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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Thursday 10 October 2013

'People are saying...': on being criticised

A few days ago a fellow priest tweeted that she was having a tough time in the parish because she was finding herself criticised and misunderstood. Which of us hasn’t been there, and not just clergy but anyone who has a public leadership role of any kind?

I can’t pretend to be an expert on how to deal with these difficult experiences (ask my wife!). However, age does bring a certain perspective which I find helps. So I thought I’d reflect on what I’m trying to learn about this. Here are eight points, offered tentatively because this is a lifelong journey in the making. 

1              Accept that criticism is a completely normal part not just of public life or parish life but life. Don’t think of it as unusual or exceptional. It’s the consequence of having views, making decisions and acting on them, being your own person and not subject to other people’s whims, fancies and directives. If you are not being criticised, take it as evidence that you are not making an impact, are subject to others’ power over you, and have not yet begun to live as an autonomous grown-up.

2              Stay in role. Try hard not to begin by taking it personally, but see if you can discover what aspect of your role is under scrutiny here. A leader is a symbol of the institution or community of which she or he is the visible representative. Symbolic people always attract unconscious projections and transferences, especially in the church which is itself a richly symbolic environment. It may be that whatever is being criticised may have more to do with what you represent than with you personally. It may have historical dimensions you are unaware of. There may be unacknowledged authority issues for your critic. Sometimes you can distance yourself and say that this genuinely has nothing to do with you personally.

3              Don’t let your natural hurt or resentment get in the way of your emotional and spiritual intelligence. Being self-aware is all-important.  Ask yourself whether the issue may have something to do with your personal style or attitude in leadership. If it does, you may still be entirely content with how you are, and how you handled whatever it was that provoked the criticism. On the other hand you may want to ask yourself if there was anything you could have said or done differently, or some way in which you could have been different in the way you exercised your ministry. That's always a good question to ask.

4              Don’t be rough with your critics. Try not to be defensive. Above all, show that you are listening carefully.  Look them in the eye. Answer with questions that will help you to clarify what is at issue. Don’t get into a heated argument if you can help it, especially if the language of right or wrong starts creeping in. Don’t raise your voice, even if you are angry. ‘A soft answer turns away wrath.’ If there is a genuine disagreement, by all means debate it, and don't apologise for having your own views even if they are unpopular. But stay in your head and don't shout.

5              Identify accurately when you need to apologise. If saying sorry is necessary, then don’t delay: say it as soon as you can. But don’t apologise for something you know in your heart you shouldn’t apologise for, even if others are exerting considerable emotional power over you. You must never sacrifice your own integrity. But when you apologise (not ‘if’ - who doesn’t have to say sorry from time to time?), resist the temptation to explain yourself. ‘I’m sorry’ is often completely disarming. ‘I’m sorry, but I need you to know why it happened’ less so.  

6              Reflect on the experience of criticism. It’s not comfortable to do, but we have a lot to learn from it, both about the dynamics of relationships and organisations, but also about ourselves and how we cope with negativity in our roles. If you got angry, notice it and ask why. If you have a supervisor or someone in an accompanying ro le towards you (maybe call them a ‘critical friend'?), take it to them for discussion. Hearing ourselves talk about bad experiences with a skilled listener can be both healing and informative.

7              Don’t indulge in feeling misunderstood or criticised. Nothing is more destructive of good leadership than harbouring grudges, especially when you are up against the same few (and it’s usually a few) who want to find fault time after time. In the psalms, the antidote to resentment is gratitude. It’s good to foster the habit of finding things to be thankful for in the workplace despite the challenges.  One day it may be possible to be grateful for what you learned through others’ criticism of you: despite what it felt like at the time, it may have given you insights you didn’t have before, and helped you to learn.

8              Finally, always cherish your integrity. It is the most important gift we bring to leadership. It’s vital that we can way when criticised that we meant it for the best and had at heart the welfare of others. When I mess up, this is what I come back to. Most people will forgive our mistakes if we acknowledge them, and they believe that our motives were altruistic and not self-serving. The psalm speaks about ‘truth in the inward parts’. It’s not that we can’t deceive ourselves (‘and the truth is not in us’), but taking seriously our human and spiritual development will help us recognise self-deception when we see it. And own up to it where we have to.

Like I said, it’s work in progress.  In leadership, in ministry, it always is.


  1. Thank you, Michael for much insight and wisdom... daily exposure to the psalms does help put everything into perspective, I find!