Every pastor, at some point in their ministry, will encounter criticism. However, how a person responds to criticism is not necessarily something that happens naturally wholesome. Joel R. Beeke and Nick Thompson, in their new book, Pastors and their Critics: A Guide to Coping with Criticism in the Ministry, discuss a common but unaddressed problem that is unfortunately pervasive within the church today. They aim to speak to the question of how one should respond to destructive criticism toward the pastor. They address the problem in four parts, setting first a biblical foundation, then writing on practical principles for coping, and then giving constructive criticism, while lastly giving an idea on how to cast a theological vision for criticism. The book is accessibly written and rooted in biblical truth while also being unfortunately wise due to the authors’ years of experience weathering the storms of criticism in ministry.
Dr. Beeke brings a vast amount of pastoral experience as well as having authored a plethora of ministry-related books. Though brief compared to many of Dr. Beeke’s other works, this book still packs much in terms of wisdom and counsel into its smaller size. Nick Thompson, a candidate for ordination in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a graduate of Puritan Reformed Seminary, is a capable coauthor and contributes excellently to the appendix both on the need and tools for preparing for criticism while still in seminary.
The book is broken down into four parts, the first being laying out a biblical theology of destructive criticism. Starting with the Old Testament and the first criticism of God by the serpent in the garden, the authors trace the misuse of criticism through the Bible, ending in the second chapter with the Christological foundations for coping with criticism. “He suffered for me, and now I will suffer this criticism for Him. God has vindicated His Son, and God will vindicate me one day as well” (p. 42). Dr. Beeke emphasizes that Christ was unworthy of the criticism he bore, yet he still received it in grace; how much more as pastors who are sinners should weather criticism and therefore resemble Christ. This beginning biblical foundation helps establish a view on criticism that is graceful while also showing the relatability of Jesus to the situation of difficult criticism. Often the Bible is not utilized at the foundation of books on leadership and emotional issues, Dr. Beeke’s book starts refreshingly different.
Part two deals with the practical and spiritual ways of coping with destructive criticism focusing on the idea that, “As pastors, we not only can expect criticism – we need it” (p. 61)! Beeke and Thompson lay out a challenging but effective guide on the four ways a pastor should respond to criticism realistically, humbly, with sober judgment, and in grace. “Though we do not embrace all criticism as true, we need to embrace all critics with grace” (p. 113). The second section is the most significant chunk of the book and is extremely helpful in the pastor’s response to criticism. The book is excellent in teaching how to handle criticism in a Christ-like manner, rather than defaulting to the temptation to ignore it merely. Beeke and Thompson strive throughout the book to see one’s self as who they truly are, a sinner found in the beauty of God’s grace. Therefore, the pastor’s response is one of humility, one that does not listen to every objection but learning instead that “coping with criticism in the ministry requires a healthy reckoning with reality” (p. 55). A reality in which pastors are just as much saved by grace as those who are spewing the negative criticism. Throughout this section, the time-tested ministry of the author is exposed as someone who has not been without harsh criticism in his life. His responses show a humble heart, and at times appreciative of criticism and how it shapes him professionally and spiritually.
In part three, after addressing the way to handle destructive criticism, the authors give two chapters on giving Christ-focused and constructive criticism to others. The authors lay out three characteristics that a person should have to give criticism well: ethos, pathos, and logos. These three helpful categories help identify and shape the heart of the criticism giver by giving practical yet spiritual advice of the nature of the criticism to give. In ethos, “We must be men of integrity” (p. 123), in pathos, “criticism is best carried out in the context of a ministry of encouragement” (p. 128), and in logos, “word choice is a critical element of constructive criticism” (p. 132)—all this, with the goal of always giving criticism to build up the body of Christ. The authors sum this up by giving the wise warning, “pastors, we must beware of Christless criticism” (131). Chapter eight leads naturally into a section where the authors formulate this into a vision for the church. It is evident that the author has experience in receiving harsh criticism and giving constructive criticism well. Chapters seven and eight are written from someone who has not bungled all of his interactions and then is writing a book on what not to do, but a pastor who has carefully weighed the cost and done criticism well in his ministry.
The last part, a singular chapter, finishes the book nicely by laying out an encompassing survey of a theological view of criticism for life. As typical of Beeke, his end goal is not a sharp vindication of his critics but a grand vision of God’s glory in ministry. He writes this in the final pages, “Brothers, strive in dependence upon the Spirit to daily seek after a more expansive vision of God’s mind-renewing glory in His Word” (p. 154). He accomplishes his goal of practical ways to address criticism in his book exceedingly well. While also drawing the reader back to the heart of ministry, the desire to exalt the glories of God in Christ.
The authors not only handle the topic of criticism with skill but with wisdom, helping pastors and ministry leaders see the glorious labor of sanctification within the mines of destructive criticism. This book would be helpful, especially for anyone in a ministry role who could or is experiencing both destructive and constructive criticism.
Editor’s Note: This book review was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of the Midwestern Journal of Theology.