History is replete with bold men who stood in the face of criticism and led valiantly and courageously. One such man is Theodore Roosevelt. While serving as the police commissioner of New York City, the President of the United States, and several other high offices of leadership before and between, Roosevelt exercised his duties in a constant state of criticism and opposition.
As police commissioner, he not only had a significant impact on crime reduction in the streets of New York, he also cleaned up the corruption that dominated the police force while facing extreme internal and external opposition. As President of the United States, he pursued an economic “square deal” for all by cleaning up the corruption that dominated Wall Street gaining enemies with names like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan. As if that weren’t enough, he was criticized unmercifully for inviting Booker T. Washington to dine with him in the White House.
What did he do with the criticism? How did he respond? If you read much about him, you will conclude with me that he led through it, around it, over it, and in spite of it. Criticism did not deter Roosevelt. Did he feel it? His personal journals will tell you he certainly did. But was he defeated by it? His documented contribution to history will tell you absolutely not!
How did Roosevelt do this? What were his thoughts on critics and the charges they leveled against him? Addressing the reality of critics he said the following:
IN THE ARENA
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
“Citizenship in a Republic,” Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910
What a balance of boldness and humility! He doesn’t scoff at his critics claiming to be perfect. Rather, he acknowledges failure as a fact of human life and an occasional reality of ambitious leadership. In fact, he tactfully points out that aversion to risk and failure while pursuing something great is the real shortcoming of a man. This truth is echoed in another quote of his: “Never throughout history has a man who lived a life of ease left a name worth remembering.” Truth is, once the critics have had their day, we no longer remember their critiques, much less know their names. They are a flash in the pan only to be quickly absent from our history.
Pastors, we have so much to learn from this! We, too, face critics as we lead our congregations from the pulpit. While we may feel the criticisms and the wounds that are intended, we cannot be deterred in our calling and responsibility.
Having said this, let me be very clear on one point of caution. I am not talking about criticism that is merited due to our neglect or sinfulness. We cannot be lazy in the study and ill-prepared on Sunday. We cannot be arrogant in the pulpit, preaching at people while overlooking ourselves. We cannot be sloppy and boring while proclaiming God’s Word. For each of these we would deserve criticism! If such should be our state, we must receive the criticism and repent of our sin.
Rather, it is the pastor’s urgent task to embrace Paul’s instruction to Timothy:
“Do not neglect the gift you have. . . Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:14-16)
When we are criticized while being faithful and diligent to this charge in executing the responsibilities of our pulpits, we need to stand firm like Roosevelt. When we faithfully preach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) within our God-given gifts and personality, and out of our genuine love for Christ, there is no criticism that is just or merited.
Each time I read Roosevelt’s statement, I see a clear application for pastoral ministry and the work of preaching. Roosevelt’s view of his critics demonstrates how we should view our critics. I’ve taken Roosevelt’s quote and molded it to fit the office of a pastor and undergirded it with Scripture. I call it, “In the Pulpit.” I hope it will recalibrate you as it has me:
IN THE PULPIT
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stutters, or where the preacher of Scripture could have done it better (2 Cor. 10:10). The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the pulpit (Neh. 8:1-6), whose heart is marked by earnest conviction and confession and repentance (2 Cor. 7:10-11); who studies sacrificially (Ezra 7:10); who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no human effort without error and short coming (Phil. 3:12-14); but who does actually strive to preach the Word (Acts 20:27); who knows great enthusiasms (Rom. 11:33-36), the great devotions (1 Cor. 9:27); who spends himself in the most worthy cause (Col. 1:28-29); who at the best knows in the end the promised unfading crown of glory (1 Pet. 5:4), and who at the worst, if he stutters, at least stutters while worshiping genuinely (1 Cor. 2:1-5), so that his place shall never be with those lukewarm souls who are neither hot nor cold for the Lord Jesus Christ (Rev. 3:15-16).
In the end, what are we to do when facing unjust criticism in the pulpit? Thankfully, we don’t have to rely on Theodore Roosevelt quotes to give us instruction, conviction, and encouragement. We have something much more substantial: God’s Word. Here’s what God tells the man in the pulpit who comes under fire:
. . . preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. [2 Timothy 4:2-5]
So, brothers, be informed by your critics when they are right, and undeterred when they are wrong. The task of preaching is a tremendous privilege and an urgent responsibility. Therefore, in spite of unjust criticism that is certain to come, fulfill your ministry, stand firm in the faith, act like men, and be strong (1 Cor. 16:13).