimately my responsibility). There may have been a miscommunication, and apologizing profusely was not enough.

Of course, constructive criticism helps me and One Church. One Church is better because of people who genuinely care about the church and about me, and they contribute in many positive ways, sometimes through criticism. It is easy to tell the difference, however, between people who love you and offer constructive criticism and people who do not.

In my experience, at least half of the criticism you receive will not be constructive. It comes from people who are acting out of their own issues and spewing on you. They want power they have not earned. They want the church you planted to look like the church they just left. They criticize because they’re angry.

For me, the key to handling criticism is a prayer, a mantra, I heard from a veteran leader who has survived several seasons of harsh criticism:

“God, give me a softer heart and thicker skin.”

It’s a journey toward character traits discovered in two seemingly opposite directions – vulnerability and toughness, tenderness and strength, flexibility and resilience. It seems like those qualities are opposites, but they are not. In my experience, it’s vulnerability, tenderness, and flexibility that lead to toughness, strength, and resilience. If I’m confident enough to be vulnerable and softhearted toward others, then I’m confident enough to stand tall and stay on course.

Nope, that’s not easy.

It is, however, necessary to succeed in church planting or any other leadership capacity.

If you’re discouraged, may you continually grow into the kind of person who tenderly loves people even when they criticize you, and may you be confident enough to be vulnerable, assured of who you are and your purpose, so that in soft­hearted strength, criticism is powerless to discourage you.