Monday, May 04, 2015

On Pastoral Criticism--Part 1

There is one occupational hazard of a calling into the ministry, especially that of being a pastor, that seems to hurt more and grate at ministers more than any other—having to endure criticism.  It is one of the necessary pieces of territory that comes with holding a public place in ministry.  Even though it is painful to endure and it is understood that we have to deal with it, it has the capacity to create overwhelming waves of discouragement and free-falls into the abyss of despair.  No matter how faithful a man may be or how diligent he is in his work ethic, criticism is coming to a local church near you.  If you are district official, it is coming to district near you and there is nothing we can do to make us protected from it.

There will be waves of criticism that seem to come from every direction at times and then there will be periods when all seems to be at rest and you walk through life and ministry without a peep so to speak.  After having been involved in ministry for almost 30 years, I have come to realize that there is a fringe that every church has that is always buzzing about something.  Early in my ministry, I was very concerned about this fringe of the “mixed multitude” and what they were saying and doing.  However as the years have passed, I have come to believe what the Proverbs recommends, “Answer not a folly according to his folly” (Proverbs 26:4).  The best course is to leave them alone and let your only form of protest be the excellence of your work.  Let your work, your life, and your ethics stand in the face of criticism.  

Criticism comes to pastors in a variety of ways: 
  • He doesn’t visit enough. . . He visits too much.
  • He is not simple enough in his preaching. . . He is too simple in his preaching.
  • He doesn’t preach holiness enough. . . He is a legalist.
  • He is not dressed well enough. . . He is dressed too well.
  • He doesn’t live in a nice enough house, own the right car, etc. . . He lives in a house that is too nice and drives a car that is too flashy. 
  • He is not sociable enough. . . He is too sociable.

More often than not criticism comes from people who have lost their joy in the journey.  The reason I know that is because when I lose the joy of my own journey, I have a tendency to become a sniveling, whining critic.  Criticism will grow in the ripe and fertile soil of discontentment and ungratefulness.  One of the terrible sins that Paul associated in Romans 1 about those who had been abandoned by God to a depraved (reprobate) mind was the characteristic of being ungrateful (Romans 1:21, “unthankful”).  Criticism pours from those who have allowed life to make them cynical, cold, and sarcastic.  This is a snare that we especially have to guard against because we live in the Western world.  These are the troubled souls who more often than not will be the critics of those who are an encouragement and gift to the church. 

A critic is a man who willingly allows himself to be a tool for the devil to use very quickly and efficiently to grid-lock the progress of what God is attempting to do.  The Bible is replete with examples of this kind of activity from the actions of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram who opposed Moses to Tobiah and Sanballat who opposed Nehemiah.  Social media has certainly escalated the ability of the critic to get on this bandwagon.  Decades ago the critic could not hide behind the fa├žade of courage that social media has provided to us in our generation. 

Critics can come from various places in our world.  They can come from within the church and this will often be from those who let their arrows fly from a distance.  They rarely will come to you to have a face-to-face conversation to do this because this takes courage to do so.  Critics can come from those who have left the church.  These types can fall into two categories being backsliders who have fallen to the entrapment of a snare of the devil.  The other being that of then generally rootless church-hoppers who stay just long enough somewhere and then let something creep up that causes them to move on to another greener pasture.  Lastly critics can come from the world.  As America changes morally, politically, and socially, I am fearful that the American church is going to have to weather some storms of pressure that we have never had to endure before.  But God will be faithful and the church will survive this storm just as the 1st Century church did. 

On the other hand, we can honestly be criticized because of the limitations of our personal gifts.  There are no perfect pastors, sectional officials, district officials, or national officials.  For the most part, all who are involved in ministry generally make the best decisions possible given the information they had available to them.  It is easy to be critical of decisions when we do not have the same amount of information available to us that a leader may have available to him.  Despite this set of circumstances all will fall short of having the total package of skills that are necessary to move a church forward.  We need to understand that criticism will come because of our lack.  But the mere recognition of what I am lacking should cause me to be earnest about making up that deficit with training and education that helps respond to the criticism. 

Throughout my Bible College and seminary training, I don’t recall a single instructor or professor ever addressing the fact that criticism would be something I would have to contend with.  We need to expect criticism because we live in a fallen world.  More often than not our critics have a tendency to live comfortably with their own sin therein giving them a license to participate in their activities.  Because we live in this sinful and fallen world, don’t be surprised when criticism comes your way. 
There are four things I would like to visit in the matter of enduring criticism.

First, if you give criticism of others an opportunity to work for you, it will lead to great things.  Too many times we may quit internally in the face of criticism.  This happens to pastors all the time when they give in and they simply began to collect a pay check and lose the emphasis of their calling.  This is not just a vocation but it is a calling!  Furthermore, criticism can be a tool in the hands of the Lord that works toward our own sanctification.  This is where Paul’s command to Timothy to “discipline yourself to godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7 NASB) is factored in.  The discipline to godliness is a painful endeavor that requires spiritual pain to equal spiritual gain.  If you let criticism work in your behalf it can create incredible character traits such as perseverance, endurance, tenacity, and spiritual strength.  Endurance is what all ministers need to finish the course that has been laid out for them. 

Secondly, criticism opens my mind and soul up to the fact that our existence in ministry is not meant to be pain-free and without trouble.  This is a Western problem that attempts to remove every bit of the pain from life with little regard as to what pain and trouble can add to a pastor.  When Paul wrote 1st Corinthians, he dealt with many church problems.  I have said in jest in times past the only problems Paul did not deal with was thermostats and sound systems.  However, when Paul wrote 2nd Corinthians he was very autobiographical about what takes place in a minister’s soul when he is under fire.  A soul cannot grow without storms and strong winds.  The storms bring water and the wind loosens the dirt around the base of the tree so the roots grow deeper. 

John 16:33 KJV  . . . In the world ye shall have tribulation. . .

2 Timothy 1:8 KJV  . . . but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel. . .

2 Timothy 3:12 KJV  Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.

Romans 8:23 KJV  . . . even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption. . .

Another sobering thought is this. . . If we do not take up our cross, it will be thrust on us just as it was pushed on Simon (Mark 8:34; Matthew 27:32).  Sometimes our cross takes its form in having to endure criticism.  Criticism is on the schedule for anyone who is called into the ministry.

Third, criticism can and should move a pastor toward prayer if he will allow it to do so.  This is Psalm 16 in action.  Preserve me, O God!  Keep me!  Seal me!  Defeat the sin of retaliation in my life!  Save me from the hunger of retribution!  Tear down my arrogance that says I should not have to deal with this!  Incline my heart toward You!  Turn Your ear in my direction!  Let me be submissive to this yoke of ministry for if I will endure there is a harvest the plough will turn over.  This kind of prayer will move me toward a place of acknowledging that without divine help, I will not be able to make it. 

Fourthly, criticism may cause us to look within but we must look without.  Hebrews 12:1-2 forms a pattern of ministry that is under fire; endurance followed by looking to Jesus who endured his cross.  Look to the author and finisher of our faith.  Long before the criticism ever laid its hand on us, the Lord saw it in eternity long before we ever came to it.  If he is the author and finisher of our faith, He has written an ending that cannot be stopped by anyone (Philippians 1:6). 

I have intentions of revisiting this again. . .

Thanks for reading. . .   

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