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About two years into my pastoral ministry at our last church I was doing a series on eschatology. At the end of one of my sermons I went to speak with a lady in the church who looked uncomfortable the entire time I was preaching, and I asked her if she was okay. She stood up straight, took a step toward me, looked me right in the eye and said, “I think you’re nuts!” I was shocked, so I gave a chuckle and said, “Are you serious? What do you mean?” She responded, “Yes! I think you’re nuts! I don’t believe a thing you said today and I think it’s crazy!”  For the rest of her time in the church she avoided me and eventually left with her family. There was another time during my pastorate there where, while I was preaching, someone shouted “Shame on you!” from the audience. On a few other occasions folks told me to my face (or others behind my back) that they didn’t think I was a very good pastor, preacher, or leader. I had twelve very positive and productive years in that congregation, and the criticism I received was a drop in the bucket compared to the encouragement I felt. But interestingly, criticism, even if it is from a single person or a relatively small handful of people, can be the loudest thing a pastor hears in his/her head when thinking about ministry-effectiveness. The question for most pastors is “What do I do with this criticism?”

During a recent trip to Virginia I was reading Wesley’s journals on the airplane, and I stumbled across the entry below. It really impacted me. In fact, I handed the book to my wife and asked her to read the underlined part. As she read, her eyes grew wide, and she looked at me and said, “WOW!”  Why? Because when we imagine guys like John Wesley, we imagine (because they are so effective, popular, and almost saintly) that they never experienced the pain of harsh criticism from parishioners. We might also imagine that if they did, they simply dismissed it or had some profound spiritual correction for the critic. Not so in this entry. It is actually very “human” and written differently from most everything I have read in Wesley’s journal up to this point. Read on…

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Observing much coldness in Mr. ——’s behaviour, I asked him the reason of it. He answered,

“I like nothing you do. All your sermons are satires upon particular persons, therefore I will never hear you more; and all the people are of my mind, for we won’t hear ourselves abused. Besides, they say they are Protestants. But as for you, they cannot tell what religion you are of. They never heard of such a religion before. They do not know what to make of it. And then your private behaviour:—All the quarrels that have been here since you came, have been ’long of you. Indeed there is neither man nor woman in the town who minds a word you say. And so you may preach long enough; but nobody will come to hear you.”

He was too warm for hearing an answer. So I had nothing to do but to thank him for his openness, and walk away [1].

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And there the entry ends. Nothing more is said, but there is much in what is written that is worth consideration.

First is Wesley’s attempt to bridge relationship with Mr.– when noticing how the man was treating him.

Second are the extreme conclusions of Mr.– (as Wesley heard and recorded them) when he was given a chance to share:

I like NOTHING you do.
ALL your sermons…
I will NEVER hear you more.
ALL the people are of my mind…
THEY say… (they, they, they, they)
ALL the quarrels… are ‘long of you (are because of you)
Neither man nor woman minds A WORD you say.
NOBODY will come to hear you.

In contemporary terms, Mr.– essentially told Wesley, “I think you suck. Your sermons suck. The way you act and treat people sucks. Everyone else thinks you suck. You make it suck here just by being here. Since you suck so bad we’re done with you. I am the messenger of the “Wesley sucks, doesn’t he?!” delegation, and I have faithfully delivered our message to you.”

Criticism often either is, or at least seems like what Mr.– shared with Wesley. It is often over-communicated, extreme, and excessive. When possible, the critic will talk about “everyone else” or “other people” who agree with him/her, and will leave the person being criticized feeling like an utter failure.

Third, Wesley tried to continue his conversation with the man, but when he would hear no more, Wesley knew when to walk away.

Fourth, and please get this — This journal entry is dated Tues-22. The next entry in Wesley’s journal is dated Wed-23, and contains a long account of Wesley’s exhortation to a fellow believer about why the man was not sharing his faith more. When the man said that he had tried but no one would listen, Wesley said…

“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear!” Mark the tendency of this accursed principle! If you will speak only to those who are willing to hear, see how many you will turn from the error of their ways!” [2]

What’s the point here? The point is, Wesley didn’t walk away from Mr.–‘s criticism saying, “Man. I suck! I guess I should give up.” Instead, he learned, listened, and moved on. The next day he engaged in a conversation with another Christian exhorting him not to be discouraged about witnessing because of rejection.  The rest is history!

Wesley likely did irritate people, did do things that were imbalanced, and did minister in ways that didn’t connect to everyone, but that didn’t stop him or discourage him from continuing to offer himself in the service of God — and the world is better for it.

So – Pastor, Servant, Jesus-follower… You don’t suck! Critics abound, but truth be told — more are those that are with you than those who criticize you. Keep serving Jesus.

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[1] Wesley, J. (1872). The Works of John Wesley, Volumes 1–4 (Third Edition., Vol. 1, p. 34). London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room.

[2] ibid.

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