My rule for criticism is: I love criticism! As a young preacher, I dreaded, feared, and avoided criticism. I equated it with failure. I should be able to study enough, work enough, visit enough, and be good enough so people would have nothing but appreciation for me and my work.
I had a conversion experience with a counselor that changed my attitude toward criticism.
One Sunday, I’d received some stinging words. I made an appointment with James Jones, a counselor from the Atlanta area, who worked in our building at Central in Dalton, Georgia, the following day.
I wanted him to do two things:
- Agree I was right and those who criticized me were wrong. To me, it was clear. I was right. There was no reason for their criticism.
- I hoped, but doubted, that on one of his visits to our congregation he might work it into his conversation to these people it was hurtful to me for them to criticize me. It’d be good if they wouldn’t do it again.
I presented my case, awaiting his agreement, help, and encouragement.
He paused, as he often did, glanced at me a time or two, then said, “Did it ever occur to you not everybody likes Jerrie Barber?”.
Not everybody likes Jerrie Barber. Not everybody has liked Jerrie Barber in the past. Not everybody likes Jerrie Barber today. Not everybody will like Jerrie Barber in the future. That’s facts. That’s reality. That’s the way the world operates. You have two choices:
- You can communicate verbally and nonverbally you don’t like and don’t want criticism. Few will criticize you — until they get ready to fire you. (That wasn’t good. I’d experienced that. The Best Day to Fire Your Preacher; 3 Ways I Helped Get Myself Fired. I didn’t like that option. I looked forward to the next.)
- You can let people know you’re concerned; you want to know what they think and feel. If you communicate clearly, sincerely, and often, they’ll tell you. And many times it’ll really hurt. But…you’ll learn things you’ll never learn any other way.
The conversation made sense and made a difference. From then, I’ve grown in welcoming and inviting criticism. It’s a Biblical concept:
Whoever loves instruction loves knowledge,
But he who hates correction is stupid (Proverbs 12:1, NKJV).
I started conducting a What Do You Think About the Preacher Night once a year in full-time work. I do a session or two in interim ministry. After services, I set the structure for good discussions, then open the floor for people to tell me how I can improve. (You can receive a free copy of Guidelines for a Good Discussion: how to lead a peaceful conversation about powerful things, for subscribing to New Shepherds Orientation — SUBSCRIBE.)
During this interchange, I promise to do three things:
- I’ll listen to what is said.
- I’ll write it down.
- I’ll think about it.
I’ve received some helpful suggestions. I show I’m willing to listen to criticism and not get defensive. I set a precedent. I encourage people to come to me at any time to tell me how to improve. I believe anyone who finds salmonella in my refrigerator and tells me about it isn’t hurting me. He’s helping me.
Once I invite people to tell me how I can be better and do better, it takes the sting out. When they do, and I thank them, I gain credibility and often build better relationships. I sometimes write personal notes to those who do an outstanding job criticizing me — especially if it seemed difficult for them.
There’s a modification to this rule: I don’t accept anonymous criticism. I won’t receive and act on second-hand criticism. Since 2011, I’ve this in my contract: “Any criticism of Jerrie Barber will be directed to Jerrie Barber and it will be welcomed. Jerrie Barber does not accept anonymous criticism.” Interim Minister — Transition Consultant Job Description and Contract, page 2, # 8)
That means should anyone approach me saying, “We’ve had some complaints about…”, I reply, “I don’t accept anonymous criticism. Please have the person or persons talk to me. I’ll treat them with respect and appreciation.”
Should a person persist (which I haven’t experienced), I’d reply, “I cannot respond. It’d be going against my contract.” It’d also be going against scripture. Jesus told us to bring any complaint against a brother by going to him ALONE. (Matthew 18:15).
A leader is more like a lightning rod than a cute wall decoration. A lightning rod rises above the building, saying, “Hit me, hit me.” The potentially destructive charge is transferred to the ground. The building is protected. Leadership, greatness isn’t for cuteness and admiration. It comes with service and often pain (Matthew 20:25-28).
I communicate this information the fourth week in a new interim. About this time, I conduct a one-hour workshop on Criticism. After this, people test whether I meant what I said or not. Depending on my response, I have the opportunity to increase or decrease my credibility.
But that happens to any leader, whether he articulates the way he handles criticism or not.