Knowing how to handle the five different kinds of burning criticism can stop and maybe even reverse burnout in ministry.
“Maybe I’m not called to children’s ministry after all.”
“I’ve tried my best, but this isn’t for me.”
“Where did I go wrong?”
You may not have actually uttered these words, but they might sound familiar. Perhaps a parent pointed out something he feels you did drastically wrong. Or a team member shared with the leadership team her concerns about the direction your program’s headed.
Criticism brings an entire range of feelings that can slowly burn out your energy level and passion—and eventually your ministry. When you step back and reflect on the feelings that led to the previous statements, you find yourself asking, What happened? When I started in this role, I had energy even the youth pastor couldn’t surpass. Where did it go?
How to Handle 5 Types of Criticism That Lead to Burnout
Thoughts about hanging it up typically aren’t sudden realizations about your success in ministry. Though usually ignited by one event or one critical comment, these thoughts are the result of a slow-burning process over months or years. And that slow burn is often fueled by criticism from the most well-meaning individuals in your church. And the actual delivery of the criticism is usually more difficult to handle than the issue itself. You need practical ways to handle the different—and inevitable—negative criticism from staff members, leaders, parents, and even children in your ministry. Knowing how to handle the five different kinds of burning agents can stop and maybe even reverse burnout in ministry.
Burnout-Causing Criticism #1: Fireworks
Too much change too fast resulted in fireworks for Larry Shallenberger, an author and retired children’s pastor in Erie, Pennsylvania. During his first year on the job, he changed the children’s curriculum, without training his leaders on the educational philosophy behind the change. As a result, one woman criticized the ministry to other leaders. Shallenberger admits he probably deserved the criticism because of his rookie mistake.
“However,” says Shallenberger, “her criticism was particularly harmful because it was never directed to me.”
Fireworks are the most common criticism because they’re easiest for critics to perpetrate behind your back, garnering support against you. They can be most dangerous because they often lead to an explosion. Fireworks get your attention, but they get everyone else’s attention, too. Critics who choose this method of delivery tend to put on a show, though maybe not intentionally. As a result, many hear criticism about you that should’ve been directed to you. And when fireworks ignite, they can burn down the energy of an entire ministry or church.
Next time there’s a fireworks display of criticism in your ministry, try these methods to stop the show.
Step up and take control. When you learn who’s behind the fireworks, have an immediate conversation. Sincerely try to understand the concerns. Shallenberger says his situation taught him to “find the persistently vocal critic and sit down and have a pointed conversation about the issues.”
“There’s almost always something to learn from a critic,” says Shallenberger. “The worst-case scenario is that you’ve got an opportunity to practice graciousness.”
Use this opportunity to learn something about your ministry, your leadership, even your grace. You may even learn that direct communication in your ministry needs work. Encourage people to bring issues directly to you rather than sharing them.
Keep communication private.
Though tempting, the worst way to handle fireworks is to set off your own competing show. When you’re dealing with a vocal critic, no one else needs to know. Deal directly with the critic; don’t discuss your thoughts about the situation with others.
Burnout-Causing Criticism #2: Low Heat
Any good casserole that’s left in the oven too long—even when the heat is low—will turn into dry rubber. Likewise, not all criticism comes in the form of loud explosions that burn you on impact. Subtle criticism can slowly burn out any leader over time.
Your senior pastor doesn’t give positive feedback on your big Fall Festival. A teacher complains her kids aren’t learning anything with the new curriculum you chose. This criticism is subtle and hard to pin down. Low heat is the most difficult criticism to handle because you may not realize until too late that you’re completely burned out.
Extinguishing Low Heat
If you wake up one day and feel like never returning to your job, you may have experienced long-term low heat. There’s typically no trigger—it’s just the buildup of subtle criticism over a long time. These tips will help you handle the slow burn of low heat.
Write it down.
You may not remember all the critical comments that brought you to burnout point. They’re too subtle. So each time you feel criticized for something, write the situation on paper. Also, write down one thing you can learn from it and one positive thing about your gifts and skills as a leader. Then forget it. You’ve learned from it, now move on.
Take time away from the heat.
You can handle a little low heat—as long as you have a break. Just get out of the office for a while to think objectively about the situation. Go for coffee with a friend. Do something that makes you feel good about yourself.
Ask for validation.
If someone offers criticism, it’s okay to ask for a dose of positive feedback, too. If a child says, “This lesson is boring,” ask kids what they like about it. It’s important to know what you’re doing right so you can work on areas of improvement.
Approach your leader.
It’s possible there’s merit to what people are saying. Have a conversation with your leader. It’s more positive to proactively address widespread complaints than to continue absorbing negativity. And if you discover that blanket complaints are part of a deeper spiritual issue in your church, work with your leader to use that as an opportunity to help people grow.
Burnout-Causing Criticism #3: Freezer Burn
Inter-staff criticism is freezer burn. That’s because it’s an oxymoron: Something can get burned…in the freezer? It’s true. The same goes for criticism. Scorching criticism can come from an unlikely place: your support network. This criticism is difficult to hear because it’s from those who are supposed to believe in you most.
Gerri Baker, connections pastor at East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, says support-network criticism is the most difficult to handle.
“Staff members need to be supportive of each other—no matter what,” Gerri says. “And if there’s a legitimate concern, they should come to you in person.”
Defrosting Freezer Burn
Freezer burn presents a delicate situation because you’re dealing with close personal and professional relationships. Consider these points as you deal with this frustrating form of criticism.
Address critical issues.
You trust your support network to handle concerns with you directly and in a professional and supportive manner. If someone in your network isn’t playing by those rules, address it personally. Emphasize your reliance on the person’s support to continue to help children effectively grow.
Ask follow-up questions.
Even if your critic doesn’t offer suggestions in the most positive way, your overall support network has your best interests at heart. Ask non-defensive questions to get to the core of criticism and learn what you can do about it.
Face the truth.
Because it’s coming from your support network, there’s probably a nugget of truth. These people know you better than anyone. So it’s a good idea to listen.
Burnout-Causing Criticism #4: Afterburners
High-speed jets are equipped with devices designed to burn exhaust gases, leaving burnt fumes behind as jets fly out of sight. These afterburners can leave bystanders scorched after the jet is long gone. Also known as the hit-and-run method, afterburners shock before they hurt, and the effects are long-lasting.
Perhaps you’ve been singed by critical messages from someone who quickly retreats. An email from a volunteer who didn’t appreciate how you handled an issue. A voicemail from a parent angry about a lesson. These critical messages leave you dumbfounded and tempt you to respond in a hit-and-run manner, too.
It’s easy to become an afterburner when you’ve been the victim of one. These more effective tactics will help next time you’re burnt by a passing jet.
You’ve probably been here before: You get a critical email and you immediately mutter, “Oh, I’ll show her,” as you pound out an immediate reply. After you hit send, you realize most of your reply was in reaction to the critic’s tone rather than the message behind the email.
Shallenberger reminds us to “never become reactionary or escalate.” Wait it out, then respond. A good rule is to divert your attention to a happier task before returning to respond to an afterburner.
Don’t respond defensively. Consider the validity behind the criticism. In an article in Children’s Ministry Professional Edition, Bill Anderson, children’s and family pastor, advised, “Remove all emotions from the situation and ask, Is this criticism valid? If you can honestly say it’s not, then dismiss it.” But first remove emotions, or you could miss an important growth opportunity.
Respond in person.
Address the critic in person. If that’s impossible, then use a phone. But, at all costs, avoid the written word.
Baker warns, “You should never write something by email or letter, even if that’s the quickest way to communicate. These forms of communication can’t convey the good heart behind your message, and it’s always misconstrued somehow.” Remember, you’re not looking for fast; you’re looking for effective.
Burnout-Causing Criticism #5: Self-Burn
It’s the moment when you think, I should’ve known better. It’s the phrases at the beginning of this article. When you let yourself think these things, you start believing them. The result: self-burn.
Self-burn can be difficult to detect because it’s self-talk and self-concept. But it can take the same toll as an afterburner or fireworks.
First, learn to recognize it when you’re using negative self-talk. That means you constantly blame or find fault with yourself. Use these reminders to conquer this tendency.
You can’t make everyone happy.
So don’t try. If you constantly strive for perfection, disappointment will quickly follow every time. The Bible tells us to be excellent, not perfect. God will take care of the perfection. Just serve him with every gift and skill you have. God’s Spirit will do the rest.
Keep notes of encouragement.
Baker says past encouragement is how she gets through criticism.
“I have a file of encouragement that has notes from over the years thanking me,” she says. “Reading these somehow will help heal the ‘ouches’ from time to time.”
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