Although criticism goes with the job of pastor, it has never gone well with self-confidence or self-esteem. Perhaps one of the reasons is that criticism often has little or no rational basis.
This is not to say that people issuing the criticism do not truly feel or believe the things they say. My experience indicates they are quite committed to their points of view. The apparent absence of logic and reason has little or no impact upon them because they are expressing either what they truly feel or what they are committed to believe. Therefore, unless logic and reason support their position, they become irritants and an additional barrier.
There are few areas where I am as vulnerable as in the area of critical sermon review. Although no one could be as hard on me as I am on myself in this area of review, criticism and rejection can still all but destroy my ability to do even my stumbling best.
Consequently, I have a tremendous need to be affirmed and encouraged right after a sermon or Bible study. Even when I know from the response of the people that the message found its mark and was well received, I still need to hear someone say the message helped them.
It was after the Sunday morning delivery of one of these sermons that I was standing out front, greeting the congregation, when a man pulled me to one side and began criticizing my teaching and preaching. His complaint was that he and his family were dying spiritually because they were not receiving spiritual food.
The man seemed oblivious to the fact that he was dominating my time when others were waiting to greet me. Consequently, five different couples had to interrupt him to tell me how much the message that morning had meant to them. These interruptions and comments either didn’t faze him or he was so intent on expressing his dissatisfaction that he refused to hear them.
For me, the reading was definitely mixed. Was this man being unjustly critical for reasons he was not expressing and the other people sincere about the quality of my ministry? Or was this man right about the quality of my pulpit ministry and the other people insincere in their compliments?
The drive home from church that morning was under a shadow of confusion and self-doubt. This was not the first time I had been accused of allowing my sheep to die of spiritual malnutrition, and, unfortunately, it would not be the last.
No criticism stings me more severely or concerns me more deeply than the charge that I am not giving my congregation adequate spiritual nourishment. Therefore, when such a criticism is made, I immediately begin trying to ascertain if I am giving my congregation a balanced spiritual diet.
So it was with this criticism. A survey of spiritual needs and biblical interests, small group dialogues to evaluate preaching styles, sermon content, communication skills, and one-on-one conversations to discover the quality of my pulpit care revealed much interesting and helpful data.
I discovered some members of my congregation prefer topical sermons because of their inspiration and practical instruction. Others enjoy sermons on controversial issues that cause people to “stand up and be counted” (sermons that they can “sink their teeth into”), while the majority desire biblical exposition. To this majority, anything less than the solid meat of the Word is shallow spiritually and nothing more than milk.
When I finished this critical analysis of my preaching, I felt like the farmer who was traveling with his young son. Their only mode of transportation was a donkey, so the farmer put the bundle of their belongings and his son on the donkey and proceeded to lead the donkey in the direction of their destination.
Soon the farmer passed a group of fellow travelers who criticized him for allowing a strong, healthy son to ride while he walked. “Such pampering of his son would certainly lead the son to no good,” they commented. So the man rode the donkey while the son walked and led the way.
It wasn’t long before they passed a small village. The villagers, seeing the farmer riding the donkey while his young son walked, began to murmur and shout criticisms of child abuse at the farmer, so the farmer decided that both he and his son would ride the donkey.
After a time the farmer and his son, both on the back of the donkey, passed a group of fellow travelers who had paused to rest for a time in the shade beneath a large oak tree. As they passed, the group began to shout at them for treating the donkey with such cruelty. “How could they be so unkind as to overload the donkey in this manner?” So, the farmer and his son paused beside the road, pondering what they should do.
Soon the farmer and his son were on their way again. This time the son carried the bundle of belongings and the farmer carried the donkey.
It is true. Criticism goes with the job. Ministry is living your life in full view of the people you serve. At the risk of doing violence to that great quotation by Abraham Lincoln, I have resolved that you can please some of the people some of the time; you can even please some of the people all of the time; but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.1
I am learning to live with criticism. For preachers, it is part of the task in which we serve. And some of that criticism, properly understood, might just make us more effective the next time we stand in the pulpit.
1. “If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Abraham Lincoln to a caller at the White House, cited by Alexander K. McClure, Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories, (1904), p. 124.

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