Three Reasons Criticism Can Lead to Ministry Burnout

This is the first in a three-part series addressing the topic of criticism. In this week’s post, Chad Hall discusses the connection between criticism and burnout. In forthcoming posts, he will provide insight into how to receive criticism, as well as how to give constructive feedback.  This series originally appeared as an article in the fall 2016 issue of Western Magazine.

Ministry is a rich and rewarding vocation—until it’s not.  For most of the ministry leaders I know, any idyllic notions they had of life as a pastor lasted about three weeks into their call.  The honeymoon phase of ministry ends and real life sets in as the tide of warm smiles and kind compliments goes out, leaving behind rocks of criticism and complaint. If you’re lucky in ministry life you will be buoyed along with enough compliments and encouragement, only occasionally experiencing the pain that comes from stepping on a sharp rock of criticism. If you’re not so lucky, you’ll grimace with every step because overly critical people litter your way with painful remarks and sharp jabs.

Criticism is a part of any minister’s life, but it’s also a reality. Research shows that criticism plays a significant role in ministry malaise. Pastors are quitting at rates higher than ever before, and some of those who don’t leave the pastorate are far more miserable than many church members can imagine. Criticism has a lot to do with ministry misery and eventual burnout.

It would be nice if criticisms did little harm, if we could just let them roll off like water from a duck’s back as some of my Southern friends like to say. But it’s not that easy. In fact, there are three specific reasons criticism often leads to burnout.

First, criticism lingers.

When we receive criticism, we basically go through a variation of the stressful stages of grief: shock, anger, denial, and finally acceptance. Hearing a criticism is not just painful in the moment; criticisms pile up and continue doing harm by keeping us in a stressful state. I have a coaching client in the federal government whose boss fires a dart of criticism at him every few weeks. Just as the pain from one criticism begins to heal over, his boss opens the wound back up with a fresh critique, a harsh word, or a judgment that seems out of line. Each new criticism seems to find company with all the others he’s received.

For whatever reason, most people carry around criticism far longer than they do words of encouragement. Like spent fuel rods from a nuclear power plant, words of criticism have a long half-life and remain toxic long after we think we’ve buried them. So today’s criticism gets added to the pile of criticisms from days, weeks, and years gone by, and can renew the pain of those old hurts. All of this criticism from others eventually takes on the voice of the internal critic: that perpetual voice of shame, blame, judgment, and hurt.

Second, criticism has a spiritual aspect.

God designed humans to be social beings who thrive in relationship to one another, but criticism can cause us to question those connections. As we’re reminded in Genesis, it is not good for man to be alone. When a friend, family member, or co-worker finds fault with us or something we’ve done, we experience the criticism as a type of rejection resulting in aloneness. Deep down we all want to know that we are accepted and loved; criticism causes us to question our acceptance and doubt whether we belong.

In his provocative book The Soul of Shame, psychologist Curt Thompson describes shame as a powerfully painful emotional response to being criticized and judged. Yet this pain is more than just an emotion; it is a weapon in the hands of a spiritual enemy. Whether the criticism we receive is warranted or not, the enemy whispers a reinterpretation of that criticism with the “intention to dismantle us as individuals and communities and destroy all of God’s creation” (p. 12).

Third, we are poor judges of reality.

Criticism is not just painful; it can also cause confusion because we are often not sure whether to accept or reject it. We can get thrown into a spiritual and psychological tailspin when we debate the merits of a critic’s words. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish feedback from criticism.

I have a client in the software industry whose colleague told him he was too aloof and that he needed to hang out with the rest of the team more often.  My client isn’t sure whether his colleague is offering good advice or self-centered criticism. He said he knows the comment was painful, but it’s not clear if the pain is like being stabbed with a knife, or cut with a scalpel. Should he resist his attacker, or bear the pain of his surgeon? This kind of confusion prevents my client from dealing with the criticism in a healthy way and has led him to try and avoid the colleague altogether.


About Chad Hall

Chad Hall is the Director of Coaching for Western Seminary and also serves as a leadership coach for ministry and corporate clients through his role as Partner with Coach Approach Ministries and iNTERNAL iMPACT.