Years ago, I went through a season of feeling besieged in ministry. A handful of fellow church officers would constantly criticize my opinions, berate me in private, and malign my character. There was no grace and no willingness to be reconciled. My own tongue only seemed to get me in further trouble, so before meetings, I would desperately pray and meditate on a verse from Isaiah 53—“like a lamb before its shearers, He remained silent.” I almost left the ministry, but the Lord—through a variety of means—sustained me.
I wish that I had had a copy of Pastors and Their Critics, by Joel Beeke and Nick Thompson, in my hands during that dark year. To ministers who currently feel besieged, I plead with you to get a copy of this book. You’ll learn in these pages what you didn’t learn in seminary: that some of the most bitter wounds will be inflicted by your fellow believers, and that the hand of the Almighty can heal the wounds that He created. He can make the bones that He has broken to rejoice.
The first two chapters deal with biblical foundations for coping with criticism, but it’s really when you reach the discussion of how Christ dealt with criticism that you’ll get your case of the feels. The authors do not only point you to Christ and run away, as some well-intentioned friends are apt to do, but walk you by the hand to the cross and explore what it was that Jesus endured and how He responded. Beeke and Thompson remind me of the mentors and brothers who held me fast during that dark year. When you read this book, you’ll feel like you’ve finally found such friends—or more likely, that you’ve finally found such a friend in the midst of your suffering.
For the besieged pastor, the account of Jesus’s sacrificial work cuts both ways. On the one hand, it will comfort you with the knowledge that Jesus knows what it means to be wounded and that he was wounded for your sake; on the other hands, it will cut you by reminding you that only Jesus was guiltless and that you need to examine your heart before the Lord and His Word. This realization sets the stage for the second part of the book: practical principles for dealing with criticism.
Before touching on these principles, I would ask my co-laborers in the ministry to remember what it is like to be criticized. You just poured your heart and soul into a sermon and are spiritually and emotionally drained, only to have a member come up right away and criticize something you said. During the week, a member comes to you with a critique that begins “Someone told me…” or “People are saying…” The list could go on. You feel your ministry under attack, as well as your character. Your insecurities and Satan’s accusations combine to cloud out the light of the Gospel. Past wounds and current weaknesses are painfully exposed. Anger, fear, defensiveness, and self-loathing come flooding into the empty space just carved out by criticism. All these things begin to send you spiraling downward.
If you can relate to any of this, the third chapter, “Receive Criticism Realistically,” will help draw you out of the spiral. It will help you step back and honestly assess the motivations of your critics, the validity of their criticism, and the reactions of your heart. This then enables you to receive criticism humbly (chapter four) and with sober judgement (chapter 5). I love that there are three chapters that begin with “receive” before you arrive at “Respond with Grace” (chapter 6). Under the weight of criticism, pastors can often be slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to become angry. Beeke and Thompson help you slow the process down so that you can truly respond in a gracious and Christ-honoring manner.
After providing a host of valuable tips for pastors in dealing with criticism the authors helpfully expand the focus to the church at large. How can we constructively critique others? How can we create a culture in the church that allows criticism that edifies the body and glorifies the Lord to become the norm, rather than the exception? How can we make this the overarching vision for the church? By shifting a focus from a pastor’s wounds to building a healthy culture in the church, the authors help instill a sense of optimism about future ministry. Thompson adds a helpful appendix at the end on preparing for criticism while in seminary.
You will not get bogged down in this book. The Puritans are frequently quoted in bite-size form, allowing the reader to chew on a pithy thought while continuing through the meat of the book. Also, helpful checklists and questionnaires are provided throughout for self-assessment and accountability. Somehow, Beeke and Thompson manage to be deep and substantive while also driving the reader forward at a decent clip—which is all to the benefit of the reader.
This book is essential reading for every pastor, should be required reading for every church officer, and recommended reading to every long-standing member of the church of Jesus Christ. For beyond the great deal of wisdom and practical advice offered, Beeke and Thompson remind us it is Jesus, and Jesus alone, who will sustain us in His ministry to His people for His name’s sake. Praise be to God.