If you’ve ever come under fire from a boss or leader who criticized you in irrational anger or cruel harshness, you probably never forgot the stinging experience. Sadly, it happens even in ministry.
Some leaders haven’t yet learned to offer a critique without leaving people feeling bruised and broken. Some leaders run from issuing any kind of correction because they are afraid of not being liked. Admittedly, delivering criticism is one of the most challenging functions of a leader. Yet every one of us will face circumstances that require corrective action. For help in handling these sticky situations, I’ve gained gospel-minded wisdom from Paul’s letter to Philemon.
Gospel-Minded Leaders Use Affirmation Before Correction (Philem. 1–7)
There’s much we can learn from the way Paul appeals to his spiritual brother Philemon on a sensitive matter concerning his slave Onesimus. Before initiating the delicate conversation, he reflects on the transforming power of the gospel evident in Philemon’s life and takes time to recognize his growing faith in Christ. The elder mentor is quick to express his affection and appreciation for how he’s been personally blessed in their joint gospel work.
What a refreshing way to open a discussion about a difficult situation! Likewise, we can affirm the evidence of growing graces in our sisters, acknowledging how we see the Lord working in their lives. With genuine words of encouragement (without phony flattery!), praise how they are serving well. Affirm a fellow worker before confronting.
Gospel-Minded Leaders Invite to a Higher Standard (Philem. 8–16)
Gospel-minded leaders don’t push their weight around. Rather than chastising and demanding as he surely could have, Paul invites Philemon to make a sacrificial choice for the good of God’s family (v. 14). Leaders may have the authority to command but should rarely need to exercise it (vv. 8–9). The gospel entreats that we extend the same grace that is extended to us. But that doesn’t mean that we should avoid making hard decisions or that there aren’t consequences involved. People need to be aware of how their attitude and actions are harming the mission and negatively impacting Christ’s Body of believers.
Gospel-Minded Leaders Accept Responsibility (Philem. 17–20)
Some of us lead a staff and others of us work with a volunteer team, but the way we handle offering criticism is the same: Leaders should be willing to accept responsibility. Before we point fingers, we must humbly ask the Spirit to search our hearts:
- Did I fail to train and express expectations?
- Did I neglect to communicate clearly?
- Did I force someone into a role she isn’t suited for?
- Is there a timber in my eye that I’m blinded to?
- Are my motives pure?
- Am I ready to approach the situation in humility?
The apostle makes it easy for his friend to respond by covering the costs involved. He said in verse 18, “charge that to my account.” Are we willing to “charge to our account” how we’ve contributed to the problem at hand? Are we willing to “charge to our account” any personal costs to correct the situation, such as remedial training, coaching, and praying for the person’s success?
Gospel-Minded Leaders Speak Truth and Love (Philem. 21–25)
The gospel language of correction speaks in tones of truth and love. It builds up rather than tears down. It unites rather than divides. It converses in the words of “we, us, our” instead of “you, your, me, my.” The truth of criticism is not only hard to give, but it’s also hard to hear. But when it’s encased in love, the impact is softened and relationships are more likely to be preserved.
Paul’s letter to Philemon was one-way communication. But in reality, our appeals should involve room for dialogue, questions, and clarification. A leader’s role is to be specific about the behavior and attitudes that need changing and then to offer and agree upon the next steps to correct the problem.
Paul closes the conversation by expressing his full confidence in Philemon to make the right response (v. 21). The ideal closure of a difficult conversation is to move together into the throne room of prayer where mercy and grace flow freely.
Gospel-Minded Leaders Are for Not Against
Even in cases of managing difficult people, God’s grace will enable us to serve them with gentleness. It’s never okay to treat a sister like an outcast, a failure, or a child. If you’re guilty of having done that in the past—no matter how long ago—it’s not too late to go back to ask for forgiveness. It’s the right thing to do.
The gospel should infiltrate every circumstance of correction, for God has provided the means for us to live in mutual harmony, peace, and unity. If He is for us . . . how can we be anything but for those we have the privilege of serving? And as we humbly steward the blessing of leading women, may we do so to glorify Christ, honor people, and build up the Church.
How have you grown as a leader through receiving or giving criticism? Was it handled positively or negatively? How can you be more gospel-minded in the future?