A long time ago in a land far away lived a leader who was criticized. His name was Moses, and he was leading a group of people through the wilderness on their way to a land promised by God. Many of the people were picky, selfish, and prone to complaining. Usually, Moses handled this well. But on one occasion, at a place called Meribah, he lost it:
At Meribah, too, they angered the LORD,
Causing Moses serious trouble.
They made Moses angry,
And he spoke foolishly (Psalm 106:32,33 – NLT).
Leadership is risky business and this is one reason why. Criticism in general is valuable: the greater our influence becomes, the more we need (and if we’re healthy, seek) critical feedback. But there’s another kind of criticism that is dangerous to our souls: the unfounded kind that comes from chronic complainers rather than thoughtful supporters. That kind can leave us bitter instead of better. (It might be part of the reason 57% of pastors say that they would leave the ministry if they had another career option*.)
Here are some things to remember the next time you’re criticized:
- A gentle answer deflects anger (Proverbs 15:1 – NLT). Angry, accusing words displease God and provoke people… whether they come from critics or the ones they criticize. The book of Numbers tells us that at Meribah, Moses spoke “rash words” against the people. Don’t fall into the trap of trading verbal blows – if you’re right in your point but wrong in your posture, you don’t win. You can answer gently when you realize that:
- It’s not about you. When Samuel was criticized by the great-great-great grandchildren of the people who denounced Moses, God reminded him: “it is me they are rejecting, not you” (I Samuel 8:7 – NLT). The temptation when we’re disparaged is to defend our reputation. That’s a distraction. Leadership isn’t about us; it’s about a higher good we are working to accomplish. Have enough confidence in the priority of that vision to defend it, not yourself. This is possible when you understand that:
- It’s only for a season. The crazy thing about Moses dropping the ball at Meribah is that they’d been wandering in the wilderness for 39 years. In less than a year, the wandering would end and they would enter the Promised Land. For 39 years Moses endured their complaints; but less than 12 months before his destiny was realized, he melted down. If only he’d remembered that:
- Your critics can’t determine your future, but how you respond to them can. After Moses reacted at Meribah he tried to convince God he was sorry, to no avail. He was prohibited from entering the Promised Land. This was the “serious trouble” the people caused him. If you’re leading people (and yourself) somewhere good, you’ll never make it if you get lured into resentment.
In leadership, criticism is as inevitable as rain in Seattle. Don’t let it sidetrack you into reacting foolishly. Lead well.
*The stat about pastors leaving the ministry is from a 2010 New York Times article.