Stop and Soak in the Complaints

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?"
  5. 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?

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Josh, I so appreciate your advice to take a breath and “soak it in” instead of reacting quickly to these situations.  I do believe there is a time and place for us to cover the sins of others as an act of mercy.  As you note, this is a good beginning for dealing pastorally with these situations. 

However, you also pointed out that there are some individuals who complain as an ongoing habit.  It seems the 9th commandment applies here.  Perpetual complainers fail to “guard their neighbour’s good name.”

We would/should be deeply concerned about a parishioner who perpetually lies, steals, commits adultery, etc.  Should we not have the same concern for someone who perpetually notices and announces unintended mistakes—especially when their “noticing” is voiced in ways that impugns the character of others?

Yes, we can make corrections in ourselves and in church programs when others note need for improvement.  And we can learn patience, grace and humility when dealing with those who repeatedly bring complaint.   But there’s more at stake.  Perpetual complainers need to come to grips with the “grievous wounds” they cause by “scurrilous affected urbanity…by which the failings of others…are bitterly assailed…”

John Calvin, Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 8:

Though the commandment is only directed against falsehood, it intimates that the preservation of our neighbour's good name is recommended. It ought to be a sufficient inducement to us to guard our neighbour's good name, that God takes an interest in it. Wherefore, evil-speaking in general is undoubtedly condemned. Moreover, by evil-speaking, we understand not the rebuke which is administered with a view of correcting; not accusation or judicial decision, by which evil is sought to be remedied; not public censure, which tends to strike terror into other offenders; not the disclosure made to those whose safety depends on being forewarned, lest unawares they should be brought into danger, but the odious crimination which springs from a malicious and petulant love of slander. Nay, the commandment extends so far as to include that scurrilous affected urbanity, instinct with invective, by which the failings of others, under an appearance of sportiveness, are bitterly assailed, as some are wont to do, who court the praise of wit, though it should call forth a blush, or inflict a bitter pang. By petulance of this description, our brethren are sometimes grievously wounded. But if we turn our eye to the Lawgiver, whose just authority extends over the ears and the mind, as well as the tongue, we cannot fail to perceive that eagerness to listen to slander, and an unbecoming proneness to censorious judgments are here forbidden. It were absurd to suppose that God hates the disease of evil-speaking in the tongue, and yet disapproves not of its malignity in the mind. Wherefore, if the true fear and love of God dwell in us, we must endeavour, as far as is lawful and expedient, and as far as charity admits, neither to listen nor give utterance to bitter and acrimonious charges, nor rashly entertain sinister suspicions. As just interpreters of the words and the actions of other men, let us candidly maintain the honour due to them by our judgment, our ear, and our tongue.

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Joy.... 

You have some great stuff here and I wholeheartedly agree with you that those who perpetually complain and bring up issues need to be dealt with accordingly and pastorally in the love of Christ (maybe another post? or I might even just copy and paste what ya got here). Unfortunately, there's only so much you can say in a 750+ word post (I edited it down from 900 words to like 770ish). I think the biggest issues in church conflict are the triangulators and vague curmudgeons--these are the perpetuals in church conflict for the most part (of course, there is probably a larger list somewhere that is more nuanced and exhaustive than the one I put up). These you cannot just ignore but instead work pastorally with the council in handling the issue. And sometimes the issue goes away when they do...but the damage left in their wake takes years to clean up. It is the balance pastors walk in ministry.

And I didn't even talk about those who enact conflict and try to use power in church to control... that's a whole 'nother post in itself too. 

Thanks again for your thoughts and comment. 

Soak in the complaints.  Good Advice!   But I think we also should be aware of the fact that even in the Christian Reformed Church, there are psychopaths, or to use the more modern word,  sociopaths.    Dr. Martha Stout in her book, "THE SOCIOPATH NEXT DOOR",  maintains that on the average there is one sociopath in every twenty- five people.  They are found in every profession, including the ministry.  Sociopaths  lack empathy, they only love themselves and they hardly ever change.   Even one sociopath in a congregation can make the life of a pastor very miserable.  Of course, by the same token, there are also be pastors who are sociopaths  who can cause lots of trouble in their congregations.  No doubt, a number of pastors who were dismissed from the ministry were sociopaths.  Would it not be useful to write an article about this 'anti-social personality disorder'  in The Banner?  Or would it open up a can of worms?

Ref,  Martha Stout, Ph.D.,  THE SOCIOPATH NEXT DOOR,  1 in 25 ordinary Americans secretly has no conscience and can do anything at all without feeling guilty.  Who is the devi; you know?  (Broadway Books, 2005).

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During the years from 1995-2007 I served as NY State Certified Umpire. Looking back on those years,I can see how some of the best training I had for the ministry happened on the baseball diamond. I had good mentors then, as well as in my earlier years of ministry. I learned something vey valuable: Let people have their say, even if they are spitting mad. DO NOT RESPOND IN ANGER! Wait a few days and go visit the person and you will likely diffuse future situations as well. If someone can get under your skin, they win. If you can hold your tongue and perhaps try to see them as God sees them, it is easier to deal with. Yes, there will be some that you cannot please (ever), but most often, people will back down and often apologize. I try to let the elders handle those with consistent negativity. Thanks Josh, Joy and Arnold for the your posts on this subject!