Growing up, I remember hearing my parents warn me: “If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.” This advice has served me well throughout my life, but it has been particularly helpful in ministry. I can't even begin to count the number of times I have had to refrain from saying something unkind or inconsiderate to someone who criticized me.
I remember the time I preached (as a young 20 year old Bible college student) at a church as a guest preacher and had an older gentlemen wait to talk to me so he could say, “You ended a sentence with a preposition. You aren't supposed to do that.” Then he walked away. No “good job” or “thanks for filling in for our pastor” or “thanks for pointing us to Christ.” Just a reprimand for ending a sentence with “to.”
That will bless you! That's what every young preacher needs: a grumpy old grammarian to correct his use of prepositions. I needed encouragement, and I got an English lesson.
Or I think of the time a parent yelled at me for showing a cartoon clip in a youth service. Apparently the characters had bad attitudes, and you aren't supposed to show video clips of cartoon characters with bad attitudes.
There was a time a guy tried to engage in a theological debate with me before I could even get down the stairs of the stage. And a time a grandmother was upset I left her granddaughter in the Wal-Mart parking lot, which would have been a reasonable response if I had left her daughter in the Wal-Mart parking lot! (I didn’t, but her grandmother still insists that I did).
You get the point. I've had to bite my tongue a lot.
The truth is, all of us in ministry must be careful about what we say, because our tongues are capable of terrible things. This is why James said:
“If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water” (James 3:5-12).
According to James, our tongues are small but powerful firemakers and untamable beasts. They are capable of great danger, and we must pursue maturity and seek to avoid stumbling with our words.
This is a constant challenge, because ministry involves being around people. These people will say foolish things. They will say offensive things. They will say things that are simply untrue. They will send hurtful emails. They will leave hateful voicemails. They will send discouraging text messages.
Bottom line: you will have plenty of opportunities to exercise self-control and to hold your tongue. Here are a few helpful suggestions on taming your tongue when people criticize you, your family, or your ministry:
1. Listen Carefully
One of the first steps to controlling your tongue is learning to listen. James said, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). We need to learn to listen before we answer questions or respond to criticisms. “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). Listen intently to the questions, criticisms, and objections of others. They may be wrong...but they may not be. Instead of going straight into defense mode, hear them through before responding.
2. Don't Respond Quickly
I think there is a direct correlation between the speed of the response time and the foolishness of the response. This is why James said to “be slow to speak” (James 1:19). The quicker we respond, the more likely it is we will say something we later regret. If you receive a critical e-mail, take some time to cool off and pray about the situation. I have punished my keyboard typing out a response many times, but thankfully I have learned to refrain from sending those quick responses. If it is a voicemail, wait to return it. If it is a text, ignore it for a little while. Take some time to cool off and think through your response. You will be glad you did!
3. Be Gracious
“Make your words sweet, because you may have to eat them someday.” Even if the other person is clearly in the wrong, speak with grace and kindness. We cannot control what other people say, but we can definitely control what we say and how we respond.
4. Stay Calm
Sometimes our voice rises with our blood pressure. We get upset or hurt, and our voice starts getting louder and louder. Our pride gets wounded, and our temper starts to flare. Do not let your pride or your emotions get the best of you. Stay calm and speak softly.
5. Avoid Sarcasm
This one can be tough. We hear a complaint or criticism or objection, and the temptation is to silence it with a quick-witted comment. To put them in their place with a sarcastic response. Avoid this temptation. It will probably hurt their feelings and make you look insensitive and insecure.
6. Have Tough Conversations in Person
At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I want to encourage you to refrain from responding to criticism, complaints, and challenges electronically. It can be tough to determine intentions and emotions in an e-mail or text message, and it is easy to have your tone and purpose misunderstood. So, sit down with the person and have the conversation face to face.
7. Have Tough Conversations in Private
If someone needs to be corrected or confronted, do so in private. Do not blast them from the stage or in a public setting. Set up a meeting and discuss the situation away from eyes and ears that do not need to know about the issue.
Certainly, a lot more can be said, but hopefully these steps have provided a good way of reflection in dealing with difficult messages and discouraging words. Handling criticism well is a way we can reflect the grace of God in our ministry and show others the patient forebearance the Lord has shown us.