Pastors do their work in public, are not perfect, and can benefit from critique. But they will be most benefited when it comes with the right motives, and in the right manner. Iron sharpens iron, but only if it comes at the right angle.
Here are some things I have learned from being on the receiving end of comments and criticisms that have made the experience helpful:
1) Consider Your Actual Motive: Are you upset or even mad and want some kind of retribution? Are you really mad about other things and are using this opportunity to vent? Are you sincerely asking about something or do you already know "the truth" and want to show it to him? Are you trying to change him? Are you sincerely attempting to help him? Are you positive your perspective is right?
The key here is to seek out your true motives, and then ask the Lord to keep your heart on the right track. If you are mad, then admit it, and be sure you are in a frame of mind that will allow you to address the issues righteously and in a way that allows for discussion rather than argument.
The bottom line here is this: Are you for the pastor or against him? It will matter to him, and it will be evident in your approach. It is fine to be upset, mad, discouraged or disappointed in him, but if you want to help him get better, come in a way that will help rather than enflame.
2) Spend time in meaningful prayer before determining how to proceed: Sometimes things hit us sideways but after consideration don't need to be considered further. But some things do need to be dealt with. Spend time searching your own heart, and the will of God, and then proceed carefully, but courageously to follow his guidance.
3) Consider Your Timing: In comedy or critique, timing is everything. If your intent is to gain understanding, or resolve differences it is best to choose a time where you both will be at your best. I appreciate it when folks set up appointment with me, and even give me an idea of the concern so I can be prepared with all the information, and have my heart ready to respond righteously.
Criticism that comes "on the fly" usually ends with neither party being satisfied. So, here are a few thoughts on timing:
- Don't expect a pastor to be able to explain himself fully, or respond in the best way if you hit him right after he finishes speaking. Chances are he is emotionally drained, and often has a line of others waiting to shake his hand or express themselves.
- For most pastors, Monday mornings are already filled with regret and self-doubt. Wait until Tuesday!
The best idea is to make an appointment or set a time for a phone call. That way you can both be prayed up and ready to dialogue in a way that is worthy of those in the family of God. Also, doing things over a cup of coffee, away from the church office, can help keep the conversation where it should be ... between family members.
4) Consider the scope of his ministry and teaching: I remember one time pouring out my heart on the great blessing of church unity only to have one guy come up right after I finished to criticize me for not wearing a tie. It is so difficult to take critique seriously when it appears trivial against the backdrop of weightier matters. I found myself wondering "did you even hear what we just spent 40 minutes talking about from God's Word?"
Along the same lines, before you come to criticize, think about the scope of your pastor's ministry and influence. Is he doing some good things? Is the mission of the church moving forward in a good direction? If so, you would be wise to preface your concerns with appreciation for the job he is doing so that your critique will be seen as coming from an appreciative partner, not a critical sniper.
5) Having examined your motives, and picked a good time, here's how to go about criticizing your pastor:
a) Speak for yourself: It is best to represent yourself only, and not come saying "lots of us think ..." or "I know many others who feel the same as I do, and ..." All this communicates is the possibility that the issue has been the topic of gossip and that is never a good way to start a meaningful conversation. Don't bear the grievances of others. Come representing yourself and your concerns.
b) Don't be a bully: It is good to be direct and present yourself and your ideas with proper confidence, but don't think you can "throw your weight around" and still have a productive conversation. Here are some things to avoid:
- I've been at this church for 35 years, and I've seen a lot of pastors come and go and I'm still here.
- My brother is a pastor so I know how it is supposed to be done.
- I graduated from Bible College, and Seminary, am fluent is 45 languages including all the biblical ones, and I have authored 23 college textbooks on theology, the church, and how to end world hunger, so I know what I'm talking about. (or something like that!)
If your concerns are real, and your motive is righteous, and your manner is respectful, it won't matter who you are. Any pastor worth his salt will respond to your criticism on its merit, regardless of your standing in the community.
c) Start with what you appreciate about the ministry of the pastor and the church: As I mentioned above, it is important that you let the pastor know you are an ally not an enemy. Regardless of the position you hold in life, no one readily accepts critique from those who have been a perpetual thorn in their side. Those who live in opposition, who jump at the chance to point out a deficiency, or find joy in our shortcomings will seldom be received well when they come with an objection. On the other hand, those who truly care about the church and the mission of Christ will be welcomed by those who share their love for Christ and his mission.
d) Start your conversation with these three words: "help me understand ...": You might finish with:
- "... why you believe such and such?"
- "...what you meant when you said ..."
- "...why you said ..."
- "...why you acted is such and such a way ..."
Listen to his thoughts and get the full picture before you launch into your reasons for disagreement or offense. There is every possibility that you don't have all the facts concerning the issue, and you'd do well to listen to the pastor's take on it first. Few things are more irritating than to be criticized for something that was actually a misunderstanding, or was the result of several layers of gossip. That doesn't mean you don't have a point to make, but only that now you'll be able to do so in light of all the facts.
e) Present your view without threats, generalizations, or personal attacks. Where possible, use your Bible to support your view: If you are coming as an ally and not an attacker, your goal is mutual understanding and pursuit of the truth. If this is your motive, be humble though confident and realize that a good dialogue may not solve the problem, but will certainly not heighten the situation and cause more problems.
f) End your time in prayer: After all is said and done, you are still brothers and sisters in Christ, part of the family of God, and partners in the mission of Christ, through the church, to the world. Differences will exist, but as Christ-followers we must deal with our differences differently than do those who don't know Jesus. Love goes a long way toward creating an environment for mutual understanding over time.
Lastly, remember: Pastors are proud people, still not fully sanctified. They are always in the public eye, with each word and decision fair game to be measured, critiqued and opposed. Very few other corporate leaders are as available to be adjudicated by their families, staff, and customers as those who lead the church.
This doesn't mean they are above being measured, critiqued, and opposed. It does mean they have had to develop a thick skin, and are experts at distinguishing caustic critics from committed allies. Be an ally. Be the one that helps rather than hinders, that wraps the truth in layers of love, that places the highest priority on the glory of Christ and the health of his church.