Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he mocked the Jews. He said in the presence of his associates and of the army of Samaria, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore things? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish it in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish-and burned ones at that? Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “That stone wall they are building-any fox going up on it would break it down!” (Nehemiah 4:1-3)

While Nehemiah and the Israelites are rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, those who are opposed to the project begin to mock, ridicule, insult, and threaten. Nehemiah responds to his critics by praying and continuing to do the work God has called him to do: rebuild a wall and rebuild a community of God’s people.

No leader is exempt from criticism. Nehemiah was criticized. Moses was criticized. John the Baptist was criticized. Even Jesus was criticized, and if they’re going to criticize Jesus, they’re going to criticize you and me. Criticism is part and parcel of this leadership gig. Count on it.

And let’s just put it on the table. Criticism hurts. It really does. They don’t make skin thick enough for it not to hurt. All leaders will be criticized. Especially effective leaders. And especially leaders who are leading change. Criticism is unavoidable, but you can learn to manage it.

Over the years I’ve developed a few principles related to criticism.

1. Pray.
Our first response to criticism is never to strike back, but to pray first. This is what Nehemiah does again and again. He prays for his critics. He prays for his people. He prays for the project. Prayer gives us time to cool down and a quiet moment to gain perspective. Pray before you speak. Pray before you act. Follow the example of Nehemiah.

2. The Gift of Criticism.
Yes, you read it right. Criticism can be a gift, and if you take the time to pray and ponder there is often a kernel of truth imbedded in the critique. Hearing that truth with an open heart and acting on that truth helps make you a better leader. In Proverbs 15:31-32 we read, “The ear that heeds wholesome admonition will lodge among the wise. Those who ignore instruction despise themselves, but those who heed admonition gain understanding“. Sometimes the criticism has a kernel of truth to it. Find that kernel, learn from it, and then live it.

3. Do the math.

  • A super majority of folks in our parishes are supportive, faithful, and loving.
  • A small percentage of folks are accurate critics. Listen to them. Take their words to heart. Pray and adjust. Re-read #2 above.
  • A smaller percentage of folks are inaccurate critics. Listen to them. Pray with them. Talk with them. Try to find some common ground.
  • An even smaller percentage of folks are malicious critics. Set clear boundaries here. Pray for them. Understand that there is not a whole lot you can do, but trust what God can do, and put it in God’s hands. Then let it go.

4. Consider the Source.
Who is doing the criticizing? My response to the critic is based on my relationship with that person. The closer that person is to my inner circle, the clearer the voice. Whose voice matters the most? Is it the voice of my wife Rachel or the words of an anonymous note? Is it the voice of a trusted colleague or the words of a social media rant?

When I was in the parish I would ask myself a series of questions, “Does this person love Jesus? Do I see the Fruits of the Spirit in this person’s life? Is this person on board with where God is leading us? Does this person love me?” If the answer was “Yes, yes, yes, yes”, then I needed to listen, to pray, and to adjust. Re-read #2 above. If the answer was “No, no, no, no”, then I needed to listen, to pray, but then continue to move forward. We cannot allow naysayers to derail us from our God given mission and vision.

5. Take a Look at Myself (which is a really hard thing to do).
Am I an encourager or a critic? Are people growing under my leadership or languishing? Some leaders unwittingly create a culture of criticism by tearing others down, and never building others up. Critics demoralize; leaders encourage.

In Nehemiah chapter 4, we read that Sanballat and Tobiah could lead a group of critics (and you will find that critics often associate with other critics), but they could never lead a group of people to rebuild a wall or rebuild a community of God’s people. No, that takes a leader. A leader like Nehemiah.