Handling negative feedback positively

“Handling negative feedback positively”

I admit that over the years, at times I’ve struggled to respond positively to negative feedback to my ministry.  I know I’m not alone in this struggle.  How is it with you?

In recent years, we Christians have been encouraged to affirm one another.  This also includes the need for pastors, Christian leaders and workers to be affirmed by the people they lead.  We’ve all experienced the positive feelings when someone has expressed sincere thanks for some ministry, and conversely we’ve all battled discouragement when positive and affirming comments are as rare as hen’s teeth.  Needless to say, we serve God with far greater enthusiasm when we’re on the receiving end of positive feedback.

However, can we also help one another by giving negative feedback?  Should we dread and shun such feedback or encourage and welcome it?  The truth is that we also need to hear the negative feedback.  None of us (even those who may imagine themselves to be “very mature spiritually”!?) have 20-20 vision on anything.  We all have our blind spots, most often rooted in the sin of pride.  So it’s inevitable that all of us will make mistakes in God’s work, including some fairly major ones.  Even the perfectionists among us Christian workers will, believe it or not!

The book of Proverbs hits the nail on the head: “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid.” (Prov.12:1)  In plain language, this verse tells us that we prove ourselves to have genuine wisdom when we welcome negative feedback, or we’re very foolish (stupid!) when we shun it—no matter how intelligent we may be or how much knowledge we’ve attained.  Obviously God wants us to grow into godly, wise and effective servants of God.  For that reason He has placed this word of truth in the Bible.

It’s not difficult to agree on the theory.  But how in practice can we make this truth turn into reality in our lives and ministries?  Firstly, we must begin by humbling ourselves and agreeing with God that we need the negative feedback as well as the positive—so that our ministries don’t forever suffer from our personality flaws, our spiritual immaturity or our ignorance in how to relate with and serve others effectively.

Secondly, we need to guard against negative thoughts about what might lie behind some negative feedback.  Here are a few examples of such negative thoughts: “When God’s people criticise me, it’s a sure sign that they have a major sin problem with a critical and judgmental spirit.”  Or, “he’s just a grumpy, old man.”  Or, “she’s just jealous.”  Or, “I’ve known him for a long time.  He’s always criticising something, someone!  What else can you expect?”  Or, “it’s my responsibility to guard against disunity within the body of Christ—and negative feedback certainly stirs up disunity!”  If we are going to respond positively to negative feedback, we will need to honestly realise see and expose to the light of God’s Word the real issues within us behind any negative responses we may be thinking or saying.

Thirdly, we help ourselves and God’s people when as leaders we are prepared to verbalise our openness to receive negative feedback.  Most people do not find it easy to approach a fellow-Christian especially an esteemed Christian worker with negative feedback.  How different it is when they have already heard from us that we realise our need for the hard word as well as the encouraging word, and that we will listen to their negative feedback for the sake of growth both in our own personal lives as well as in our ministries.

Of course, once having opened this door, we must ensure that when someone does approach us, we don’t then kill the goose by reacting negatively.  Not only will we never hear from that person again, but word will soon spread among the troops: “He/she is super-sensitive to any negative feedback.  Beware!”

But if we do fall into this trap, we can still learn from this serious mistake, and quickly repent, going to the person or group of people to confess our failure, asking for their forgiveness, then recommitting ourselves to listen to whatever they might want to share with us whether it be positive or negative stuff. (Ideally all negative feedback should be combined with positive.  That eases the pain in hearing the negative.  However, we are all called to live in a real, not an ideal world—and this includes serving Christ alongside of sinful people, like us, who generally fall far short of the ideal.)

Fourthly, once a person or a group of people have shared their concerns with us, it’s then our responsibility to let the light of God’s Word scrutinise their comments.  Here we need to avoid two extreme reactions: Either to respond to every negative or critical comment as being accurate and therefore requiring us to change something right away; or to think of all negative feedback as coming from the pit, and therefore though we know we should listen politely, we really don’t need to take it seriously.

When God led Frieda and me back home from missionary service with OMF International in Indonesia into the ministry of a local church, I soon discovered that negative feedback came invited or uninvited, and sadly too often via the backdoor as gossip and slander, or as comments expressed in the seemingly safe environment of church business meetings.  I had much to learn about handling such negative feedback positively and wisely.

At that time I was blessed to receive the wisdom of an older, godly minister who advised me to find even in the harshest criticism some nugget of truth that could benefit my ministry.  At times I’ve needed time as I’ve searched for such nuggets in the critical comments of some, but God’s Spirit faithfully helps us learn from such people, if we are willing to listen and receive His word of encouragement, even rebuke.

We may not need to make immediate or radical changes in response to negative feedback.  In fact, it is very unsettling when a leader is so open to negative feedback that he or she inflicts upon their followers frequent changes in response to the latest feedback received.

In the final analysis, it must be the Holy Spirit who determines our responses, not our own hearts or minds.  For that very reason, before any changes are considered, we must bring both negative as well as positive feedback before the Lord, asking Him humbly to show us how He would have us interpret and respond to the feedback.  While we aren’t accountable to the person who has given the feedback, God will hold us accountable for our responses.

What always helps as we process hearing God’s voice amid hearing the voices of people is to listen and respond together with our trusted team of fellow-leaders or fellow-workers.  To go through this process alone especially when the negative feedback is more than just a minor issue is too burdensome.  Why do we need to process such feedback with others?  Because sometimes we are still getting over our own negative feelings towards the person who has come with yet further negative feedback, or without our awareness we may be trapped in our own world of set beliefs and attitudes so that we fail to see any relevance or significance in the feedback given to us.

In closing, let each of us be reminded of this simple yet profound truth : We all have our weaknesses and blind spots, and it is only through our hearing the input and feedback of our brothers and sisters that we will save ourselves and God’s ministries from a long trail of harmful consequences brought on by sinful, selfish, stubborn attitudes.

God calls us to serve His people wisely.  And to do this in truth we must listen humbly, with the help of His Spirit and through the grid of His Word, to the feedback of others some of which is communicated less positively than we may have wished.

And having listened, to then courageously do whatever our Master tells us to do—for the blessing of many not the least ourselves.  “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:17)

Equip & Encourage Int’l

Graham & Frieda Roberts

January 24, 2006

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