Thom Rainer just put out a compelling piece that strikes a deep sounding chord with every single pastor I know. It gets to the dirty underworld of pastoral ministry, touching on one of the most challenging, painful, and discouraging aspects of the entire calling. His article speaks to when someone comes up—elders, laypeople, other staff, and so forth—and says something akin to, “You know, they think . . .” or “People are talking. . . .” Very few things strip a pastor of confidence and peace and focus as much as this.
I want you to read the article. Read it carefully. Let it prompt you to not only pray for your pastor, but also to check yourself. But before you read it, let me add a couple of important thoughts. First, I have learned that sometimes when this dynamic unfolds it is because despite my best intentions people in our flock don’t feel safe with me; or, at least, with the environment in which they find themselves. My first question now is always of myself. Is there something I am doing that keeps people from feeling the freedom to approach me directly? Honestly, most of the time the answer is a firm, “No.” But there may be times when the answer is a clear, “Yes.” I have to ask. It matters that much.
Secondly, sometimes it just doesn’t matter how appropriate or not it is because the substance of whatever is being said genuinely needs careful attention. Things are messy. People are messy. Processes are messy. While how the pastor hears something might not be savory, comfortable, or even honorable, it may be the essence of what is being said needs immediate attention. There has to be the discipline to push past the discomfort and get to the true need. That is called real leadership.
One other thought. I have found that genuinely loving those voices that play this game helps me sleep at night. Taking the high road has never once failed me. When I have not taken the high road, or withheld love and grace, even if addressing the “they dynamic” with honest exhortation, I have always regretted it.
Now . . . the article, written by Thom Rainer, entitled, “One Sentence that Pastors and Church Staff Hate to Hear”:
The moment they hear it, they feel the “cringe factor” throughout their body. Even as the first few words are spoken, the recipient feels his or her emotions plummeting. It is the one sentence that is uniformly dreaded by pastors and church staff. It typically begins with these words:
“People are saying that . . . “
The full sentence could say; “People are saying that you don’t visit enough.” Another example is: “People are saying that our student ministry is not doing well.” Or one more example is: “People are saying that you don’t have good office hours.”
The sentence might specify a group while maintaining anonymity for the individuals: “Some elders are not happy with you” or “A lot of the staff are unhappy.”
You get the point. It could be phrased a number of ways, but the meaning is still similar. “People” is never defined. The true complainer is never identified. It is one of the most frustrating and demoralizing sentences pastors and staff will hear. Here are some reasons for the frustration:
- The complainer lacks the courage to speak for himself or herself. So he or she hides behind the deceitful veil of “people are saying.” Leaders in churches know that when complainers lack courage to speak for themselves, or when they have to hide behind anonymous complainers, they are trouble in the making.
- The leader has no recourse or action to take. These complainers never identify the source or sources. So the pastor or staff person cannot follow up and speak directly to the dissidents. He or she is left with a complaint that cannot be resolved due to anonymity.
- The leader immediately questions the motive of the complainer. The moment the ministry leader hears those words, “People are saying . . . “, he or she doubts the credibility and the heart of the complainer. The approach is cowardly; it thus is always seen through the lens of doubt and frustration.
- This approach is a double frustration for the ministry leader. First, he or she has heard yet another criticism. Most ministry leaders have to deal with criticisms too often. Second, the ambiguity of the complaint and the source of the complaint can leave a leader wondering if the problem is really bigger than reality. He or she can waste a lot of emotional energy on something that really may not be such a big deal.
- Indirect criticisms can be the most painful criticisms. Most ministry leaders deal better with someone who is direct and precise in his or her concerns. But indirect criticisms such as “People are saying . . . “ or “I love you pastor, but . . . “ hurt more because cowardly actions and duplicitous behavior are added to the criticism itself.
As a leader in a local church and in other places, I got to the point where I did not entertain such veiled criticisms. I tried to be polite and say, “I am sorry, but I cannot listen to you further because you will not give me the specific sources of the concerns. If you are willing to name those people specifically or, even better, get them to speak to me directly, I will be happy to hear the concerns.”
Has my approached worked? Frankly, I don’t recall any of these critics being happy with my response. But I have had to learn that there are certain people in churches and other organizations who have the spiritual gift of complaining. And they will exercise that gift frequently and with vigor.
I have to move on to those who have positive and encouraging solutions. Life is too short to deal with cowardly complainers.
Let me know what you think about this issue.
Thanks for reading! I’d love any thoughts you have. You might check the comments attached to Thom’s article, right here.