How to Respond to Criticism in Youth Ministry

How to Respond to Criticism in Youth Ministry
Doug White

Leadership and criticism go together like owning a car and spending money to keep it working. No one likes the hassle that goes along with handling repairs, but we resign ourselves to the fact that repair costs are a necessary part of ownership. If you want to “repair proof” your life, you’d need to sell your car and walk everywhere.

The same is true with ministry leadership and criticism. Within the last five weeks, I (Matt) have received criticism from three different families on three different issues. Here’s a few brief snapshot of their complaints and then we’ll explore a few ideas for responding wisely to criticism.

Concerned Mother

A mother emailed me directly to let me know that our weekly meeting time wasn’t working for her family. Her daughter has quit going to church regularly and has connected to a para-church organization thru her high school in order to grow spiritually. Her email was passionate, but it wasn’t critical or abusive.

Disappointed Student

A student emailed me because we decided to cancel a 3 day local missions trip. I had explained the reasoning for this change at our weekly meeting: we needed to make some other more important changes, and while the event would have created a lot of excitement, it wouldn’t create the momentum we needed to move forward. Unfortunately, this student wasn’t at the meeting, (so she heard secondhand) and her email was a mixture of passion and confusion.

Hungry Dad

We had a great weekend planned out: a Saturday spent caring for the local homeless, a brand new service on Sunday morning, and a family BBQ following the service—a great weekend. For the BBQ, we ordered more food than we thought we would need, but we ran out of food and a hungry and disappointed dad reacted via email. He suggested that we order more food the next time we invited people to a BBQ. His email was passionate and seemingly condescending.

How to React

Sometimes ministry feels like we’re swimming with the sharks and one is going to bite with criticism. Above we identified a few different types of criticism, and now we’ll look at some healthy ways to respond to criticism.

Respond Quickly…Not Too Quickly

We honor others when we respond to their criticism. We both want to be known as the kind of leader who commits to timely responses. But, we want to be wise enough to delay our response long enough to settle our heart so it’s not an angry response. We also choose not to ever respond on our day off (actually, we don’t even check email on day off—who wants to hear criticism on our Sabbath?).

Keep Quiet

Don’t spread the word about your critics. The church is filled with enough gossip and you don’t need to add new toxins into the relational stream. Sure, you may need to share the burden with someone, but limit your talk to a trusted few.

Express Your Empathy

It’s been our experience that many critics are speaking and expressing from their own pain and are looking to be heard. Let them know they have a voice and they’ve been heard. You can even thank them for sharing their opinion. Pained people don’t go away when there’s no response…they usually get louder.

Address the Issue

Empathy won’t be enough for many critics, therefore it is important to engage their issue. While criticism always stings, it also may add a fresh perspective to your ministry. Learning is a necessary element of healthy leadership, but the new lessons won’t always be sweet and comfortable. If the critic is right, let them know you agree (refrain from saying, “But how you said it was wrong”) and take the learning and move on.

Some critics will be way off base (like the hungry dad from yesterday’s email), and if you have a chance of being heard, graciously let them know that you disagree. Show respect, and if necessary, make sure your supervisor knows what’s happening so he or she isn’t caught off guard if the critic pulls an “end around” and goes to your supervisor.

Care for the Children of the Critics

If your critic is a parent in your ministry, please don’t judge their kids for their parents’ actions. That’s not fair for the teenager. It won’t do you any good, and it definitely won’t help the student. If you act out impulsively, you may feel good for a moment, but you’ll also be planting a seed of bitterness in your own heart. Vengeance and church leadership don’t mix too well.

The week after I got the email from the Hungry Dad, his daughter was in my baptism class. My first thought was, “Tell your dad I’ll bring him a hotdog to the baptism.” The idea quickly left as I remembered how kind Doug had been to me in high school (and beyond) in light of my dad being a loud critic. Every leader faces criticism, it will be a natural part of life on this side of eternity. The challenge is to learn how to parlay the criticism into growth and health for you and the ministry.

This article “How to Respond to Criticism in Youth Ministy” by Doug White was excerpted from: website. July 2009. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”