I called this post A Cost of Being a Leader on purpose, as there are many costs to leadership. Those who assume a leadership role will often deal with multiple costs such as sacrifice, fatigue, loneliness, depression and pressure.
But, in this post I want to address a particular cost that often accompanies leadership: criticism and judgment that comes from those who have limited information and finite understanding about a given situation. In other words, people will allow themselves to come to firm conclusions about decisions and/or actions a leader has made, even though they don’t really know exactly what happened or why the leader came to a certain determination.
This is a common malady we can all succumb to. We get tempted to speak into a situation without having a firm grasp on all the facts. I think we live in a time and culture where leadership is regularly questioned, even when there may not be much evidence to support such doubt or hesitation. This doesn’t mean we follow our leaders blindly. No leader is above critique. But to function, every leader needs a good measure of support.
The first time this cost of leadership became apparent to me was at the church where I served as a youth pastor (my first full-time pastoral position). Our senior pastor was one of the most disciplined, fair, and thoughtful people I had ever worked for. He seemed to never rush into a decision, took time to try and understand all sides, and never used his position of authority to lord it over people in the church. This was a man who had a grasp on Jesus’ teaching about servant leadership. He wasn’t perfect, but always seemed above board in his dealings. Yet, during my twelve year tenure at this church, more than once did I witness people question, criticize and jump to conclusions with this pastor without really knowing much about any particular circumstance or situation that might be happening in the church.
In one situation at this church, a decision was made to release a person who had recently been brought on staff as a pastor. Not long after this pastor’s arrival, certain unhealthy behaviors began to emerge. Even after intervention and counsel from our senior pastor, the negative behaviors persisted to the point that some people in the church were made to feel vulnerable. After prayer and consultation with church leadership, the decision was made to let this new pastor go. Of course, the details of all that was going on was not something that could be made public to entire congregation.
Not long after, a few people in the church began to murmur and gossip, questioning the wisdom of the leadership, particularly the senior pastor. They didn’t know the entire story, but that didn’t seem to matter. Regardless of any knowledge about the situation, the leadership was suspect.
A few times I had some suspicious people approach me, asking me about the inner workings of the decision (of which I had some knowledge, but not complete knowledge). First off, I had to let these people know the particulars were not mine to share. Second, I asked these people to consider the long-time record of their senior pastor. Had he been trustworthy? Was he a man of humility? Had he done anything to make people think that he wouldn’t have the best interests of the church in mind? Was he known to handle matters in a measured, professional manner?
For some people, this series of questions helped them get back to a more level perspective of the matter. Others, unsatisfied with my response, moved on in search of people who might give them the negative answers they were seeking. As far as I know, they were unsuccessful.
Through the years, I’ve seen this scenario play out time and time again. Leadership takes action and suspicion soon follows.
But, as much as it seems unfair and unprofitable, I have come to accept that it is part of the price of acting as a leader.
The apostle Paul endured such criticism and rejection at the hands of the Christians in Corinth. We’re talking about Paul! The one who gave so much of himself to help plant and nurture the Corinthian church. Yet, in their pride and immaturity, the Corinthians didn’t hold back at taking a few swipes at Paul.
If Paul had to face it, I think we ought not think ourselves immune. If such criticism could happen to Paul, it can happen to anyone else who takes on leadership.
J. Oswald Sanders, in his landmark book on leadership noted:
No leader is exempt from criticism, and his humility will nowhere be seen more clearly than in the manner in which he accepts and reacts to it.
In a blog posting at the Vanderbloemen Church Leadership website, four points are offered to better navigate the criticism that often comes a leader’s way:
1. See it as inevitable.
Jesus was criticized as a drunk and a tool of Satan. The Apostle Paul was criticized as not being a legitimate apostle. Famed radio broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, “You always find the most clubs under the best apple trees.” In fact, in some ways a pastor can rejoice when criticized. Why is that? Because Jesus said, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26).
2. Respond only when necessary.
Some criticisms don’t warrant a response. Nehemiah would not be distracted from his work of building the wall to respond to critics. Jesus did not respond to all criticisms. Abraham Lincoln was constantly criticized yet rarely responded. Responding to criticism can distract you—keep your eyes on the goal! As a Pastor, when I got anonymous criticisms, I immediately threw them away and told my staff to do the same.
3. If a response is necessary, be slow to respond.
“IN AN AGE OF EMAILS AND TEXTING, OUR RESPONSES ARE OFTEN WAY TOO FAST!” Proverbs 12:16 says, “A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.” In the New Testament, James writes about being slow to become angry.
4. Consider the source.
How well do you know the critic? Have they been overwhelmingly positive in the past? Do you know their love for you? Some criticism is legitimate, and we need to learn and grow from it. But often, if the criticism is overly harsh or angry, it says more about the critic than it does about you. They may have major issues going on in their life that is boiling over to the surface.
As kids, if we ever came across a large mound of dirt, we inevitably ended up playing the game “king of the hill.” The goal of the game was to get to the top of the hill and hold your position. For those not at the top of the hill, the mission was to knock “the king” off the top spot.
Sometimes that’s how it feels to be a leader. But remember, it’s part of the deal.
(And let’s be honest: there are plenty of bad leaders out there who make it harder for people to rely on those in positions of authority.)
Thank God for those people who have taken the challenge given in Hebrews 13:17:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
May we not lose heart of give up because some people seem intent on questioning our actions or doubting our motives, even when they don’t really know what’s going on. Such activity is as old as the hills. And remember: as leaders, we are not above doing the same thing to others that causes such pain and confusion within us. May God keep our hearts in check as we come under the leadership of others.