I had just come into my office on Monday morning after a long weekend of children's ministry and a big outreach event for families on Saturday. The event had gone well, and had taken lots of volunteers and planning, and I was exhausted, but in a good way. I sat down to my computer and opened my email, only to see an email from a volunteer come in. The title of the email was the name of the event. The email said that while the event was fun and a lot of people came, I needed to be aware the way we did prizes didn't work, the volunteers should have been organized differently, and the follow-up for new families wasn't done well. My heart immediately sank, and I felt myself getting defensive. I wanted to respond back with reasons why those weren't valid points or why we had done things the way we had, and I also wanted to say "Well if you think you can run the event better- YOU run it!"
But the Lord stopped me (thankfully). I decided not to respond right away while I thought over the feedback. If you've been in children's ministry any time at all, you've likely gotten your share of "feedback" from well-meaning people who have all kinds of ideas for how you should be doing things. Especially as a young leader, I was NOT good at handling criticism. Whether it was about the events, the way I ran the ministry, or even criticism about a piece of work I had created, I found myself getting upset and defensive, even crying and arguing with people.
Over the years, God has taught me a lot about how to handle criticism. Here are some things I've learned:
1. Think of criticism as feedback. When I started thinking of criticism as feedback instead of criticism, I recognized it could help me grow, rather than just discourage me. I learned not to take it personally, even if it feels personal. If the person giving the feedback is someone I trust and have a relationship with, I give them the benefit of the doubt and believe they're coming from a place of wanting to help, instead of wanting to tear me down. This is much easier said than done, but we cannot take criticism personally. We have to separate ourselves from the events and programming we lead. Just because something could have been done better, doesn't mean we are a failure.
2. Learn from it. Even if some of the criticism is actually not valid, there is almost always something we can learn from and grow from. The parts that aren't valid-- just ignore them and delete them. Especially anonymous criticism.
3. Embrace it and welcome it. It takes a truly secure, humble, and mature leader to ASK for criticism, welcome it, and embrace it. I'm still not good at welcoming criticism, but recognizing our weaknesses and places we can grow and improve makes us better leaders. Other people have different perspectives, and we can learn from them. Now, especially after large events, it's important to do a debriefing and evaluation or feedback survey. Give people and opportunity to respond with their feedback, and accept it all. Many times people will even be happy to have their opinions heard, even if you don't do everything they want you to do.
4. Accept that you can't please everyone. Being in children's ministry is especially challenging, because you have four groups of people to consider in everything you do: the kids, the volunteers, the parents, and your church team/leadership. Each of those groups is filled with people with different opinions and expectations. You can't make everyone happy all the time. There could be twenty different opinions about how something should be done. As someone who wants everyone to be happy all the time, this has been an especially difficult truth for me to accept. We might have people who disagree with us or don't like a decision, and that's okay. A mature leader can foster healthy relationships and respect even with those who disagree.
The biggest thing I've learned about criticism is not to get defensive when someone gives negative feedback or criticism. Look for the truth, learn from the feedback, and move forward. Don't get stuck in it or replay it in your head. Oftentimes, we may hear ten good comments about something, but it's the one negative remark that sticks with us. This is a stronghold the enemy uses to make us doubt ourselves. Every leader receives criticism. The good leaders have just learned how to embrace it, learn from it, and move forward.
So how did I respond to that email from the beginning? Even though my first instinct was to get upset and defensive, after taking some time to think about it and waiting before I responded, I thanked the person for the feedback, then I wrote it down and decided to make some real changes in the ministry because of the feedback. After that, I started issuing feedback surveys to all volunteers after every event, and I started welcoming feedback and constructive criticism. I started inviting people who disagree with me to come into conversations and share their opinions, because I learned it only helps me grow. If you can only hear the opinions of those who agree with you all the time, you will miss many opportunities for growth as a leader.