3 Ways to Better Handle Criticism in Youth Ministry

Jacob Eckeberger
October 25th, 2016

We pour so much of ourselves into our ministries for the spiritual well-being of others.

We sacrifice our personal time (often to a fault), we take midnight calls, serve on our scheduled days off, come into the office in the middle of our vacations to go over budget planning, and we give and give and give . . . For this, we feel we should be appreciated, applauded, and revered, right? So we all have a tendency to respond poorly to criticism.

When the people I serve criticize what I’m doing, of course I take it personally! I’m sacrificially investing myself in others, and it’s going unappreciated!

If that sounds selfish, it’s because it’s selfish. We feel that way when we derive our value from the reactions we get from those we serve. When others’ opinions determine our self-worth, criticism hits hard.

To fight this, I had to learn three lessons to help me appropriately handle criticism:

  1. What we do and who we are are two completely different things.

Understanding this will help you separate feelings of guilt from feelings of shame. Guilt is based on what we do, think, or say. Shame is based on lies we believe about who we are. For instance, there’s a huge difference between I feel guilt because I lied and I feel shame because I’m a liar, or I feel guilt because I stole and I feel shame because I’m a thief, or I feel guilty for cheating and I feel shame because I’m a cheater.

[bctt tweet=”You will act out of whatever you believe about yourself.” username=”ys_scoop”]

So if you believe you’re a liar, you will lie. If you believe you’re a cheater, you will cheat. If you believe you’re a thief, you will steal.

You’re human—you’re going to make mistakes. People are going to disagree with you. Does that mean you’re not God’s child? Does that mean God hasn’t called you to your ministry? In the story of the prodigal son, the younger brother was still the father’s son—even when he ran away, and the older brother was still the father’s son when he acted out in pride.

Separate who you are from what you do.

God loves and appreciates you. You belong to him. That’s who you are. Abide in his love, and criticism won’t be able to affect your sense of value.

  1. Everyone acts, thinks, and speaks out of different motivational values.

I’m a people person, and I’m motivated by relationships. I once served under a senior pastor who was the polar opposite—he couldn’t have cared less about relationships, so he criticized anything I did that came out of my motivational values. It deeply hurt me, because my motivational values are part of how God made me!

If you attempt to understand others’ differences in motivational values, you’re more likely to be able to meet on common ground and possibly even appreciate others’ points of view.

  1. It’s important to evaluate criticism.

This lesson is more practical than philosophical. When someone criticizes you, ask the following questions:

  • Is this a criticism or a complaint?
  • Is this a criticism of me or of my performance?
  • Is this something I need to change?
  • Is this something I have the authority or ability to change?
  • How will I handle this criticism so that both the person offering it and I will walk away feeling we’ve been heard and are valued?

Also, consider the source. If someone is just complaining, they don’t actually want to fix anything, so what they say isn’t going to be helpful. Most of the time, complaints are harsher than criticism. Criticism might sound like this: “Have you ever considered . . .” or “You should be doing ______ instead.” People who are offering criticism wish to see something change. A complaint sounds more like this: “Why is this?” or “Why are you doing that?” or “That’s not what it used to be!” If someone is complaining, that person’s goal is to be heard. You might have to work on something when you’re criticized, but you’ll be spinning your tires trying to fix a complaint. If you can differentiate between the two, it will save you a lot of time, worry, negative feelings, and trouble.

If someone is criticizing you personally by saying something like “You’re not a very good youth pastor,” this is more than likely a difference in motivational values. In a situation like this, it’s important to remain secure in who you are and how God made you. If you stay anchored in that, it will keep you from answering with “Well, you’re not a very good congregant.” If this person is offering a performance-based criticism, listen closely for what you might consider changing, and then evaluate whether or not it’s something you really need to change for the betterment of your ministry.

The goal is for everyone to be able to walk away from this kind of conversation feeling positive and valued. Posturing, combatting, or steamrolling won’t get you very far with relationship building. I’ve borrowed a lesson from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: It’s far more beneficial to make a friend out of an enemy than to fight him. You never know what gifts, background experience, and abilities your critic may have. You may want to make good use of these later, but your critic may not be so willing to lend them to you if you’re in conflict with him or her.

Criticism doesn’t need to be a negative—without it, we can’t grow or get better.


Andy Hastie is a youth and associate pastor at a church in northern New Jersey. He has more than 16 years of ministry experience as a youth worker, youth pastor, senior pastor/church planter, and associate pastor. He works closely with the children’s ministry as well, because his wife, Darea, is the part-time children’s/special needs/family ministry director. They have a son, Joshua, and a daughter, Gianna. Find him on Twitter @AndyHastie30.

Jacob Eckeberger

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.