By Eddie Lowen
My family keeps in touch almost exclusively by text message, so only a small percentage of our communication is by phone call. But when my wife or children do call me, I nearly always answer. If I’m in a meeting or a conversation, I excuse myself to take the call.
Years ago, I allowed those calls to go to voicemail because I wanted to be “professional” in my work. I later concluded that was a misplaced priority. I’ve decided it’s more important to be a reliable husband and dad than a perfect employee, so I always answer calls from my wife and kids. I extend similar access to a few close friends and a small circle of key leaders from my church.
When I receive a phone call from someone outside that circle of people, my smartphone prods me to accept or ignore it. It’s just a high-tech way to not answer the phone. It’s the digital way to “let the answering machine get it.”
If you’ve called me recently, only to hear my voicemail greeting, now you know why. If that upsets you, call me.
The Criticism Circle
If you’re a leader—and especially if you’re the key leader of a church or ministry—I recommend a similar strategy for responding to criticism: always accept criticism from people in your circle of trust—but ignore it when it comes from anyone else.
If you try to give a fair hearing to every critic, you’ll drive yourself crazy and spend valuable time in unproductive ways. Do this: draw a relatively small circle in which you place the people from whom you will always treat concerns and criticism seriously: your spouse, your children, your church’s elders, your closest friends, your supervisor, and that handful of people who always seem to speak wisdom into your life.
It’s important to include people you directly supervise because they know you better than you realize. They know how power affects you. They know how you behave when you’re not trying to impress someone.
The people you place inside your circle must be characterized by two traits: love and wisdom. They must care about you, and they must have a habit of getting things right. If they lack either quality, do not let them inside your criticism circle. Why? Because with this approach, you obligate yourself to humbly hear every concern brought by those inside the circle. That’s the only way it can work.
To use the criticism circle well, you must communicate openly with those inside it. They have to know you genuinely welcome their input. They need to hear you promise not to retaliate when they bring a concern to you about you. The stronger your personality (and the more loyalty you expect from those around you), the more crucial it is to protect those who dare to confront you—from you!
Most of us allow volunteer critics (those outside the circle) easy access to us. Ironically, we think little of compliments that come from a distance, but obsess over criticism that comes from far away. A professional athlete admitted, “My heart can somehow hear one ‘boo’ among 40,000 cheers.” When critics call, we tend to answer. We allow their words to dominate our thoughts. We try in vain to change their minds.
In my experience, most criticism isn’t rational or fact-based, so responding with reason rarely helps. That’s not to say criticism from strangers is always inaccurate. But, usually, outside-the-circle criticism emerges from immature attitudes, false assumptions, and unreasonable expectations.
Criticism can be especially debilitating for people in church leadership. Here’s why: critics seem to have all the power in the church because they can poison the well. They can undermine our influence, question our motives, diminish our effectiveness, and (in some churches) endanger our jobs. I’ve wondered if it’s too strong a metaphor, but I believe chronic criticism is a form of terrorism. In social and political realms, terrorists gain power through destabilization. That’s what critics attempt to do in the church. The weapon is criticism.
Nehemiah’s Circle of Criticism
In Nehemiah 6, the wall around Jerusalem was being repaired rapidly. The gaps were closing, and the enemies of the project were becoming desperate. Earlier, critics ridiculed Nehemiah and his followers for attempting to restore the wall around the city’s perimeter. But when Nehemiah began to succeed, his enemies stepped up the attacks.
Nehemiah wrote, “Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: ‘Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono’” (6:2).
Sometimes the answer to a dilemma is obvious. When someone asks you to meet them at the Plain of Ono, the best answer is, “Oh, no!” Nehemiah said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Look, dude, I’m leading an important project. I won’t be distracted by your gripes!”
Nehemiah had great instincts and tons of common sense. He had also worked very closely with the capable king of a vast empire, a leader who was forced to manage complex circumstances and devious people. Nehemiah knew Sanballat and company wanted only to distract him—or worse. They sent four separate messages requesting that Nehemiah meet with them. The pressure increased with each invitation. Four times, Nehemiah was forced to say, “Oh, no” to a meeting at Ono.
The next communiqué from Sanballat sounds like it was written by an eighth-grade busybody from junior high school. Sanballat plays the card that every determined critic eventually plays. He cites “they.” You know “they,” don’t you?
In verses 6 and 7, Sanballat writes, “It is reported among the nations—and Geshem says it is true—that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’ Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us confer together.” They are talking.
Sanballat says (another paraphrase), “The whole world is talking about how you want to depose the king, Nehemiah. And, by the way, my loyal cohort (Geshem) confirms that this is being said (because he is saying it). Nehemiah, you and I had better discuss this before the king catches wind of it.”
This is textbook critic-terrorism: start a rumor, spread it, and then offer to help resolve it. Shrewd critics know how to gain a seat at the bargaining table. It’s never good when your enemy becomes your mediator.
That’s when Nehemiah draws a clear circle around himself. There were people to whom Nehemiah was willing to listen. In other passages, Nehemiah responds to complaints, seeks advice, and elevates other leaders for the good of the people. However, Sanballat is not inside Nehemiah’s circle of criticism. Nehemiah recognizes the impurity of Sanballat’s motives.
Nehemiah demonstrates how the criticism circle works by providing his response to Sanballat’s threat-wrapped-in-a-concern: “I sent him this reply: ‘Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head’” (6:8). The following verse makes it clear Nehemiah viewed all of Sanballat’s messages and maneuvers as a form of terrorism: “They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed’” (6:9).
We need to learn from this. Raise up leaders in your church who can see this stuff coming. It may take years to instill this understanding in your leadership culture, but once it is present, you’ll spend more energy building God’s kingdom and less pacifying critics.
Eddie Lowen serves as lead minister with West Side Christian Church in Springfield, Illinois, and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.