How to Criticize Your Pastor

Every leader can grow from criticism, regardless of source or intention….But that truth doesn’t let the one offering criticism off the hook. In 1 Thessalonians 5:11, Paul says, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” The author of Hebrews says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds… encouraging one another…” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

When I was 20, my childhood church changed leadership. Soon after, the leadership changed the vision statement. I was a junior in college, across the country studying Bible and theology, with head knowledge that far outpaced my experience. Out of the infinite resources of my leadership experience (sarcasm alert!), I generously offered my wisdom free of charge and wrote a letter to the new lead pastor. I’m still embarrassed by that letter.

Twenty-five years later, I’m no stranger to being on the receiving end of those letters (and emails, Facebook messages, and texts). Every letter is an opportunity for me as a leader to grow in wisdom and humility. But every message takes an emotional and spiritual toll as well.

How might do things differently if I could? Paul tells Timothy elders are “worthy of double honor” (1 Tim. 5:17). How do we show our pastors double honor when we think there is criticism we should offer?

Here are three questions I wish I could have asked my 20-year-old self before he sent that critical letter:

1. How close is your relationship?

The truth is, I was merely an acquaintance with the pastor. Was it wise for my first substantive communication to be criticism?

I’ve preached sermons and afterward have had congregants I don’t know come up and offer no comment other than to correct something I missaid. As a pastor, I’m in an awkward position. I want to receive criticism well, but more importantly, I want to get to know them. Worse still is the anonymous commenter on an online service. My co-lead pastor Greg recently received criticism online for something he said during a sermon. He was immediately remorseful of how his clumsy words hurt someone, but the commenter was anonymous and he could not offer an apology.

Imagine that you frequent Lindy’s (a great Tucson burger joint). Your hope isn’t just to get delicious food, but to befriend the employees. One day you get a cheeseburger with a hair in it. That’s going to create some relational strain. If you’ve told your waitress that you appreciate her friendly smile and how hard she works on previous visits, the day you get a hair in your cheeseburger might strengthen your relationship. If your first conversation with the waitress is the hair-in-my-cheeseburger conversation, that’s going to be a challenging way to start a friendship.

You and your pastor are part of a local body together, and God intends for you to have a relationship with each other.[i] Trust is necessary for any healthy relationship. Criticism without relational context will make building a relationship challenging. You are no mere customer at his church, but a partner in God’s mission. Your first aim isn’t to improve your church’s product, but to develop relationships.

The less you know your pastor, the less criticism you should share. Before sharing criticism, I would suggest leaning in and getting to know your pastor: hear his heartbeat, and ask how you can pray for him. Let him know that you are for him. Then, when you offer criticism, it will be done in the context of a relationship where your pastor knows you are for him.

2. How much have you served?

I penned my critical letter to my childhood church from 2,500 miles away. I served faithfully as a high schooler but was now just a summer-attender at the church. My pastor had no idea of any track record I had of service. He shouldn’t have. I never took the initiative to build ongoing support for him and the church.

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