How To Be Personal Without Taking Things Personally

Written by Bill Whitt
August 24, 2023

The challenge all leaders face is staying personal without taking things personally. Here are a few ideas to help you grow in this area.

Leaders often find themselves in the crosshairs of criticism. Renewal leaders who push against the status quo often feel like they’re in the center of the bullseye 24/7. Steve Jobs was right when he said, “If you want to make everyone happy, don’t be a leader, sell ice cream.”

  • The challenge all leaders face is staying personal without taking things personally. When the darts of criticism start to feel like personal attacks, leaders face a fork in the road. One path leads toward empathy and pastoral ministry, while the other path leads to defensiveness and division.
  • Some leaders appear to be naturally equipped to deal with criticism better than others, but the truth is that anybody can learn and grow in this area. Below are a few of the ideas that have helped me:
Five ways to stay personal instead of taking things personally.
Idea 1: Remember Who You Are
  • As a pastor, my chief task is shepherding the flock God has entrusted to me. This involves offering unconditional love to everybody — even people who are difficult to love. Why? Because God sacrificially loved me when I was difficult to love and undeserving.
  • Even deeper than that, though, I have to constantly remind myself that I am a dearly loved child of God, and even if I fall flat on my face, that identity is not at risk.
  • I know that my core identity is not based on what percentage of people at church are raving fans of our renewal efforts.
Idea 2: Remember Who They Are
  • Church people put on their best clothes and their best smiles for Sunday services, but sometimes sheep bite. Their target is often their pastor.
  • Why does this happen? My mentor has helped me understand that many people take their unresolved issues and hurt from other parts of life (abusive childhood, divorce, business failings, previous church trauma, etc.) and transfer it to their current pastor as a way of working through it.
  • Is that fair? No. Does it happen? Absolutely! Being aware of this dynamic can help you remember that it’s not all about you. And it can help you have empathy for hurting people who need your love. When you’re tempted to take things personally, that is a reminder to be even more personal and loving with a hurting person!
Idea 3: Take What You Can
  • Even if almost every bit of the feedback you receive is unfair, there is usually 1% or 5% or 10% truth hidden in it. Some of the most helpful feedback I’ve received has come like this. If I hadn’t taken the time to mine out the gold nuggets, I would have missed it.
  • Hypothetically speaking, even if you were able to determine that 0% of the feedback is fair, it would still be useful! How so? Harsh criticism is data about the state of a person’s soul, their perspective on the church, and the health of your congregation. Leaving valuable data like that on the floor is not an option!
Idea 4: Spread the Problem Around
  • Most congregants who share feedback are not attacking you. They genuinely want the best for the church and just have a difference of opinion. However, there are some rare occasions when you may be personally attacked.
  • In these instances, my mentor urges me to “spread the problem around.” By that, he means that, when the pastor is under fire, it is the job of the elders to protect his or her ministry. They can help disarm ticking time bombs, leaving the pastor free to focus on the bigger vision of the church.
Idea 5: Vent to the Right Person
  • When feeling attacked, it is easy to justify gossiping. “Can you believe what so-and-so said about such-and-such?” However, this kind of talk will make your church culture toxic.
  • It is important to have a trusted person in whom you can confide. The best candidate is an experienced person who is not part of your congregation — perhaps a retired pastor, a seminary professor, or a colleague from another church.
  • Looking for a mentor in ministry? I’d love to talk with you more! Just reply to this email. It’s incredibly important we all have someone with whom we can talk candidly, openly, and honestly — with no pretense and no fear of rejection.

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