Here is something I’ve learned during my time in ministry: no matter what a church does, it can never please 100 percent of its congregants. Even if Jesus himself were to come back to Earth and plant a local church, there would still be multiple members of his congregation who’d be vocally unhappy with his direction and leadership.
Maybe I’m a bit cynical, but one thing that everyone in youth ministry is bound to encounter sooner or later is criticism. I’m not talking about criticism of you or the youth ministry you serve in— I’m talking about criticism of your church as a whole.
There might be parents, volunteers, or maybe even staff members who will come up to you and voice serious complaints about how your church is being led. Sometimes this type of criticism is healthy, sometimes it’s not. Either way, it’s critically important that we respond to said criticism properly because our integrity is often at stake in these moments.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about properly responding in these situations.
Listen, listen, listen. Before you open your mouth, make every possible effort to ensure you are accurately hearing what the other person is saying. Be sure you understand what their complaint is and why they are making it. This will help you determine an appropriate response
Don’t get defensive. This is a tip I need to hear constantly. I love the church I work at and am so proud of the direction it’s going. So during the times I’ve heard someone grumbling about how they disagree with the decisions of our leadership, I immediately get emotional and want to go on the defensive. I want to say things like, “You need to check your heart” or “You clearly don’t understand the reasons a church exists.” Don’t turn a criticism into an argument. Be ready to explain the values your church holds dear, but do it in love and gentleness.
Don’t encourage or vocally agree with the criticism. I recognize that it’s a blessing to serve at a church you love. Some of you are part of churches that are in very unhealthy places. You may also not have the best relationship with your senior pastor for various reasons. Even so, as a youth leader, you are a representative of your entire church and fanning the flame of criticism is not the right way to express your concern or resentment. Just as importantly, you never want to accidentally or intentionally involve your students in church politics or factions. Pray for your church. Meet with your higher-ups privately. If necessary, look for another church home. But don’t be an instigator or a martyr. That’s not your place.
Don’t get discouraged. You might have superstar volunteers walk away from your ministry because they disagree with the direction of your church. You may have students who start attending the youth ministry down the road because their parents are unhappy with something your leadership is doing. When this stuff happens, it’s real easy to take it personally and get down on yourself— especially if you’re a people-pleaser like me. In these moments, it’s important to remember the big picture. As long as you put your ministry in God’s hands, he is going to work. You cannot control what other people do, but you can control how you respond when people disappoint you. We talk a lot in the church world about doing and being proactive. But it’s often your moments of reaction that truly define and develop your leadership.
Taylor Bird is the Director of Middle School Ministry at Southwest Church in Indian Wells, CA. He has been serving in youth ministry for just over four years.