We get emails every day from listeners who are on the brink of quitting — quitting jobs, quitting ministry, quitting the pastorate. And quitting the pastorate is our focus today, but with implications for all types of quitting. We’ve addressed a question similar to the one we address today in APJ 1405, an episode titled, “I’m Not Good at My Job — Is the Lord Telling Me to Quit?”
But today’s question is specifically about ministry, from an anonymous pastor who writes this: “Pastor John, hello. I’m an elder in a church in Northern Minnesota and struggling with negative and passive-aggressive congregation members. In your pastorate, how did you continue to find joy in serving people that routinely tell you all the bad things you’re doing, but rarely ever tell you the good that you’re doing? That’s the season I’m in right now. And at what point does this struggle signify that I should step down from the pastorate?”
Well, there are, I think, two very important questions in this cry for help. And I sure sympathize with the feelings of hearing mainly criticism from people you hope would say more. One of those questions, and I’ll come to it at the end, is, How do you continue to find joy in serving people that are critical rather than encouraging? That’s one question. The other one is, How do you discern when you should step down from the pastorate?
Now, both of those are huge and painful considerations. So, let’s start with the second one, and then I’ll try to get to the first one in just a minute.
Triage for Embattled Pastors
I suppose you could say that what I’m suggesting here is a kind of triage for an embattled pastor. In other words, What are the questions that we should ask when there is short-term or long-term criticism of our ministry?
And it really could apply to others as well, besides pastors, who are in various kinds of callings and feel themselves barraged with critical responses to their efforts. What are the questions that will help us know how to respond and whether the criticisms are an indication that we should not be serving in this place, or in this way, anymore?
1. Are the criticisms true?
Or what parts of them are true, and what parts are untrue or exaggerated? And here we’re going to need not only biblically informed self-knowledge, humble self-knowledge, which is really important in the ministry, but the wisdom of those who know us best, which would include our spouse (hopefully), wise colleagues that we trust — people who can help us sort through what is true and untrue about the criticisms.
2. Is the criticism serious?
There are all kinds of tastes and opinions that are different from ours that can come at us as criticisms, but they have very little serious significance about the way we do our work. Somebody might not like the shirt you wear, or the tone of your voice when you answer the phone, or where your wife sits in the worship service. Oh my goodness, there are endless non-serious criticisms that we may or may not respond to.
For these, Charles Spurgeon, bless his heart, counseled a good blind eye and a deaf ear. I love that. That’s a great message he gave in Lectures to My Students, “The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear.” So valuable for pastors. I recommend it.
3. Is the criticism longstanding?
Was it a one-off disapproval, or has it been going on for months or years? Now, that may indicate a need for change, or it may indicate a need for confronting a person who is divisive or unhelpfully negative.
4. Is it criticism from one or many?
Is it a criticism coming from only one disgruntled person or from a number of reputable church members? It is possible that a lot of people can see things in a wrong way; therefore, numbers are not the only factor to take into consideration. But it is far less likely that the number of Christians are mistaken if there’s more than one. If it’s just one person, that’s one thing. If it’s many and continued, that’s more serious. So, it’s important to take seriously the same criticism coming from numerous sources.
5. Is it a moral criticism?
Is it a moral issue involving right and wrong, or is it an ability issue, a skill issue? Now, both can be serious. If it’s a moral issue that would bring reproach on the gospel or the church, it needs to be dealt with, and quickly. If the criticism is that you don’t have the ability to do what the church is rightly expecting you to do, that too can be damaging to the church and needs to be reckoned with seriously. And I’ll get to that in just a minute.
6. Can the criticism actually spark change?
Is what is being criticized changeable by repentance or by refocusing or refueling or retraining? Or is it rooted in a fixed but non-sinful personality trait — a deeply rooted, native ability or inability?
Weighing the Criticisms
Now, I’m sure there are a lot more questions that we could ask that would be helpful, but it seems to me that these ones are significant. And I hinted in the questions themselves at the kinds of responses that you could give to the questions.
“It’s important to take seriously the same criticism coming from numerous sources.”
But let me turn to more general responses to these kinds of questions. First, if the criticisms are simply not true as confirmed by your own conscience and by the wisest counselors around you, then seek reconciliation with the one who’s criticizing you. Paul put it like this in 1 Corinthians 4:12–13: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat.” Now, sometimes that entreaty produces reconciliation, and sometimes it doesn’t. Which is why Paul said in Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Second, if the criticism is true but not serious, then admit it and develop strategies to improve and change. You want to do your best to put no stumbling blocks in the way of the gospel, not even innocent stumbling blocks.
Third, if the criticism is true and serious, whether moral or regarding abilities, the issue should be addressed with the help of other trusted church leaders. Repentance or even possibly dismissal might follow a moral failing. Or if it’s something less public, less egregious, then repentance and forgiveness may enable the pastor to keep going.
But what if the serious criticism regards the pastor’s abilities and fitness for his calling or his particular ministry?
Matter of Degrees
One of the things that makes this so difficult is that we are almost always dealing with a matter of degrees here in fitness and abilities, not something as black or white or crystal clear.
It’s very difficult to quantify the gifts of leadership required for a church as it moves from one season to the next. It’s very difficult to define whether a man’s ability to communicate what the Scripture says is more helpful than unhelpful. Some people get great help; others don’t get help. It’s extremely difficult.
There are so many factors that go into making a man a fruitful shepherd of God’s people. These decisions are never simple or easy. So, I would simply say, seek trusted counsel from spiritually wise people who know you well. Take serious stock of yourself, and assess your gifts and your abilities, especially with the help of other spiritually wise people.
“Never forget that you were created and shaped the way you are by a wise and loving Father.”
Pray for a fresh vision for your life, either in this place and this ministry, or something reconfigured here, or something beyond where you are now. Never lose heart. Never forget that you were created and shaped the way you are by a wise and loving Father who does not intend for you to waste your life. Even if it should prove that you are a square peg in a round hole, that does not mean that God made a mistake in making you a square peg.
Eight Ways to Fight for Joy
Now, our time is almost gone, and I haven’t even gotten to the other question — namely, How do you continue to fight for joy in the midst of such criticisms, while you’re processing all this, doing all this triage? So, let me just give quick bullet points from my experience and from the word. How do you keep on fighting for joy in that kind of process?
- Confirm that the bottom of your joy is not ministry, but that “your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
- Reset the love of Christ as the deeply precious, satisfying treasure of your life. As Paul said in Galatians 2:20, “[He] loved me and gave himself for me.”
- Preach the promises of God to yourself. They are all Yes in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20). “I’ll never leave you; I’ll never forsake you” (see Hebrews 13:5). Preach that to yourself every day.
- Pray for sustaining grace every day. Plead the promises of God’s faithfulness. “He will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24) — that is, he’ll sustain you to the end.
- Reach for rich old books of consolation, like Richard Sibbes’s The Bruised Reed, Jeremiah Burroughs’s The Secret of Contentment, or John Owen’s The Glory of Christ.
- Receive regular exhortation from faithful brothers (Hebrews 3:13). Oh how we need encouragement from those who know our needs.
- Get the physical rest and exercise and natural beauty in nature that you need.
- Finally, memorize Psalm 25. That’s just about the best passage on guidance in the Bible. “[The Lord] instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Psalm 25:8–9).
So, brother, he will guide you. Whether you stay, whether you go, he loves you. He’s your Father. He made you the way you are. He will give you the guidance you need.