5 Ways to Turn Criticism into Positive Change

Taylor Brown
May 13th, 2021

Growing up, there was one lesson my parents went above and beyond to remind me of: Take my vitamins. As a kid, I loved taking my vitamins because they were like gummy bears that were good for you. But as I got older, I discovered that vitamins got, well… grosser. No more fun gummies. Instead, bring on the gigantic, gross-smelling, vile-tasting pills. They are tough to swallow, but I still know that they’re good for me. 

I would argue that if we had to pick what the “adult vitamin” of youth ministry is, it’s criticism. It’s not enjoyable and you wish you could avoid it forever. Yet, it can be good for you in the long run. 

The way we handle criticism is indicative of whether or not we can transform it into something beneficial. Criticism can be fatal, or it can be fruitful. The choice is yours!

Here are five things you can do to help turn criticism into positive change:

Think “When,” Not “If”

Being someone that struggles with perfectionism, I often create this idea in my head that I can get everything right and never be criticized. In my imaginary world, I will handle every youth ministry decision and obstacle perfectly. If you’ve been involved in ministry longer than five minutes, you know that’s never going to happen.

So, instead of spending time trying to avoid criticism from happening, embrace it. Students, parents, volunteers, pastors, and others will have criticism. Whether it be something simple like the snacks served at youth group or something big like how a conversation went with a student, know that criticism will come. Jesus even told His followers something similar:

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16:33 NIV)

Criticism might be unexpected when it happens, but you don’t have to be surprised that it happened. 

Listen To Learn, Not To Respond 

In the moment of facing criticism, our default action is to listen to respond. We want to prove we’re right more than we actually want to hear what others have to say. In my own experience, this has only escalated the conversation and made things even less clear. What might it look like if we tried something different?  

Listening to learn means being mentally present with someone and comprehensively listening to what is said. It’s listening to understand someone else’s perspective, not debate it. James, the brother of Jesus, gives us some advice on this: 

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (James 1:19 NIV)

Now I know, some criticism really gets you worked up! It does me too. However, if we want criticism to change, we have to learn where it is that we can improve (even if the message isn’t what we want to hear.)

Invite Someone Else In

If we are alone, our minds can become a dangerous place to process criticism. My tendency is to think the worst about myself and exaggerate what was said into something bigger. That’s why it is so important to invite someone else in!

Share with somebody else like a mentor, coach, or therapist about the criticism you received. Don’t let it continue to grow without inviting someone else that you trust in to help you process and weed out the parts that aren’t true. 

This is different than gossiping about what somebody else said about you. Gossip slanders and divides. Processing criticism with someone else honors the seriousness of the criticism presented with the goal of finding unity in the future outcome. Paul reminds us that as followers of Christ we, “share one another’s burdens,” and that includes the burden of criticism. 

Look For The Truth 

One of my favorite activities to do on the beach with my daughter is to use the sand sifter to find shells and other things mixed together on the beach. As we shake the pile of sand out, there’s always some hidden treasure in there that we couldn’t see before. Criticism can sometimes have hidden treasure within it as well.

Not all criticism is valid and some is just plain mean. However, the vast majority of criticism has some truth hidden within. Take an honest inventory and ask God to reveal to you if there’s any truth in the criticism that needs to be revealed. Pray David’s prayer from Psalm 139: 

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24 NIV)

Remember Your True Identity

No criticism of ministry can take away your true identity. You are God’s beloved son or daughter. What you do for ministry is not who you are at your core and that’s a good thing! God’s identity is bigger for you than just a role on a church staff or volunteer in the capacity you serve. 
When you remember your true identity, you can work from God’s beloved-ness being poured out on you. Criticism isn’t defining, but it can be refining when we welcome God in the do His redeeming work.

Taylor Brown

Taylor Brown is Pastor of Youth Ministry at Grace Church and loves to spend time with his wife, Alisa, and daughter, Gemma.

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.