Four Occasions When You Should Not Respond to a Critic

If you are a leader, you will be criticized. If you are not being criticized, you are probably not a leader. The issue is not whether or not you will be the subject of criticism; the greater issue is how you should respond.

As a general rule, leaders should respond to criticism. I do my best to do so, or at that very least, ask someone in my organization to respond. Critics, more often than not, deserve a response. They need to hear from the leader who can give them his or her perspective. They need to hear from a leader in the event the response can be an opportunity for reconciliation.

But there are times when leaders should not respond to critics. These times are rare, and should be the subject of prayer and counsel. Nehemiah is a biblical character that is often used to define principles of leadership. Look at this passage from Nehemiah 6:2-4. See how Nehemiah, in this case, chose not to respond to a persistent critic.

“Sanballet and Geshem sent me a message: ‘Come let’s meet together in the valley.’ But they were planning to harm me. So I sent messengers to them, saying, ‘I am doing a great work and cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?’ Four times they sent me the same proposal, and I gave them the same reply.” (HCSB)

Nehemiah offers us both biblical and practical principles about those rare occasions when you shouldn’t respond to critics.

  1. When you have already repeatedly responded. For some critics, a response is not sufficient. They will not stop until they have gotten their way. There comes a point where further communication becomes an exercise in futility. It’s time to move on and do “the great work.”
  2. When the critic intends harm. An occasional critic is not so much interested in communicating his or her issue as causing you harm. Their issue is not actually the issue. They want you hurt in some way. Further communication will only cause problems.
  3. When the critic will not reason. Many critics have very valid points. Whether we agree or disagree, we need to listen to their perspective. Other critics simply want to rant. There is rarely a good outcome when meeting with the very unreasonable and ranting critic.
  4. When the criticism becomes an ad hominem attack. An ad hominem attack takes place when a person attacks your character. The issue is peripheral, and is only used to assail you personally. There is often no need to deal with the critic because he or she really doesn’t care about the issue.

Criticism is painful for most leaders. It is for me. But most criticisms are good for leaders. We can learn from our critics, and we can grow as leaders. But there are a few times when we simply should not respond. In those cases, any response only exacerbates something that is already bad.

Sometimes we need to be like Nehemiah. Continue our work and ignore the critic.

photo credit: jontintinjordan via photopin cc


  1. Ken Jerome says

    Thom, This is very helpful, most of the time we need to listen to our critics. Sometimes they are correct in their thinking. But, sometimes they are only out to harm and not help. Agendas make for criticisms, The letters, the phone calls and personal visits from people who will not reason are the most difficult.
    Thanks for your continued support of the people in the field.
    and Thanks for coming to Arkansas last week, your message was on target, and from the heart. I learned and was encouraged from both of your messages.

  2. John Belder says

    Thom, very good advice indeed. Criticism is not always a bad thing. Often those of us receiving criticism fall into the same errors – being unreasonable, repeating ourselves until we get our way, harming our critics, and even atttacking their character.
    Respectfully asking the tough questions is not a bad thing. It’s when you can’t answer them properly that issues arise.
    Thanks for your daily posts. Always enjoyable reading before I start my day:)

  3. says

    Thom, as usual you are right on target. Yes, we should listen and maybe learn, but just be aware that Satan often uses critics to distract us from the ‘great work’ God wants us to focus on. Also, we should at least pray for the critics in our lives that God will use them in positive ways.

  4. John says

    Considering my past two weeks this is so timely and appreciated. It validates some of my current thoughts on the situation and has given me some enlightenment on how to proceed in the days ahead. As always, your post has greatly educated and encouraged this pastor.

  5. says

    In the early years at my current pastorate I was approached by two women with a very long hand written list of criticisms/complaints. It was hard to do but I sat with them and listened to each item on the list. Then I went over them one-by-one and replied to each in one of three ways. 1) It never happened and is therefore not an issue. 2) It happened and I apologized and promised to do better. 3) It happened and until I get new insight it will continue to happen. We prayed together and I worked on what I could change and they stayed with us.

  6. says

    Thank you for this. #3 is so true.

    I once had a Theological critic. I listened, met with him and responded a number of times. But when I finally asked him to respond some humongous flaws in this Theology, he only resorted to personal attacks. At that point, I let him know that I was no longer going to respond to him, unless he apologized and agreed to speak with civility. I set up his emails to automatically forward to a friend of mine, who will only pass them on to me if there is an apology. I had to be able to clear my mine of it. It was dominating my thoughts.

    After 5 years, he has still not responded appropriately.

  7. says

    Great word, brother. This may sound crazy but I keep a “rebuke report” journal in which I write quotes from my critics. I can reflect on their words later when the emotions have cleared and perhaps find that they were correct. It is also helpful for tracking commonly assumed weaknesses that others see in me. I laugh now at some of the older entries. Some of them are quotes from people who later revealed their difficult hearts in other more public ways.

  8. Thomas Bounds says

    Thom, Thank you for these insights. Criticism is so much a part of ministry it ought to be listed somehow in the compensation package. It catches you off guard at the beginning of ministry, but how you learn to deal with it plays a powerful role in the success of one’s remaining ministry. I admit many years into ministry I’m still learning how to effectively deal with critics and their offerings, although I think I’m better than I was. Thank you for another helpful step along my journey.

  9. says

    I would add a fifth. “When the critic sites ‘un-named sources’. ‘People have been saying this about _____’, is an underhanded way most critics have of lending the weight of public opinion to their own complaint.” It is the critic’s responsibility in Christ to assist people that gossip about their pastor’s performance to bring this directly to him. I have doubted, however, whether those “Un-named sources” actually exist.

  10. Drew Dabbs says

    Dr. Rainer,
    What about the persistent critic who never criticizes you to your face but chooses to say critical things about you to other church members, instead? This seems a fairly common issue in churches, and I wondered if you have plans to address it in an upcoming post. We all know they’re out there. We receive those criticisms via a third party who typically means well. Personally, I’d rather hear it straight from the horse’s mouth or not at all. Two things about this bother me. First, the critic doesn’t have the guts to speak directly to the pastor. Second, the well-meaning third party doesn’t have the guts to stand up to the critic.

    • Melody says

      If they meant well then they would rebuke the person for talking about you behind your back. Otherwise it is no different than what girls do in high school running back and forth keeping dissension stirred up while claiming to be the ally.

  11. Dave Abberger says

    Excellent post! Because each individual is unique, each criticism is unique and hard to assess at times! Those were very scriptural and insightful principles and I needed them! Thank you.

  12. Bob says

    Thanks Thom. I’ve used Nehemiah as one prominent leader to learn from in many ways. It is good to know how Nehemiah responded to his critics and didn’t respond to criticism…wisdom is knowing if or when I should respond and how is a huge part of it. Something I am continuing to learn even after 30+ years of ministry.

  13. Denise says

    …and sometimes it feels like people just criticize because they are analytical and that is how they are wired; they do not necessarily mean their comment(s) to be critical, yet helpful. We met after church yesterday as lay readers. The sermon had been about the need for Jesus, our role as the church, and how this is a matter of life and death. A person at the meeting starting making “suggestions” as to the flow of the Worship Service to our new pastor. Instead of focusing on the subject of their role as a Lay Reader, they kept coming back to the Worship Service itself, which is the pastor’s responsibility. Their comments were addressed, yet they wouldn’t let it go. We had just finished hearing about how people are dying, and she was worried about moving the Service, and getting it done faster. I think this small example speaks to the need of people for Christ in a similar way that the sermon did.

  14. says

    Just read Matthew 27 this morning about the comments that people were making about Jesus while He hung on the cross. Jesus stayed true to His purpose and Gods will in response to the voices of His critics. I sometimes want to let critics have it, give them an earful of “how dare you…” In seeing the response of Christ (silence) on the cross to His critics and this article today, I’m encouraged.

  15. Marie says

    Working as a pastor’s assistant, I find your posts extremely helpful. Sadly, there are a few wolves in sheep’s clothing in our midst currently engaging in slander and gossip about our pastor. My husband and I fully support our pastor, so I knew it would be long before I was included. My husband gave me the same advice- ignore it.

    In reality, when you don’t respond, you are giving their lies over to God and saying “please defend me”. I pray Psalm 35 for my pastor.

  16. says

    Great stuff…. and I’d also offer that on occasion the Holy Spirit Himself will whisper a word of direction on this. In the past month alone, I’ve gone to reply to a few different emails or social media posts and felt a divine hesitation in my fingers. I held back, sensing this was a Spirit-led thing. As it turned out, in every situation the critic’s character was revealed – but it wouldn’t have if I’d gotten into a back-and-forth on it. Keep in mind, my theology isn’t charismatic… I’m just trying to let Him do His thing.

    I don’t know who said it, but they summed it up well in stating “He who throws mud loses ground.”

  17. Pastor Mark Street says

    Thanks Bro. Tom! Outstanding and practical advice! An effective leader must know when to respond and when not to respond.

  18. says

    When I was a very young girl, I remember a pastor saying that in every criticism there is a grain of truth. He said to look for that grain, ask God to help you deal with it, and then forget the rest. This made a tremendous impression on me and I have tried to remember it whenever I am being criticized. It has helped me grow as well as helped me be more compassionate toward my critics.
    Your article contains great advice. Thank you.

  19. Dale Porter says

    Criticism really hurts but I understand that some critics can help all of us to grow and become better leaders. Thanks for the statement that if we as leaders do not have criticism then we are not leading. i guess I needed to hear/read that. I made a decision the latter part of last year to give up a position (I prayed and I have peace about it) due to a critic that no matter what I shared about what they thought was wrong the criticism continued. Furthermore, the issue dealt with finances. Moreover, the issue is almost 2 years old now. My conscious is clear and I am glad that I made the decision to leave the post. But I will remember when I get into the situation again i believe that I can hang in there, face the situation, and make sure that I hear God clearly on how the manner needs to be handled.

  20. Ruth A Cook says

    And then there is always the situation when the leader has acted against God’s teachings, but that was ok by him- because such behavior was the means to end that the leader wanted to achieve.
    We have all been there-as a leader or victim-and God will have to be the judge of what we did or what was done to us.
    Leadership is a solemn responsibility.. God is not mocked.

  21. Bernard says

    Hello Thom, How should I respond to a critic who made it a point to send me an email a week before my premiere of a glowing review he gave a rival dance company. Then made a point to email me personally a scathing review calling my dance company 3rd rate

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *