I am my own worst critic; I don’t need your help at all, thank you very much.
But for years I just used the criticism of others to bolster my own negative opinion of myself. I didn’t realize that it could be used for anything else. I’ve since woken up. I’m approaching an anniversary of sorts of dealing with my demons, having spent the past year finally wrestling with a lifelong relationship with depression and OCD. It’s my version of a midlife crisis, I guess. Instead of a convertible I’m going to be macking around town in a less cluttered spiritual center.
Anyway. A few weeks ago I found this terrific breakdown of critical voices, and a light finally came on for me. Not all criticism is the same. Not all criticism is bad. MOST criticism has to be faced. My practice to this point had been primarily to agree with all criticism, regardless of source or validity, and essentially ball up in the corner until it abated. Fight or flight aren’t the the only two reactions, you know. This breakdown of critics has breathed new life into the way I process those voices in my ministry. I’m responding to things I once would let pass. I’m finding resolve in weighing those opinions instead of declaring them true wholesale. It’s awesome. I’m less afraid. I’m borrowing the language of The Disapproval Matrix found in the above link and reiterating it for you in a ministry context. I hope you find this helpful!
These are the voices that are your happy place in ministry, so we’ll start there. If you need to feel good about yourself at the end of a long day, you can always call on these folks to cheer you up. They freaking love you, no matter what. And that’s great, but be careful–at the end of the day you’re not going to learn much from them if you hold them above other critical voices. Support is wonderful and it’s great to be loved. But when it comes to their opinion of how things are going in your ministry, their voices are impossibly clouded by their support of you. Don’t try to change that; you need people that love you without qualification. Just don’t defer to their opinion too often because they always agree with you. Early in my ministry I was in the poor practice of only running program decisions by this group of voices before instituting changes. I’d play it off in the end as “having run things by our leadership,” etc. It’s a thin facade and bad for your longevity. Love them back, but don’t let them sing solo.
These are easily the most important voices in bettering how you do ministry, but they can be the hardest to find. True critics are only concerned with the work you are doing; their opinion of you isn’t a factor. That’s a good thing. These voices are objective–the less they know you, the more genuine their voices about your ministry become. These voices are easily identifiable because they aren’t critical of you. Everything they have to offer is about the work itself. These critics are often found outside of your local context–voices from conferences, youth worker gatherings, etc. Seek them out.
These are annoying as mess. Haters are critical voices from unknown quarters, the third-hand news about what the retiree who just rolled from SPR onto finance thinks you ought to be doing with Wednesday nights. What makes haters and frenemies (#4) especially hard to deal with is that they are irrational voices. Haters voices are compromised because they don’t know you or your ministry. They just have opinions. Unfortunately, unlike the blog commenters mentioned in the linked article, you can’t simply ignore your haters; you very often have to answer to their criticism. I went on a trip with some adults from the church to a Braves game last season. At some point during the trip a senior member of our congregation mentioned something about the youth ministry refusing to refill the gas in the church van. The whole story is too long to share, but know that for very specific reasons the opposite is true in our ministry–I cap off the fuel if I circle the building in the van. Her belief came from an incident with my predecessor 10 years ago in which the previous youth leader with some venom had upbraided a member of the congregation, informing them that it was beneath her position as youth leader to put gas in the van. 10 years later, that lingered over my ministry. Not my attitude, not my opinion, 180 degrees from my practice, but an entire adult Sunday school class believed that I was being a dick about the van. She promised to let them know that times had changed.
All that to say that while you shouldn’t take your haters criticism to heart, you shouldn’t ignore them either. Inform where you can, correct where you must.
Oh, subversive cesspool of negativity. These are the voices that will bury you if you let them. They will nitpick you into the ground. If you deal with self-doubt, these are also the voices you’ll most identify with. You cannot please them. And the reason you cannot please them is also the easiest way to identify them: frenemies are the voices that know you well, continually correct you, and don’t actually want you to improve. If you can realize that last part about certain critical voices it will save your life. I spent years thinking that one of the most negative critical voices in my ministry was trying to help me improve. Only recently have I realized that he absolutely does not want me to improve; he wants me to fail in some final dramatic fashion that will remove me from our church’s ministry for good. If I let my every action be dictated by this person, I would remain unable to please him because the point of his being critical of me is that he is not pleased by me. It’s not about the ministry–it’s about me. Which kinda makes him a jerk, honestly.
But, like the haters, you can’t simply ignore your frenemies. You’ll spend unrecoverable energy trying to take them on head on, but you should make you pastor and other key leadership aware of these voices. Unguarded, they can poison your efforts behind the scenes. But don’t obsess about them. If there is a kernel of truth in their criticism, take it. But set aside their rejection of you.
You can’t eliminate criticism entirely. I don’t think it would be wise to do so even if you could. But I’ve found a new world of mental health and positive process in ministry by learning to identify the critical voices around me. Criticism can be a dark closet if you let it. Or you can turn on the light.