Dealing with criticism in youth ministry

Russ Bowlin, a youth director in Texarkana, Texas, wrote this post for Life In Student Ministry. For reflective and devotional thoughts on youth ministry, visit his blog at Observations & Devotions.

In youth ministry, our position requires that requires we make decisions. A friend of mine, while talking about this subject, once told me, “No matter what decision I make, I’m going to make someone mad.” This may seem slightly pessimistic, but it is extremely important to realize that we’re always going to disappoint someone. Even with this in mind, criticism can be very hard to take. As youth workers, we’re passionate about what we do and we desire to do it to the best of our abilities. So, when someone complains or criticizes what we’re doing, often it can shake our foundation and (many times) completely blind-side us. Here are some things to consider when we are dealing with criticism. I’ve separated it into two sections: personal, and inter-personal. These things should coincide somewhat chronologically (i.e. each of the #1s should occur around the same time).


  1. Realize that you’re never going to make everyone happy. Cliche, I know, but it’s true.
  2. Try not to take it personally if it’s about your ministry or programs. This is hard to do, because we are so involved in our ministry that it can almost define us. But if we allow ourselves to take it personally, we lose our ability to look at things objectively, and in any way other than our own views.
  3. Consider the criticism. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Try to find out why they are concerned. Don’t just dismiss the criticism because you don’t agree, use it as an opportunity to evaluate your ministry- which can cause growth.
  4. Pray about it. Meditate on it. Struggle with it. Then pray about it some more. After that, act upon your conclusions.
  5. Trust your calling and trust that God is working with you, which means failure isn’t an option. Read my blog about remembering the importance of your calling.


  1. Consult your senior pastor, or whoever is your direct superior. Let them know about it, so that they can hear it from you, and know you’re concerned about it. Pastors can offer encouragement and be your biggest ally during difficult times.
  2. Consult your peers. Tell them like it is. Don’t sugar-coat it or make yourself out to be the victim. Tell them as much of the story as you can. Then ask them to give you advice, and ask for their honest opinion about the matter.
  3. Consult a mentor that’s been there before. We all know seasoned veterans (if you don’t, find one and glean as much as you can from their experiences). Let them know you need to meet or talk about your ministry. Tell them about the situation and ask for advice.
  4. Arrange a meeting with the individual(s) that offered the criticism. Explain to them what you’ve been up to: praying, meditating, seeking advice, etc. Then explain your conclusions. Sometimes criticism springs from a lack of understanding. This is a great opportunity to educate the individual(s) about your ministry as well as let them give their opinion and feel like they’ve been heard. Take the opportunity to tell them about how they’ve helped your ministry evolve and improve. Ask them to continue to offer constructive criticism, and request that they be open to assisting in the implementing any changes they suggest.
  5. Keep your composure as much as possible in these situations. It can be tough, especially when we feel attacked personally, but leaving the door open to criticism can keep your ministry from stagnating, being run by only you, or suffering the effects of groupthink.

Hope this helps. Please add in the comments below your own suggestions and lessons you’ve learned. Help others by sharing the wisdom you’ve gained when you’ve “been there.”


Russ Bowlin is the youth director at Williams Memorial United Methodist Church in Texarkana, Texas. He loves Frisbee golf, building relationships with teenagers and speaking Truth into their lives. Visit his blog at Observations & Devotions.

Posted on September 23, 2008

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  • Also remember that when someone comes and says that “A lot of people… bla bla bla…” that “A lot” usually represents only a small minority. Unfortunately most of the time the minority who are unhappy are usually the most vocal.

  • @ russell martin: Absolutely! Good point.

  • Great post. I think Andy Stanely encouraged me (via a book) the most in this. When you have consensus among your leaders about a vision… be confident in who you are an walk boldly through criticism.

    I think the only thing I’d like to emphasize is walking compassionately. I have a tendency to not be tender… and when I’m challenged that results in a sharp criticism that costs me bigtime!

  • When I go to talk to people who have criticism I normally go into it with an attitude like this. “you have a heart for this ministry and where it is going, and I have a heart for this ministry and where it is going. When you and I don’t agree on what we are doing we can at least agree that we both are coming from a desire to see this ministry grow stronger.”

    I have found when I start with that attitude I am more willing to listen to their concerns and less defensive. This helps me to listen to their concerns and provide my own thought process without making people (or myself) angry.

    I don’t do it every time, but when I do it makes a difference.

  • Mike

    What do you do when someone just flat out doesn’t like you? At a church I used to work at there was a board member who told me from day one that he voted against me for the position. For the three years I was there this man challenged everything I did.

    I finally resigned when this man started to bring my wife and kids into the fray. The pastor and other board members wanted me to stay. I said all you have to do is keep him out of my hair and I’ll stay. No can do I was told. He gives too much money and he’s been here too long. He can do what he wants. The saddest part of all is a youth group that had gone from 3 kids to 75 under my tenure immediately fell apart. After seeing the abuse I had taken neither my associate nor others in the youth ministry wanted anything to do with the position or the church. They ended up hiring someone the board member approved of. He’s not there anymore. Neither is the youth group. They don’t even have a youth ministry.

  • @ Shane: Good advice. I’ll have to keep that in mind.

    @ Mike: That’s when you sit down with your Sr. Pastor and say, “Are you freakin’ serious?!” Such immaturity by someone in church leadership is totally unacceptable, especially when the money they give is a determining factor of their power. So unhealthy. Sorry to hear that story, Mike.

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