This past Saturday, I had a long phone chat with a young friend whom I greatly admire. Jessica * and her husband are serving in their very first pastoral position out east. They love their new church family and have eagerly plunged into the fray of ministry, expending themselves gladly on behalf of those they serve.
But Jess has recently found herself reeling a bit in the face of criticism from members of their congregation – complaints directed at her, the unpaid member of the team, rather than her husband. Words of concern that she spoke lovingly into others’ lives were misunderstood, twisted, and reported to senior leadership rather than directly to her.
How do you cope with criticism without getting burned?
October is National Fire Protection Month, and as Jess and I spoke I thought of the three-point advice my kids were given by their schoolteachers in the unlikely event that their clothes ever caught fire: stop, drop, and roll.
When Mike and I were in our first pastoral position, it occurred to me that this simple concept might help me “handle the heat” as well. Blasts of criticism, whether anticipated or not, can shatter the happiest of times. Our hands tremble when we put down the letter or hang up the phone. Food loses its appeal or becomes overly important. Like the endless loop on an old audio cassette, our minds replay certain conversations over and over. We remember. We brood. We create elaborate imaginary rebuttals in defense of our wounded egos.
No one likes to get burned – particularly by people who are significant in our world. When exposed to the heat of human disapproval our first instinct is to respond in one of two ways: we “toughen up,” assuming a defensive posture to protect ourselves, or we melt – capitulating to the demands of our accuser.
A friend sat with me over breakfast one morning decades ago listening to my recital of the ways in which I was trying to conform to the image of the perfect pastor’s wife.
“Maggie,” she finally interrupted, “are you carrying the donkey?”
The phrase, Shirley explained, comes from an old story about an elderly man and a young boy who were leading a donkey. When mocked by the first passerby for not using the beast in a more practical fashion, the old man hoisted the boy atop the donkey.
The second person to pass them on their journey, however, scolded the boy for riding while the old man walked, so the two switched places. Predictably, the next passerby scorned the adult for making a child walk, so the boy climbed back atop the donkey to join his grandfather.
When vilified by those they passed next for making the poor beast carry such a heavy burden, the two climbed off. The final traveler to pass the pair greeted them not with harsh words but with hilarity, for now the old man and the young boy were carrying the donkey.
Our sometimes frantic efforts to conform to others’ expectations can be just this exhausting. But is it wrong to want to be liked, to have people think favorably of us?
Scripture contains a pointed warning: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26).
In the next couple weeks, I’ll be sharing more on this topic, including steps I’ve learned that have helped me filter criticism in a redemptive way.
But for now I’ll leave you with this question: are you carrying a donkey today?
*Not her real name