On the way out of our little Texas church one Sunday a man new to faith said he liked my sermon that morning. I put on my best “aw shucks” look and mumbled something about not being much a preacher but I appreciated the compliment. He stopped and said, “Pastor, can I give you some feedback? When you respond to my compliment like that it sounds like I don’t know what I’m talking about. It makes me feel foolish for saying having said anything.” I was dumbfounded. I thought I was doing a great job of playing the humble preacher, but I actually offended a man for his kindness.
I’ve thought a lot about that conversation in the years since. What is the right way to handle compliments? How do you receive the praise, affirm the giver, and credit God all while avoiding a soul shrinking addiction to flattery? If you are in any kind of public ministry I imagine you struggle with this balance as well. Here are some principles I try to remind myself of every time I receive a compliment.
Seven Ways to Handle Compliments
1. Don’t deflect the compliment
As I learned from my friend in Texas, deflecting a compliment makes the giver feel foolish. What they are saying is they thought you did a good job. That is their opinion and they are welcome to it. A simple, “Thank you, that really means a lot.” is much better than, “I’m just a tool being used by God.” (Pun intended)
2. If God has gifted then you then you should be good at it
Compliments shouldn’t go to your head. If God has truly gifted you then you should be good at what you do. If people compliment your preaching, or singing or art it is positive reflection on God. It is the same as one of Rembrandt’s students hearing he captured the style of the master. When I receive a compliment I try to remind myself how awesome it is to be used by God.
3. Compliments (and complaints) often are more about the person than you
I recently did a message on John 20 and I shared the reasons I believe in the resurrection. I received several compliments from members of the congregation who feel we don’t spend enough time on apologetics. They weren’t complimenting my preaching, they were complimenting my choice of subject matter. Beware hidden agendas in compliments and complaints.
4. What else are they going to say?
What do you normally say to someone you just heard speak or sing?
- “Wow, that wasn’t very good”
- “Swing and a miss. You’ll get ‘em next time”
- “Great job!”
For all but the socially illiterate the answer is almost always C. Many compliments can be filed under “Conversation filler”.
5. Sometimes its just nice to hear a different voice
I have been the “other preacher” for most of my ministry, the guy who covers when the Senior Pastor isn’t teaching. Even though I have served with several amazing preachers, everyone likes a little variety. For those of us coming in from the bullpen a compliment often means, “You were different.” The most dangerous comment for a bullpen preacher is, “I wish they’d let you preach more.” Keep smiling, but let that one roll off your back. If you store that compliment Satan will turn it into discontentment and bitterness.
6. Don’t sweat backhanded compliments
My favorite backhanded compliment is some form of “You’re really improving” This bothered me so much early on in ministry and I’d sometimes respond with, “So you’re saying I didn’t suck as much as I usually do?” That does not lead to deep friendship. This is usually driven by #3 above. The commenter likes this topic more than the topics you’ve done in the past. A “thank you” and a smile is the best response.
7. Store the meaningful compliments
A man I deeply respect used to send me handwritten notes giving me very specific compliments on my speaking. I keep all of those notes in a file folder. I also try to keep emails telling me God used my speaking in a specific way in the sender’s life. I refer back to these notes and emails when I feel like a failure, like I’ve lost the ability to communicate.
When God speaks encouragement through someone in the audience we should cherish the compliment as a gift directly from our Father. It is not about my ability, it is about God loving me so much that he chooses to use me. I can live for weeks on a heartfelt compliment.