We’ve all been there. As pastors, perhaps it was just a month in, or a few months in; often it’s much later, after a year or so, when you start to get comfortable and think things are going well. BAM!
An anonymous complaint hits your desk. Or someone pulls you aside after church and tells you that someone told them they were upset with you, but they can’t tell you who told them.
Sometimes you know exactly who has an issue with you, other times, you really don’t know but you suspect, and the suspicion gnaws at you. Why? What was it that you did, or that they perceived you did or did not do? Why won’t they come to you?
At my first call, I actually didn’t receive an anonymous letter, I received a three-page written letter that was signed by the writers. I called them to talk about it, but funny enough, they didn’t want to talk about it. They had their complaint out there and wanted me to just deal with it. To change. To fix what they saw wrong with me.
This is often the pattern of anonymous and semi-anonymous complaints (I call written complaints semi-anonymous—you may know who did it, and if it’s an email you definitely know, and you know the person wants to avoid talking about it with you face to face, at least for the moment): the person has gotten their anger out and expects you to deal with it, and deal with it privately and professionally, even though their way of complaining may have not been professional (or private, for that matter). There is often no reconciliation, no follow-up conversation, no way forward until the next complaint.
At my second call, I served a very healthy church, in which the pastoral relations committee was active and met regularly. When an issue was brought to them, the first reaction of the committee was, “Did you take that up with the pastor yourself?” If not, they were asked why and encouraged to find a way to meet with me to talk about the issue. Though rare, when it did happen, the person who had the issue did not want to speak with me about it and did not want to do anything other than raise their anger.
Another good example from that church: I had a member who was disturbed by something I said in a sermon once. He emailed me about it and asked if he could meet with me to talk about it. I agreed to meet and we had a good heart-to-heart. While there was disagreement, there was respect, and to this day I really appreciate him and the maturity he brought to sharing what was on his heart. There were no hard feelings.
The problem is that many of us don’t grow up in families where conflict is dealt with well. We grow up not knowing how to handle it. In the business world, anonymous and semi-anonymous complaints are accepted. There are comments cards everywhere from coffee shops to airline ticket counters. You can write down your complaint, put it in a box, and you are done. It is up to the other party now. I’ve done it myself, and been angry when I don’t hear back. I feel that I’ve taken the time to write about how the barista got my order wrong and didn’t seem to pay attention, or that despite running from one gate to the next to make my connection, even though the plane hadn’t taken off yet my seat was given to someone else on stand-by.
The truth of the matter is the person who we feel has wronged us by not paying attention or doing something different than the way we think they should have done it is still a human being. They have feelings. They work hard (probably). They may have just had a bad day.
It’s different when you’re a pastor and you’re receiving the complaints, but sometimes you, or your pastoral relations committee, are treated like an anonymous complaint box. You’re expected to respond like a corporate official—to not reveal who made the complaint should you know, to continue to act professionally, and to “fix it” because “the customer is always right.” You are not supposed to have hurt feelings. You are not supposed to react. You are supposed to aim to please.
But this is church. Congregants are not customers. They do not come to church to receive a service that they pay for and receive a 100% guarantee of satisfaction. We go to church to be the body of Christ and to serve Christ and the world. We go to church and are reminded that, like the disciples, we are imperfect, we are fractured, we are rash, we are sinners, but in Christ we are loved and forgiven.
So here are some tips:
1. Churches: do not treat your pastor or pastoral relations committee like an anonymous comment box. If you have an issue, remember that your pastor is trained to listen. They are a human being. Ask people to speak with the pastor if they have concerns or questions. If they feel uncomfortable, have a member of the committee go with them to be a silent listener and support, for both pastor and congregant. Don’t allow anonymous complaints (exception: in cases of allegations of abuse).
2. Pastors: if it happens, take a deep breath. Call a friend—another pastor or someone else not part of your church. Vent. Get your anger out. It hurts when we hear complaints, whether there may be no truth, a sliver of truth, a distorted truth, or whether something that is written or said hits you hard. When you have had an hour, or a day or three, decide whether you want to attempt to respond (if you know who the person is), or whether you want to bring the pastoral relations committee into the know, or whether you want to ignore it. Yes, sometimes ignoring it is the best option, especially if the complaint is, “The pastor doesn’t wear appropriate shoes for worship.”
3. Pastoral/Staff Relations Committee Members: receive training. Talk to your regional body and find out what training there is for relations committees. Know what your role is. Then use your position to help train the church so they are reminded that the church is not a business and the pastor is not an employee. They need to remember that church, leadership, and pastor are all human beings and all in relationships with one another. They need to learn that if they have a serious issue with the pastor, they need to take it up with them and try to work together, if not for resolution at least for mutual understanding when at all possible. They also need to know what the pastor’s role is: the pastor is not solely responsible for bringing more people into the church; that is the work of the whole church. The pastor is not solely responsible for the music or worship service; that is the work of the whole church. The pastor is not solely responsible for the Christian Education or outreach programs or why or why not there are young adults in church; that is the work of the whole church.
This is very simplified. There are better resources out there—check out the Alban Institute or other organizations that have materials on family systems theory and other resources that help us understand why we behave the way we do when it comes to complaints and conflicts. But hopefully, this is a start to recognize that the church is not a consumer based business, but the body of Christ, and the pastor is part of that, too. Even with professional training, we are human beings and can have hurt feelings. Anonymous and semi-anonymous complaints put the burden on the pastor to process and handle both their own feelings and the feelings of the congregant, whereas dialogue allows for constructive criticism, grace-filled listening, and hopefully, mutual understanding.