Husband. Dad to 5. Student Ministry Pastor. Follower of Jesus. Yatta yatta.


11 months ago in Feb of 2013 I sent this brief Facebook message to a student who I hadn’t seen in a while.

I tried to contact you a grip of times and was stoked to see you on our facebook page today. How are you? Where are you these days? You’re dearly missed.

She never responded.  That is until out of the blue, last friday when I got this short but cutting response:

Sorry it’s taken so long for me to respond I had a lot of anger to work through….if I had to write a review of your high school ministry this would be it…..

Superficial, clique-y, not at all welcoming, got abandoned by one of my small group “leaders”, wish I hadn’t wasted four years of my life trying to fit in and voice my opinions…..hopefully they’ve changed since then.

I’d love to tell you that the next 3 messages in the conversation with her went better, that she agreed to meet with me, and that we are on our way towards a healthy friendship restoration.  But that’s not the truth.   I’d also love to tell you that this is the first letter like this I’ve ever received as a youth pastor.  However, that’s not true either.  In the last 20 years of doing this job full-time, there have been days when e-mails, hurtful comments (regardless of their validity), or just that critical voice in my head that won’t shut up made me wonder if what I was doing was even making any positive difference in the world.  Some days are just like that.

I’d also love to tell you that this kinda stuff is unique to me.  But it’s not. Every pastor I’ve ever met has had this kinda stuff come across their desk and thanks to the invention of e-mail… sending them is quick, cheap, and evidently pretty easy too.   It’s not even unique to me in my own church.  Just in the last 30 days, several unhappy people left scathing comments on “comment cards” in our church to express their discontent with everything from leadership decisions to preaching illustrations to how finances are handled.  Really, if you let it, this kind of stuff will ruin you and has run many a soul straight out of ministry.

In fact, this kinda stuff has run people off leadership boards, out of churches, off of teams, out of businesses, out of neighborhoods, out of friendships and I’m sure hundreds of other scenarios.  Criticism can be just plain brutal and the strong desire/need I had to personally process and navigate this stuff is what led me to write “Criticism Bites” in the first place.

While it is also true that not every e-mail is negative and that I could post a couple of really cool things students said about our youth ministry in beautiful Facebook status updates, there is this stupid reality that we tend to weight the negative 1000x worse.  Jon Acuff calls it “critics math.”  It’s where 1,000 compliments plus 1 critical comment = 1 critical comment.

So if you can relate to this, and this junk is part of your own reality, I can tell you two things I’m personally doing to push back:

#1. I’m intentionally and regularly doing things to connect my own heart and soul with God.  The truth is, the more my identity and peace is wrapped up and tied to people’s happy opinions of me, the less able I will be to navigate their words.  When I’m good with God, then I can take the bomb of a critical e-mail to God and invite Him to examine it with me.  We can then decide together to head it or chuck it. I don’t have to hide it or let shame cause it to run me into a corner.  I can bring it out in the open and invite God and others to examine it.  But if on the other had, I’m disconnected from God and counting on affirmation from people to fill my soul, then crap like this is a death blow.  It’s the antithesis of critics math.  Maybe we could call it “peaceful math”:  1 person at peace with God + 1000 people unhappy with them = 1 person at peace with God.    The Apostle Paul said it like this in Galatians 1:10- “Am I now trying to win human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”  So, the more I serve God, the less I am slave to the comments of my critics.

#2. I’m committed to writing encouragement notes. lots of them.  My goal this year is 2 per week or about 100 this year.  I got no where near that in 2013, but this reminder on January 3 caused me to re-up this value and say “enough is enough”.  I’m not going to fight this reality with defensive posturing or e-mail bantering back and forth.  I’m going on the offensive.  I’m making it my goal to fill inboxes and mail boxes and ears with words of affirmation and encouragement.  Maybe, just maybe, one will providentially land on someone’s desk on a day when it can call out the lie of scathing criticism they received that day too.


  1. Hey. You’re the best. I can tell you that this made my day a lot better just by reading it because today was just one of those days. Thanks for always being a mentor and a great leader. I also think you’re a cool kind of adopted dad figure.

  2. Sean Trent says:

    All I can say Brian, the youth group and ministry you have encouraged and allowed at Journey has been so incredibly healing to me. I see Encounter as everything a youth ministry should have been when I was young. The love in that room is real and evident in the lives of the vast majority of the youth that pass through your ministry. Your youth have a heart for each other and their community. They not only demonstrate it on Sunday morning, but every time they express encouragement through the various social media outlets they utilize. I see every day what young men and women express on Facebook and instagram, and what the youth of Encounter express is as night is from day to what the average youth express. What you have done has not only touched the lives of the young people of Encounter, but it has a profound impact on the adult leaders. You are directly responsible for bringing up young people in a culture that fosters Godliness and love. Thank you for the impact you have on the young men and women of Encounter, but also for the impact you have on all of us. You are an amazing leader, father and man of God.

    • thanks Sean. Your words are kind and noticed. So honored that you choose to invest your time with us. Encounter is what it is because of volunteers like you.

  3. This is a great post and maybe we all could benefit by resolving to be more intentional and reverse the math (1000 encouraging words to 1 word of criticism
    This post really struck a chord with me

  4. Kim Jones says:

    Brian I can say that I count you as one of the heroes for my family. You have lived out and illustrated a path that both of my kids are following. Your impact on them is eternal. They listen and watch you and most of all you fight each day to provide for them and others a place to live out their faith. To question and explore and even lead others. Thank you for the reminder about encouragement! We ALL need it. As leaders, parents and students.

  5. So glad to see you blogging again! God is with you.

  6. Chris Lankford says:

    Thanks Brian, good word at the right time. I think that’s Ephesians 4:29, but whatever. You rock, and I wish I’d been in your youth group! 🙂

  7. Thanks Brian for your vulnerability. Your two points have caused me to rethink how I am going to give feedback to my staff. It’s that time of year where I have to do performance reviews and I’d much rather build up than squash people. Missing you guys!

  8. So does your message for the upcoming weeks change at all? Or do you chalk it up to that you can’t always reach everyone on a personal level? This is a tough one to swallow. But you keep doing what you do, that’s the awesome part, because you really do touch so many young lives.

    • ruth, I definitely don’t blow off criticism as irrelevant, but in this case, I did decide it was time to move on. It is clear she has no interest in connecting with me or helping to solve whatever problems we may have, so I let it go. I can get you a copy of criticism bites… but in that book I go into a full diagnosis of how and when and even why we should listen to, or at times ignore, the words of our critics.

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