It’s Thursday morning and you just sat down at your desk. Last night was one of the best small groups you’ve had all year. Getting 7th grade boys to talk seriously about anything is challenging, let alone, faith—but last night was special. Full of hope and optimism, you open your laptop and there it is: a critical email ready to crush your dreams.
A loving mother has written to express concern about the content of your small group discussion—the same conversation you counted such a win. Is she right? Was the discussion you led wrong? Was it inappropriate? Her concerns are fair and reasonable. She just wants to protect her son. But does that mean you shouldn’t discuss certain topics?
In addition to many encouraging emails, I’ve also received emails of criticism, frustration, concern—you name it. At the end of the day, I often remind myself of this principle I was taught: Leadership is a commitment to being misunderstood. As youth ministers, we experience this axiom in many ways, and perhaps never more so than when we receive a critical email from a parent.
If I’m honest, being misunderstood is a really hard commitment for me. I hate disappointing people or feeling like someone questions my judgment. Whether you call it people-pleasing, seeking the approval of others, or fear of man, most of us struggle at some level with wanting our decisions as leaders to be accepted and even celebrated. This is why it can be so challenging to receive a direct critique.
Whether or not email is the most effective way for parents to communicate their grievances is beside the point. It’s often an easy method for someone to feel heard, seemingly without risking much.
Scripture has plenty to teach us when it comes to responding to criticism with godliness. In Colossians 3:12-15, we find at least four gospel values to guide us in responding to a critical email.
Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.Col. 3:12-15, NLT
Deny Yourself and Apologize (v. 12)
When I receive criticism, I sometimes play offense, coming up with ways I can win this person over or improve things to regain favor. Conversely, I get defensive. I stand my ground as if my feet are stuck in concrete. No matter what the other person has to say, I am right and the rest of the world is wrong. Unfortunately, in my pride, the defensive response is where I most often find myself.
Whether you tend toward the offensive or defensive posture, the first response that comes to our minds when we read a critical email is rarely the way we should respond. Instead, we need to take a moment to ask for God’s help because of our human tendency to sin. Rather than depending on ourselves, we ask God’s Spirit to help us to respond in a way that brings him glory.
Once we have asked God to give us his mind, we should also seek godly advice. Consider asking a trusted coworker, your lead pastor, or another supervisor to read your response and to speak honestly. Does this sound defensive? Am I communicating with love and grace?
Our goal in responding to criticism should be to communicate objective information, not to spew our own emotions. It’s worth considering whether we can communicate a response via email or whether it may be better to call or to meet in person.
Lastly, I must let my guard down and apologize. Sometimes God will convict me of my own wrongdoing. Other times I might not be in the wrong, but I can still acknowledge an offense and seek to make amends. Our culture doesn’t need more prideful, defensive people, we need more humble, gentle people.
Make Allowance for Faults and Forgive (v. 13)
As followers of Christ, we can forgive someone even if they don’t ask for forgiveness. Jesus did this for us! Critical emails can often feel unkind or harsh, putting us in a position to extend forgiveness to the sender. Whether the email is about summer camp costs, small group leaders, or overall church complaints, our response can set the tone for believing the best in one another.
For example, I received an email this past summer about increasing camp costs. It was filled with questions about alternative options, different transportation, fundraising opportunities, scholarships, etc. Of course, when I first read the email, all I saw were accusations. It’s really easy for me to see the words while ignoring the sender.
The person behind that email is the father of three kids. He was looking at the cost of camp times three. His email provided an opportunity for me to grow in how I communicate with parents, especially about costs and scholarships. So, I began my response by acknowledging what I could have done differently.
“Thank you for reaching out and for sharing your thoughts and concerns. Truly, thank you. It is always helpful to hear from parents so that we can continue to partner with you in discipling students. I want you to know that I hear you. Our team has continuously been wrestling through camp and all of its costs. I personally acknowledge that there are things we could have communicated more effectively regarding scholarship and fundraising opportunities. We certainly can do a better job coming alongside parents instead of simply stating the facts about costs and changes…”
Then, I answered each individual question by letting him in or our detailed process of planning for camp.
We have an opportunity to assume the best in our parents, remembering that they love their teenagers. Parents are the unpaid, full-time youth pastors of their homes. They’re juggling work, parenting, marriage, home ownership, taxes, and more. As ministry workers, we have the opportunity to love them. In the midst of a critical email, be quick to overlook faults and choose to love instead. What will soften them? What will lead to mutual forgiveness?
Clothe Yourselves in Love (v. 13)
Just as critical emails sometimes call us to forgive the sender, we also must consider the ways in which we need to ask for forgiveness ourselves. In most cases, my flesh wants to fight this. It feels as though I’m simply giving into whatever they want, that I’m a pushover. On the contrary, if done with a pure heart, this is a Christ-like response that demonstrates love.
In responding to the mother who expressed concern about her son’s small group, I had an opportunity to seek forgiveness, even though I didn’t agree with her critique about the group’s content. I acknowledged poor communication on my part, and the Lord led us to have a great conversation about her son.
We don’t just give parents what they want, we give them what all of us need: grace. It is here that we level the playing ground, where we’re all reminded of our mutual need for grace.
One of the most valuable things we can do is to express our willingness to hear and respond to their needs. Offer a phone call or an opportunity to meet and discuss in more detail. Remember, in every case, there’s more to the story. As shepherds, God doesn’t call us to win arguments, but to love people and to care for their souls.
Let the Peace of Christ Rule in Your Hearts (v. 15)
People expect a lot out of spiritual leadership, and that’s good. Parents expect a lot out of the people who lead their students, especially in the Church. This is also a good thing! While it can be painful to receive any kind of feedback, let’s ask the Lord to make us grateful for the critical emails we receive from parents. Their feedback shows us they care about their teenagers’ participation in our churches. And their willingness to bring it to us directly means that they want to partner with us.
As we grow in the grace of receiving input and feedback from the parents in our ministries, we will also become better shepherds of the teenagers in our care. Meanwhile, may we always remember that we are not defined by the work of our ministry, or by the critical emails we receive. Christ has carried all our mistakes and failings—past, present, and future—to the cross. He will continue to offer us grace for each opportunity we have moving forward, to love families in his name.
Rooted offers mentoring cohorts for youth ministers and family ministers looking for more encouragement and equipping. Consider joining our next round of groups starting in January 2023.