As I scanned her email, my stomach tied itself in knots. I was a women’s ministry leader, gearing up for the big kick-off of our spring women’s ministry efforts. I’d already invested countless hours and resources in planning an event and organizing studies that would hit the sweet spot of engaging and challenging. I was expectant, excited, energized. Her critical words sucked the wind right out of my sails. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take it personally. In my flesh, I wanted to throw up my hands and quit. “Who needs this?”
Been there? Done that?
Five Temptations to Avoid
We see the first criticism in the Garden of Eden, moments after the first sin (Gen. 3:12–13). It seems that finding fault with our fellow image bearers is a contagious by-product of the Fall. This can feel especially painful when criticism comes from within our ministry teams or from the women we are trying desperately to serve. For me, criticism often presents five temptations.
1. Clam up.
While I know that God’s Word calls me to use my spiritual gifts to serve others (1 Peter 4:10), my immediate response to criticism is to tuck them away somewhere safe so I feel less exposed. Maybe I’ll find someone else to teach at the next retreat or adopt a lower profile on Sunday morning, I tell myself. But the truth is my spiritual gifts are pearls that only shine when harvested and strung together with the gifts of my brothers and sisters in Christ.
2. Start spackling.
As women’s ministry leaders, we often set the tone for vulnerability in our ministry. The women we influence are emboldened to talk about real struggles and deep hurt if we go first. The reason they’re scared to do so in the first place is that exposing the cracks in our lives opens us up to criticism and being misunderstood. When I’m criticized in my ministry, I’m tempted to spackle over my own brokenness for protection. Projecting perfection never truly works does it? (No one is buying it anyway.) The cost is a culture of vulnerability among the women I love and serve.
3. Circle the wagons.
We all have women in our ministry we love and trust. They are our key volunteers, our “Tituses” and “Timothys.” We know they have our backs. When I am criticized, I am tempted to circle these women around me for protection like a wagon train. I only ask these women to serve. I only plan events with these women in mind. I don’t reach outside of this circle, for fear I will be snakebit. I am grateful Christ did not minister this way. As a Gentile and a sinner, I don’t belong in Christ’s inner circle. I was once hostile toward His gospel and critical of His teaching, but He welcomes me in anyway. He is teaching me to do the same.
4. Set a trap.
Every ministry leader needs this tattooed on her heart:
The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe (Prov. 29:25).
When our ministry decisions are motivated by a fear of criticism, we will quickly find ourselves entangled. Our goal is to glorify God and serve His Church. This will come with a side helping of criticism. When we keep our eyes glued to our calling and mission, we are able to hear critical words without succumbing to the temptation to constantly test the wind.
5. Play the telephone game.
This temptation embarasses me most of all. I know it isn’t pretty. When I’m criticized, my temptation is to tell somebody (anybody) about it. I may want to tell my prayer partners under the guise of “pray for me.” I may want to tell my fellow staff members under the guise of “have you had any issues with so-and-so?” I may want to tell my women’s ministry volunteers so they can “watch out for her.” Instead, Scripture begs me to keep my mouth shut.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear (Eph. 4:29).
Think back to the Garden. Adam and Eve passed the buck and exchanged insult for injury. Did it help? Did it ease their guilt? Nope. Let that be a lesson learned.
Three Biblical Responses
I don’t want to respond to criticism in ways that are ugly or unhelpful. I know you don’t either. So how should we respond? God’s Word recommends these three responses.
1. Commiserate with Jesus.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11–12).
Rejection is a blessing.
Persecution is a blessing.
False accusations are a blessing.
Criticism is a blessing.
I know this is a bitter pill. Christ asks us to swallow it anyway. The truth is He faced more intense and undeserved criticism than we ever will. Still today, the world loves to discuss “what’s wrong with Jesus.” His character is questioned. His authority is questioned. His methods are questioned.
When you are wounded by the words of another, you can rest in the knowledge that you’re in His company. He understands. Ask Him to help you to turn from your critics and run to Him.
2. Be humble.
Don’t skim this familiar passage. Sit in it for a while.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (Phil. 2:3–7).
We are not just women’s ministry leaders. We are women’s ministry servants. Our job is to humbly care for the flock. Pride rises up in us when we are criticized, and we want to respond with defensiveness or action. Humility calls to us from the low road, asking us to empty ourselves like Christ did.
When we are criticized, we need Christ’s help to ask: What can I learn from this? How can I use this to serve better?
3. Handle with care.
“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
The words “enemies” and “persecution” might derail us from the heart of Christ’s words here. I doubt the naysayers of your ministry are your enemies and a critical comment or email is not the same as persecution, but sometimes it feels like it. Am I right? Those jabs can leave us bruised, though not beaten, bound up, though not jailed. The level of opposition we face isn’t nearly as important as our response.
What shall we do?
Love and pray.
Love and pray.
Love and pray.
That woman who is critical of every event you plan? Do you pray for her? Are you actively looking for ways to love her?
The one who likes to remind you that “this isn’t the way we used to do things”? Yeah, her. Do you pray for her? Are you actively looking for ways to love her?
The woman who doesn’t participate in women’s ministry and bluntly tells you why? You know what I’m going to ask next, right? Do you pray for her? Are you actively looking for ways to love her?
We cannot do this on our own. We are desperately dependent on the Holy Spirit to help us respond in ways that are counterintuitive to our sin nature. I’d love to take a moment to pray for you as you face criticism in your ministry. I’d be honored if you’d do the same for me.
Thank You for the criticism You endured for our sake. As we face criticism from the women we want to reach with Your truth, teach us how to respond like You. Empower us by Your Spirit to love the women who criticize us and to pray for Your blessings upon their lives. We love You. We need You. Amen.
Rooting for you!