How to criticize the leader–your boss, the pastor, etc–successfully!

When King David was criticized by a fellow named Shimei–and I mean publically and cruelly, cursing him–one of David’s men asked for permission to execute him on the spot.  David’s response is worth noting. “My own son wants to kill me; how much more this Benjamite.  Let him alone and let him curse, for (perhaps) the Lord told him to do this.  Maybe, if I’m merciful to him, the Lord will be merciful to me.” (Paraphrase of 2 Samuel 16:9-12).

Every leader gets criticized.  If you don’t want it or cannot take it, please refuse when they offer you that promotion.

To be a leader–the manager, president, chairman, or pastor of the church–means you will have a target drawn on your back.  You must be able to take the heat.

Every leader needs the blessing of positive criticism from the ranks of the membership or team or congregation. The leader who rejects criticism is asking for all the trouble he/she is going to inherit.

But what if you are the employee or member of the congregation or team member and need to get a word of constructive criticism to the leader?

It happens.

There are wrong ways to get criticism to the pastor.  To the leader, boss, chair, president, whoever.

–Tell his spouse to pass it on.  (When I was doing an article for this website on pastors’ wives and the stresses they endure, several told me this was a pet peeve of theirs, how church members would tell her to pass along their gripes about their pastor-husband.  One wife said, “When my husband gets home, the last thing I want to do is add to the stress of his day by passing along criticism!)

–An anonymous note.  This is a popular approach for good reason.  It has two great benefits:  it does the job (gets the message to the person) and it leaves you out of it.  However, anonymous notes have numerous negatives:  it’s cowardly, offends the recipient, and may bring about the opposite effect from what you intend.  Furthermore, if it’s ever proven that you are the author of the poison-pen letter, you are history.

-Tell a co-worker or colleague.  I’m not sure what we hope this will achieve.  But people do it all the time.  Maybe they want to see if others feel the same way.

–Pull together a group of similarly disgruntled team-members and go as a group to the boss or leader.  This has the advantage of group-protection, but almost never achieves what you hope.

Of course, you could buy a billboard and plaster the criticism before the world.  You could use your Facebook page to criticize your boss publically.  You could buy time on television or radio.  But no, don’t do this.  There are easier ways to commit suicide.

How to pull it off…

One.  Pray, pray, pray.  Read the first chapter of Nehemiah to see how he achieved something similar.  His wasn’t criticism of the king but it may as well have been since he was going before the king with a strange and difficult request.

Two.  Wait on the Lord.  When we ask for the Lord’s will in a matter, we should be willing to wait for His answer and His leadership.  Otherwise to ask for His will is pointless.

Three.  Get counsel from a friend not remotely connected to the organization, the person, or the problem.  Ideally, this might be your pastor from two churches ago!  Leave names out of it, but just tell the situation and get his counsel.  You’d be surprised who knows whom!

Four.  Then, when the time is right, make an appointment to see the boss.  When the administrative assistant asks, “What is this about?” say, “I have a little problem and need his input.”  That’s all.  Say no more.

Five.  Then, when you meet with the boss, remember a principle which husbands and wives have learned concerning family arguments:  Never blame the other person.  You might say something this like “I have this problem.  It involves something you do.” Marriage counselors tell husbands and wives to express their criticism in the form of personal feelings: “Can I tell you how this makes me feel?”

By going directly to the leader, you are demonstrating great confidence in him/her.  You are respecting them as a person big enough to be able to take this and respond faithfully.  (I sure hope your trust is well-founded.)

Six.  For 24 hours before your appointment, practice your short speech.  Toss out the negativity and look for a positive way to express your concern.

Seven.  After giving the boss your little speech, quit talking.  Be quiet.  Do not overtalk.

Eight.  Do not ask what the boss plans to do about this.  You simply wanted to bring this to his/her attention.  Thank them, then leave.  If they want to talk further, or if they have questions, send up a quick panicky prayer–“Help me, Lord!”–and do the best you can.

Nine.  Leave it there.  If the leadership makes a change as a result of your little visit or not, leave it with them and with the Lord.  There may be forces at work here you know nothing of.  Pray for your boss and work to be a good team member.

If you’ve ever been the boss, you know things your employees do not. You have forces at work on you–the big boss, the deacons, stockholders, etc–from the top, and cannot always do things that please your subordinates.  You appreciate their understanding this.

Ten.  Later, if you decide to send a thank-you to the boss, the best one is simply: “Thank you.” And sign your name.  That’s all. Nothing more.

If it doesn’t go well…

Not every boss is worthy.  Not every pastor is mature, reasonable, thoughtful, or godly.  Sadly, not even every person claiming to be a follower of Jesus is teachable or humble or Christlike.

Not every leader takes criticism well, even if offered kindly and graciously.

So be clear your mind before you go in that this could happen.  (Therefore, you may decide your criticism is not important enough for the risk.  In which case, try to put up with the misbehavior or weaknesses of your leader and go forward.)

–Whistle-blowers have been known to be fired. At this moment, the key leadership of a major Christian educational institution is being ousted.  One of the charges against the president is that when an employee went public with criticism about the institution, she was fired.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the trustees apologize and rehire her.

–Those who go to the boss with criticism have sometimes been labeled as complainers and had this added to their record.

–You’re taking a chance.  Make sure your criticism is worth the risk.

I’ve been on the receiving end of some of this.  Here are a few instances that come to mind…

–As a young (and green) pastor, I was using slang in my sermons.  It was how I talked in conversation and since I’d not been to seminary (and taken classes on preaching), it felt natural.  A leader called one day and asked if I could drive up to the church on Saturday for a visit.  When he expressed his concern, his words hurt for a few minutes. Then I realized he was right.  I changed.  It was that simple.

–After seminary, I still committed my share of goofs. Once in an attempt to be cool in my sermon, I said someone looked like “a refugee from a polio factory.”  Don’t ask me what in the world that meant.  I’m sure I didn’t know then and I don’t know now.  However, a church member reminded me that the lovely Miss Ethridge in our congregation lived in a wheelchair as a result of her polio.  (In time she became Miss Wheelchair America!)  Wow. I was chastised and apologized profusely.  And once more began to pray the words of Psalm 141:3, “Set a guard upon my mouth, O Lord.  Keep watch over the door of my lips.”

–In a church staff meeting with spouses present, one minister said I promised him two days a week off work and he wasn’t getting it.  When I questioned whether I made such a promise, his wife said, “You did, Joe.”  And even though I did not recall it,I trusted them and apologized.

–“Joe, you’re not feeding the flock.”  Pastoring six churches for 42 years, I’ve heard that criticism more than once.  My response was always the same, “Help me understand what you’re saying.”  On one occasion when the chairman of deacons said, “Joe, they’re saying you’re not preaching the Word,” I said, “Mike, I just finished preaching through Matthew’s Gospel.  What do ‘they’ mean by that?”  He said, “I don’t know.”  I said, “Please go back and find out.”  That was the last I heard of that.

A final note…

Don’t be constantly running to the boss or your pastor with criticism.  Do that and you devalue the impact of your words, even if they are valid and helpful.  No one wants a colleague or employee who is constantly telling them how to do their work better.

Do your work.  Do it well.  And pray for your leader.



1 thought on “How to criticize the leader–your boss, the pastor, etc–successfully!

  1. Sir, thank you for this article. I have been at fault for criticism
    And also been targeted aswell. May the Lord help be better followers and humble servants.
    God Bless,
    Carlos R.

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