This post is adapted from a talk Dr. Doriani gave at The Gospel Coalition National Conference 2019. Part 1 looks at the five types of criticism pastors face and how Jesus’s example is a model for how we should be both tender and tough in our Christian lives. Part 2 will explore some practical, biblical ways to respond to such criticism as we seek to follow our Lord in ministry.
Most pastors have had the experience of serving in churches with many gifted people, some of whom were free with their knowledge and counsel about our various errors and failings as church leaders. Sometimes this counsel can be helpful and constructive—and we should accept it as a blessing when this happens. But often it can be hurtful and damaging, whether it was intended that way or not. As pastors, then, we need to have tender hearts so that we can care for and minister well to our congregations, but we also need to have tough hides to protect ourselves from the effects of sometimes unfair criticism that can discourage and even derail our ministries. How can we have tender hearts and tough hides? As in most things, Jesus is our model for this.
Jesus is Both Tender and Tough
Let’s look at a few Scripture passages that illustrate what I mean. In terms of tenderness, the first passage is John 11:35, which shows Jesus’s reaction at the death of his friend Lazarus and says simply, “Jesus wept.” A second would be Matthew 9:36: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
So we can see that Jesus is tender. He weeps at death. He shows compassion on the crowds. Therefore he requires us to be tender too, as Paul reminds us in Colossians 3:12–14: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” We are told to “put on . . . compassion, kindness . . . patience . . . love.”
But Jesus is also the epitome of toughness. He models toughness for us in three ways: (1) by finishing arduous tasks, (2) by waging war and prevailing, and (3) by defying pain for the sake of others. Jesus accomplished redemption by bearing sin on the cross (Matt. 20:25–28; John 19:30). He entered combat against his family’s great foe, Satan, and defeated him (Matt. 12:29). He crushed the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15; Rev. 20:2–3). He silenced the accuser (Heb. 2:14–15; Rev. 12:9–10). Jesus endured great suffering, but he scorned the pain to achieve his goals (Phil. 2:5–8; Heb. 12:2–3). Notice the phrases that mark Jesus as our example:
Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set out before us, looking to Jesus the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God. (Heb. 12:1–2)
So, our Lord is both tender and tough. And he said that the lives of those who followed him, especially those who would serve as ministry leaders, would and should resemble his. The Synoptic Gospels all contain this powerful statement: “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” (Matt. 16:24; cf. Mark 8:4; Luke 9:23). All of the apostles and countless other followers of Jesus down through the centuries have faced daunting challenges and painful opposition, even unto death in many cases. Paul, of course, was lashed, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, shipwrecked, betrayed, hungry, and faced “the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Cor. 11:28). Yet, in all these cases, Christians were called to face their challenges with the tenderness and the toughness of our Savior.
How Churches Wound Their Pastors
A renowned Reformed pastor many of us are aware of had an extremely wide-ranging ministry. He was a great preacher, a visionary leader, a popular author, a great organizer, and a very tender man. And he endured such criticism from his church at one point that he said, “After 12 years as a pastor, I had to put a wall between myself and my people so I wouldn’t have to quit the ministry.” This was one of the most respected preacher-teachers of the last 40 or 50 years. His experience is not at all uncommon.
Another esteemed pastor led a large, prominent church for fifteen years before retiring. He is personable and a most skilled preacher and leader. When he retired, his church’s search committee shared its pastoral profile with a number of people, who quickly noticed that the job description emphasized shepherding skills. It was easy to see why. The retiring pastor was always busy preaching, teaching, writing, and serving the wider church. Based on time constraints alone, he couldn’t possibly get to know everyone well, including his deacons and elders. Besides, no one is equally gifted at every aspect of ministry. So those who read the profile understood the motive, but they also understood that if the church hired a man who was specially gifted at shepherding, he would not have been as good at preaching and teaching as the church had come to expect. To search for someone who was a consummate leader, preacher-teacher, and shepherd—not to mention organizer, counselor, and fund-raiser—would be to set the congregation up for disappointment and to lead the new pastor into failure. No mere human could possibly meet all those criteria. There is only one perfect pastor: Jesus Christ.
In principle, most churches are eager to love and care for their pastors. They want to ensure that he has time for his family, that he doesn’t work too hard, that he has good people around him to assist with the work of ministry. They want to treat him well—certainly better than the last pastor, who finished his tenure visibly exhausted. But this intention is typically more enthusiastic than resolute, and the tone of it changes as the pastor’s tenure lengthens.
The main problem is almost always criticism and opposition. Every pastor who effectively leads a church will face opposition at some point. Heroes of the faith like Athanasius, Chrysostom, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Edwards tasted fierce resistance, even hostility, at various times in their ministries—often from the people closest to them. Because they enacted essential reforms and addressed burning theological issues of their day, confrontation was inevitable. In our day it is no different. Anyone with skill and influence, especially in some of our churches, becomes a target. Similarly, a rapidly growing church will often rouse some opposition from its community, as neighbors protest increased traffic and nearby pastors, possibly motivated by jealousy, imagine that they detect heterodoxy. These troubles are inevitable but manageable. The principal challenge for most pastors lies within their own churches.
Five Causes of Criticism
There are five main causes of criticism of pastors in the church. We’ll hit all of them briefly, but I want to focus on the fifth one.
The first and worst kind of criticism a pastor may face comes from a person we’ll call the full-blown antagonist. This is the person who would willingly lie, deceive, and manipulate situations and other people in order to destroy the pastor and control the church. The antagonist is not out to improve anyone or anything; he or she just wants to get his or her way and doesn’t care who gets hurt to achieve that. This is hard to handle in some ways, but at least you know where you stand with these people. When you get the nasty letters or emails or tweets, you can ignore or delete them.
A second type of criticism comes when the pastor must negotiate with talented, successful, and opinionated people within the church who love him and care for him, but believe he is dead wrong about an issue. These people actually love the church, and they may love and respect the pastor deeply, but they have their own ideas about how things should be done, how to help you make good decisions, and are not afraid of letting you know about it. Again, this can be frustrating, but a good pastor can usually navigate these mine fields with some measure of success.
A third kind of criticism occurs when the lead pastor is made to pay for the errors of subordinates, or when a subordinate is caught up in the errors of senior pastor. In any sizable church, this kind of thing is bound to happen eventually. There will always be someone who does something wrong. There will be a moral failing of some kind. And when that happens, ordinarily the leader faces such questions as, “How did you not see this coming? Why did you not address this early on?” If you’re a subordinate, you may not be held accountable as much, but since you’re part of the team, you may get questions like, “Why didn’t you call the elders in when you saw things going wrong?” The leaders may have had some sense of what’s going on around them. But of course not every catastrophe is foreseeable. Sometimes, you can sense that something may be wrong but there isn’t any proof or hard evidence. This may be somewhat unjust, but the questions are valid. Church leaders should ideally have a good sense of what’s going on around them, and a good pastor will do his best to try to care for the staff underneath him.
A fourth kind of criticism comes from those who are going to resist any changes you propose, even when you’re trying to fix a problem or reform a faulty system. Every pastor knows you don’t just walk into a new church and start changing things right away. But sometimes changes are needed, and even if you wait 10 months, or two years, or five years to build trust with the congregation, there will still be opposition. I don’t get to quote Machiavelli approvingly very often, but in this case, he is right: When a leader is proposing a change, everyone who has done well in the old order will resist it, because they see with clarity what they will lose, whereas those who stand to gain from the new order will be reticent to support it fully. First, it may not transpire, and second, the benefit of the new order is not as palpable. Thus, you end up with strong opponents and weak allies. Now, Machiavelli was a bit of a pessimist, but the truth is that more people by nature will resist change than support it. Any time you propose a change, even if it’s obviously needed, you need to have some tough skin and be prepared for resistance and criticism.
The fifth kind of criticism is where we need to be the most tender: it’s criticism directed at our own sins, failings, and flaws. It’s important to recognize that every pastor deservessome criticism for two reasons. First, we’re all sinners. We all get angry when we shouldn’t. We sometimes are silent when we should speak, or speak when we should be silent. We say one thing and do another. We don’t always practice what we preach. And people notice this. They notice our skills and accomplishments, but they also notice our weaknesses and failings. Second, no pastor has the skills to do everything well. Some of us lack self-discipline or the ability to control our tongues. Perhaps we don’t prepare well enough for sermons or teaching. Some of us have poor people skills, are awkward or aloof. Some are great preachers and teachers but uncomfortable in casual conversation. And busy pastors have demanding schedules, so that they can appear abrupt to the person who wants to chat a while, but we can’t spend hours preparing good sermons and spend those same hours visiting with every church member. Even the most gifted pastor has areas of weakness, which will lead to criticism. When this happens, we need to have tender hearts and be open to receive what people have to say so we can learn and grow.
To say all this another way, let’s remember that in ancient Israel there were three offices: prophet, priest, and king. The prophet is a preacher, a teacher. The priest is a caregiver and counselor. The king is the organizer and leader. In Israel, no one held all of these offices and only a few held two of them. No one but Jesus held all three.
The implication is clear: no one has the skill to excel at all three of these aspects of godly leadership, and it is not fair for churches to expect their pastors to be so gifted. Yet, inevitably, there will be people in our churches who will point out the fact that we are not good at one or more of these aspects. By God’s grace, we need to be tough enough to hear what those critics have to say, tender enough to love them despite what might seem like hurtful criticism, and wise enough to keep from suffering unduly the burden of trying to do what no one can.
If you don’t think that’s true, here’s a simple test: You’re a pastor and someone says to you, “You have two free hours to use however you wish.” What will you choose to do? Plan sermons for the next month? Work on a strategic project you’ve needed to think about for a long time? Visit sick church members in the hospital or at their homes? Even the pastor who is gifted at almost everything will have to make a choice based on the time, energy, resources, and inclinations he has. The sheer size of the pastoral task requires that we make such choices because none of us is omnicompetent or omnipresent.
Dr. Dan Doriani is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology and Vice President at Large at Covenant Theological Seminary.
This post was adapted from a talk Dr. Doriani gave at The Gospel Coalition National Conference 2019. You can find the full audio of his talk here.