Joel R. Beeke and Nick Thompson. Pastors and Their Critics: A Guide to Coping with Criticism in the Ministry. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2020. 169 pages. Softcover, $15.99.
Children at the playground chant a familiar children’s rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me.” However, at some point, most parents understand they will have to console their children who have been on the receiving end of the words we taught them would never hurt. Those children grow up and feel the truth about what God says about our speech: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” and, “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (Prov. 18:21; Jam. 3:5–12). Many of us vividly remember at least a time or two when someone used their words to inflict deep wounds. Pastors are by no means immune to being on the receiving end of hurtful words, frequently resulting in “exasperation, insomnia, cynicism, burnout, and even despair” (15).
Joel R. Beeke and Nick Thompson partner to write a timely book about coping with criticism, something all pastors face. Beeke is the president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (PRTS), a pastor at the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, and an author of over a hundred books. With a doctorate in Reformation and Post-Reformation theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and over forty years of pastoral experience, he is qualified to write on this topic. Thompson, a graduate of PRTS, ably assists Beeke—especially in the appendix—to deal “comprehensively with the various dimensions of criticism in the Christian ministry from a biblical and Reformed perspective” (16).
Summary of the Book
The book divides into four parts with an appendix. In part one, the authors lay a biblical theology for coping with criticism. They say, “Unjust criticism is woven like a black thread throughout covenant history” (20). God, the only One who has nothing worthy of criticism, was the first target of unjust, verbal abuse in the Garden, as Satan questioned the truthfulness of God’s Word and subtly twisted it. The authors trace out the way Moses, David, and Nehemiah handled criticism in the Old Testament before pointing the reader to the ultimate model of responding to criticism in godliness, our Lord Jesus Christ. They say, “Christ’s death not only purchased redemption, but also provided a pattern for His disciples to follow” (36). To endure criticism, pastors must keep their eyes focused on Jesus, who, in gentle meekness, showed great strength to “rule his own spirit under such provocation” (40).
Part two comprises the largest part of the book. Here, Beeke and Thompson provide several helpful principles for coping with criticism in the ministry. They say, “Verbal critique is unavoidable because of the tragic reality of sin, the destructive schemes of Satan, and the sanctifying purposes of God” (52). They encourage pastors to receive criticism realistically and humbly and respond to it with sober judgment and grace.
Part three offers some practical principles for creating a healthy culture of giving and receiving constructive criticism in the church. It is not only essential to learn to accept criticism but also to provide constructive criticism to others. While many pastors focus on the logos—what needs to be said—Beeke and Thompson recommend pastors think equally about the aspects of ethos and pathos related to criticism. Daniel Akin, the seminary president at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has a phrase he regularly repeats: “What you say is more important than how you say it, but how you say it has never been more important.” Pastors must be men of integrity and aim to reach their listeners’ ears through their affections (113).
In part four, the authors put forward a theological vision for coping with criticism in ministry. Beeke and Thompson invite readers to adjust their focus for ministry so they will be able to receive and give criticism in a godly way. The vision they articulate centers around the glory of God, the edification of the church, the rapidly approaching last day, and our eternal home. Finally, in the appendix, Thompson takes center stage to discuss how students can use seminary to prepare for inevitable criticism to come while serving the Lord in a fallen world.
Why Pastors Need this Book
There are three reasons both seminary students and seasoned pastors should pick up this book. First, Beeke draws on his over forty years of ministry experience by using lived stories to help readers understand the principles he is setting forth. Personally, one of my favorite parts of seminary education was spending time with my professors, especially ones with years in the trenches of pastoral ministry. When Ligon Duncan would step to the side of the lectern and take off his glasses during class, students knew he was moving away from his well-prepared notes to speak to our hearts and share pastoral wisdom worth its weight in gold. In this book, Beeke—himself an effective preacher—illustrates the joys and pains of ministry through story after story gleaned from the school of hard knocks. His expertise in the reformed tradition is evident in this book, and he directs readers to further reading that will complement these stories from his personal experience. Young preachers need men they can look up to for advice. Beeke offers to be such an older brother to counsel them through difficult days.
Second, Beeke helps readers shift their gaze off their present circumstances toward their Savior who loves them, especially in chapter two, “Christological Foundations for Coping with Criticism.” Pastors going through a difficult season tend to suffer from myopia. In other words, it feels as if the intensity of the situation they are in does not allow them to see anything else. Many times, they consider quitting. Where will pastors turn when they have had the wind knocked out of them through harsh criticism? Beeke and Thompson remind pastors of their tender Savior who identified with them in every way and became a faithful and merciful High Priest. Jesus is willing and able to help them in their distress (Heb. 2:17–18). Additionally, pastors need to realize afresh that Jesus is our pattern for discipleship. The authors say, “Let us walk in the footsteps of the crucified Messiah, trusting in the Father as He did, and lean on His Spirit so that His death and life may be exhibited in us for the watching world to see” (46).
Third, pastors need to have a theological vision to sustain criticism, and Beeke and Thompson offer an excellent one in chapter nine, “Reorient Your Perspective.” This chapter will help pastors keep the main things the main things. They say, “These God-breathed bifocals shift our focus away from ourselves to God, His church, judgment day, and eternity. With these truths enveloping our sight, criticism is put in its rightful place” (133). The heartfelt charge at the end will encourage pastors not only to cope but to persevere amid verbal shrapnel until their faith becomes sight. In the meantime, pastor, this book will be a worthy investment for you as you lead God’s church during difficult days.
Editor’s Note: This book review was originally published in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry.