No matter how great a leader you are, there will always be a few parishioners who don’t like you and feel it’s their calling to criticize you.
This group of people who think you suck can—although they are in the minority—tend to be the most vocal group in your church.
As a young pastor, I was unprepared for this unwelcome reality. We didn’t have a Dealing with Knuckleheads class at Oral Roberts University. My early years as a staff pastor didn’t ready me for this negative church subculture. Being a youth pastor during that time in many ways protected me from being attacked by church members. It all came to a head when I accepted the invitation to be a lead pastor.
One Sunday, on my way up to the platform to preach, an elderly lady in our church loudly scolded me for not visiting her husband in the hospital earlier in the week. Caught off guard and feeling embarrassed, I did not have time (or the words) to explain I was sick all week and couldn’t visit (I mean, I didn’t want to finish off her husband).
At that point I hadn’t developed the leadership skill to deflect the verbal assault by telling her “Now is not the time to discuss this” and then offering to chat about it after service.
So, what did I do? I absorbed her angry words and struggled through the sermon. I lost sleep over it and obsessed about the incident for several days. From her perspective, I could understand why she was upset. Her husband was in the hospital. But understanding didn’t take the sting out of her words.
I could recite multiple instances during my seven-year tenure as a lead pastor where the vocal minority who thought I sucked blasted me with words. And out of ignorance, I let their loudness pummel my confidence.
I suspect if you have led a church for any length of time, you have similar stories to tell. You’ve likely been on the receiving end of criticism.
So . . . what can you do when parishioners attack?
Get in touch with truth
Most of the time, parishioner attack has to do with personal preferences, not truth. That being said, try to ask yourself: “Is there any truth to what they said?” They may have packaged the words poorly, but perhaps there’s a kernel of truth somewhere in the verbal barrage.
The truth was, I should have sent one of our leaders to visit the elderly lady’s husband, but for some unknown reason, that thought never crossed my mind. Her words woke me up to my need to share the ministry load. You see, criticism may actually be a growth opportunity. When parishioners attack, extract the truth—and forget the rest.
Get in touch with why
Sometimes parishioners attack out of fear: The fear of change. The fear of losing control. The fear of success even. Some people attack out of ignorance. In those cases, try your best to be understanding.
But let’s be real: some churchgoers attack just because they’re mean-spirited people who want to hurt you. I confess I’ve never understood that group. Christians aren’t supposed to behave that way. Avoid the meanies like the plague. Deal with them only when necessary and refuse to take the bait and get drawn into a battle with them.
Get in touch with your value
In God’s eyes, you’re more valuable than the work you do, and more valuable than what others say about the work you do. That doesn’t give you permission to perform poorly. It just means when the vocal minority screams, remember your value doesn’t come from them. (Or it shouldn’t).
I’ve observed that people tend to be fickle. They usually do what’s in their own best interests. Paul said as much in Philippians 2:21: “For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.”
If that’s true, why would we put our sense of value in other people’s hands? Legitimate and lasting value is found in a real relationship with Jesus, who never changes. He is the exact opposite of fickle. He loves you when you succeed and when you don’t. He thinks you’re awesome when the vocal minority thinks you suck. If you get your sense of value from your parishioners, and they attack, it will throw you off your game.
Get in touch with reality
The New Testament church struggled periodically with people who attacked its leaders. If these godly pioneers faced the vocal minority, why do we think we’re exempt?
I’m not excusing poor parishioner behavior. Nor suggesting we shouldn’t deal with it promptly and pastorally, especially if these attackers have influence. I’m simply encouraging you to expect criticism from time to time so when it happens, you won’t be shell-shocked. Check out a previous blog I wrote on how to talk to difficult people.
I would have been so much farther ahead if I’d told the elderly lady decades ago: “You know, I can’t talk to you about this right now. If you’d like, I can chat with you for about 5 minutes after service.” Instead of allowing her angry words to ruin my next three days, I could have simply extracted the truth, tried to understand her perspective, reminded myself that real value comes from being a child of God, and told myself that every leader faces this kind of stuff.
When parishioners attack, let these four behaviors guide your response. You’ll be healthier, happier, and may even find yourself thriving in the face of their criticism. If you need help unpacking parishioner attack, we’re here to serve you.
I’m rooting and praying for you!