“It’s All Good.” You’ve probably heard that phrase before, and I want to tell you from the start that I have never been a fan of it. While I suspect that the intention of those who utter those words is to be positive and look for the good things in life (a very noble thing!), I still don’t like the phrase because, quite frankly, sometimes things in life are not good. While I definitely believe that good can come out of even the worst situations; let’s be honest – sometimes it’s not all good. Even in ministry.
Not too long ago I was at a meeting of professional ministers, and someone said something that really bugged me. I understand it, and I even mostly believe it, but it bothered me nonetheless. It went something like this, “It doesn’t matter, ultimately, if we make mistakes when we speak, if our talks run overtime, or if we choose the wrong music. It’s not about us, anyway. It’s about God, and God will do what God wants to do, regardless of any mistakes we might make.” The person who said this was, I suspect, trying to express the sovereignty of God and the truth of Romans 8:28:
“We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
What bothered me so much about what was said is a concern that, if unbalanced, the perspective of “it’s all good” could take us in ministry to the dangerous places of false security and mediocrity. Honestly, it has happened to me. There have been times when I have not prayed enough, prepared enough, or presented well – and it worries me that my colleagues and friends sometimes might praise my inadequate efforts and not “call me out” to excellence.
Now, we all desperately need love, affirmation, and encouragement (of course!), especially those of us in ministry. We pour out our hearts to sometimes unappreciative people, and God wants us to know that we are awesome, created in His image, greatly valued and appreciated. Yet, that reality needs to be balanced by the fact that we are all in constant need of growth, and it behooves us to be reminded of what love really is; it is not simply affirmation. Therefore, it is essential that professionals in ministry avoid the temptation to simply participate in mutual admiration societies. Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality.” We need to call each other to be the best that we can be and to never settle for mediocrity, so that those to whom we minister will receive nothing less than what God wants for them. I am utterly convinced that we in ministry need to pursue that excellence which comes only when we open ourselves up to constructive criticism.
The danger with constructive criticism, of course, is that if it is not done properly it becomes destructive. I have experienced deep hurt from well-intentioned individuals criticizing our efforts to bring Christ to others. These wounds have resulted not from the fact that we have fragile or inflated egos (though sometimes we do) but rather because we did our best, poured out our hearts, and prayerfully prepared – and then the constructive criticism was not given in the most loving way.
Therefore, for your consideration, I would like to offer tips for giving and receiving constructive criticism, in the hopes that we can develop this much-needed art form and grow in our efforts to legitimately build up the Kingdom – and one another.
Helpful attitudes when receiving constructive criticism
- Realize that you need it. We are all a work in progress. Just because you did your best, it doesn’t mean that you can’t become better at what you do!
- Ask for it. Most people will not offer constructive criticism unless they are asked to give it, so have the humility to request this kind of feedback.
- Thank God and others for it. An attitude of gratitude goes a long way in making you a better person and softening the blow of constructive criticism.
- Take all comments seriously. Usually when someone constructively criticizes you they are well-intentioned and want to see you improve your skills. Even though their words may not be perfectly chosen, assume their best intentions and try to hear what they are trying to tell you.
- Prayerfully discern it. It is a good idea to bring all constructive criticism to God, asking His opinion of what was said. Also, bring it to your pastoral leaders; they can help you evaluate the truth of what was said and have responsibility to see you grow in ministry. Finally, bring it those friends whose opinions you trust and who are capable of brutal honesty. These steps of discernment can help you to know if what was said has any validity or if it should be disregarded.
- Keep a balanced perspective. Constructive criticism does not define you as a person; God has already done that. It is simply something that can potentially help us to hone our ministry skills and become more effective ministers of the Gospel.
Helpful attitudes for giving constructive criticism
- Wait. Just because you have thoughts doesn’t mean you have to share them. Ask God if He really wants you to talk to the other person. Keep in mind that your thoughts may be meant for you to simply pray for the person. If your thoughts are based upon emotion more than logic, let the feelings subside before you speak so that you can be more easily heard and understood.
- Prepare. Before you constructively criticize anyone, prepare your words carefully and prayerfully; words, once spoken, cannot be taken back. The Golden Rule applies; how would you want to be approached about this issue if the tables were turned? I suggest writing down your thoughts so that they can be analyzed – are they clear, kind, loving, and helpful?
- Do it alone. Whenever possible, do not offer constructive criticism in public. In Matthew 18:15, Jesus tells us “If your brother sins, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”
- Affirm. Affirm. Affirm. Challenge. Affirm. It is essential that anyone you constructively criticize knows that you care about them. Be sure to affirm them in several ways before you constructively criticize, and then affirm them when you are finished. The truth must always be spoken in love. However, be sure not to lavish false praise or affirmation; keep it real and honest.
- Be personal. Face to face is ideal, a phone conversation can be good, and written communication (letters and email) can very easily be misunderstood. If you must communicate in writing, have several wise and objective individuals proofread it before you send it; this will help to ensure that your words will not be misunderstood.
- Listen. It has been said that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason; we should use them proportionately. Giving the other person a chance to explain their words and their intentions may reveal that you misunderstood them, rendering your criticism invalid and saving you some humiliation. If after listening you still feel a need to offer someone constructive criticism, make sure you give the other person an open door to respond back to you.
…do you want to practice your constructive criticism skills? If so, shoot me an email and let me know what you think of this article: email@example.com