Honestly, every congregation seems to have at least one and it seems like every pastor gets caught in their cross hairs at one point in time or another. Call them what you will—curmudgeons, complainers, rebel rousers, oh-crud-here-he/she-comes-again—you will meet them in ministry.
There are times when someone comes at you at the right time wrong moment. You’re just about to preach and you hear: “Ya know pastor, could you pray for the deacons to have more energy to take care of the lawn better?” Or during the ceremonial shaking of hands by the door and someone tells you how that tiny illustration from sub point A in point two was way off base (all while shaking your hand, smiling). Or worse, you have those who hide in a corner somewhere, conspiring against the pastor (okay, maybe not conspiring, but it can feel that way sometimes) because he/she isn’t like St. Pastor So-and-So from 20 years ago, the benchmark for all pastors.
I think there are at least 5 different kinds (probably more) of complainers:
- The casual complainers: It’s something on their mind, total absence of malice. It just popped up and they’re quick to speak and slow to listen. Having their opinion heard is what’s important to them.
- The guerrilla complainers: They come out of nowhere to tell the pastor what’s wrong with everything (usually via e-mail, or a letter, or text, etc.) and then jump back into the congregation, dodging any attempt to answer the concern.
- The vague curmudgeons: They speak in statements that start with a “we.” “We don’t like…” or “We are getting frustrated about..” or “We’re a bit concerned the pastor’s not...”. Always vague on the facts and always vague on who exactly “we” is.
- The triangulators: These can be scary. A parishioner has an issue with the pastor or with something going on at church. Instead of going directly to the pastor a triangle is formed by them telling a third party. This is done as a prayer request to pray for them because they are struggling with how the council didn’t do the thing which they thought the council should do. Or they bend the ear of an elder or deacon (or spouse of one) to the point of exasperation that said elder or deacon then brings the issue to council instead of bringing the person to the pastor. The originating person is seen as being innocent of any transgressions. It started off as a prayer concern for goodness sakes: "I can pray, right?"
- The concerned parishioner: They speak in love, they speak honestly, they speak in a way that they are truly concerned but it still comes across at the wrong time and the wrong way.
Stacked all on top, this can become hard on a pastor. As pastors, we truly pour our heart and souls into our work, deeply caring for the people we are called to minister with and to. But it can feel like ministry would be so much easier if it weren’t for all the sinners.
How do we deal with all this?
Stop and soak it in.
Stop for a moment and soak in the complaints. Take a moment to reflect and allow it to soak into you. Allow what they say to enter into your heart, your mind, and your soul. Then accept it as pure information.
For pastors, the first and best thing to do is to not become reactionary or defensive. Instead, toss the ball back in their court. My favorite response to give is “You seem very passionate about this. I’d love to hear more. Let’s meet for coffee on (a later date) so I can hear more.” It gives a moment for all to slow down. It gives a moment to soak it in—for both of you.
If they truly are concerned, they’ll meet with you. I’ve had many take me up on it. Some haven’t (usually the ones who use “we”).
As pastors, when we take a moment and let things soak in, not allowing it to harm our ego or desire to retaliate and/or defend ourselves, it allows what’s being said to be just information. It allows for the underlying subtext of the statement to be heard, to be felt. It allows for the person to know that Christ’s representative standing before them (that’s you, pastor, by the way) has taken time to be with them. It won’t solve everything or get them to stop it, but it’s a beginning.
So, where will you stop and soak in complaints this week?