Nine Common Types of Church Cowards

Many pastors and church leaders are miserable because of fewer than five percent of the church members.

Let me state if positively. Over 95 percent of church members are supportive and encouraging.

So pastors and other church leaders need to learn and deal with the reality of church cowards. They are few in number but, like a few bee stings from a hive of hundreds, they can be painful.

Before I suggest a path forward with church cowards, let me identify nine of the most common detractors.

  1. The business meeting aggressor. This person is largely silent until there is a business meeting in the church. At that point, he or she begins to speak with either passive-aggressive language or outright venom. They take comfort and security by speaking in a crowd.
  2. The social media attacker. This coward hides behind the shield of a keyboard. They will not come to the church leader directly, but will gladly make their positions and criticism known digitally.
  3. The “I-love-you-but” hypocrite. This church member prefaces criticisms and diatribes with a disingenuous comment of love and support for the church leader.
  4. The anonymous letter writer. He or she who does not have the courage to identify himself or herself does not deserve an audience.
  5. The absent but critical commanders. These church members have a lot of opinions about the church and the church’s leadership, most of it critical. But they are rarely involved in ministry or showing their support for the church in tangible ways.
  6. The financial withholding hoard. You know these church members. When things do not go their way, they stop giving to the church. After all. It’s not God’s money; it’s their
  7. The nothing good gossiper. This member is happy to spread news about the church, its leaders, and its members – as long as the news is negative, salacious, or false.
  8. The delegating demanders. Their pattern is consistent. If they have a problem or criticism, they go to someone else to communicate the problem. They then expect the receiver of the message to address the situation.
  9. The “silence-is-golden” groupies. Unfortunately in many churches, these members are often the exception to the 95 percent statement I made above. Too many members, far beyond the five percent problem members, remain silent when they see unfair criticisms, bullying, and other toxic behavior. Their silence is a complicit act of cowardice.

So how do pastors deal with church cowards? First, you pray for them. As difficult as it may seem, you do pray for them. Second, you stay vigilant for these members so you can be aware of what is taking place. Third, you remember you are their pastor. Finally, you focus your emotional energies on the members who really want to make a positive difference for the Kingdom.

Church cowards will always be with you.

It’s up to you, in God’s strength, to determine how you will respond.

Posted on October 9, 2017

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • If we could lead our people to focus on the people outside of the church half as much as getting their way in the church, most of these issues would go away. The major problem is that there are so many churches that are focused inwardly.
    To the people who say that we shouldn’t say that the word “cowards” to describe SOME church members, you are blessed. You apparently haven’t had to deal with this group of people yet. It was noted that it was around 5%. That could mean 1% or 10%, depending on the church.

    • Mark Smith says on

      The church isn’t just an evangelistic organization. It is also a discipleship center. You can’t just “look outward.” You have to work inside as well.

  • Seems to me we and leadership, as self-professed members of the “95”, should perhaps not pray so much for God to change the 5% but rather for His guidance on how we can better communicate with and understand them….just saying.

    • Thank you. I am in the 5% who could never figure out why no one ever would ever ask if we understood any part of what was being said to the 95%.

  • Leslie H McKown says on

    #10 “They say . . . ” the person who won’t commit themselves, but will report what others (presumably) are saying. I response to those who say “People say your sermons are too long,” is (either to myself or aloud) “When you tell me that, I understand that is what you think.”

  • I would also call #8 the “multiple advocate” coward. They will either go to multiple people if one doesn’t take up their cause, or will go to multiple people thinking there is strength in numbers.

  • Rick Knock says on

    There is a reason why police departments offer anonymous tip lines, and why they don’t refer to them as coward lines. Name calling—especially by church leadership—is neither appropriate nor helpful. Even when pastors believe they are being unfairly attacked, and even when their critics seem to lack the courage or social skills to present their concerns in an appropriate form, pastors must summon their own courage and lead by example.

    • I don’t agree with anonymous letters but sometimes there is a reason why people are ignorant and haven’t matured behind being a coward…perhaps it is the example they see from the pulpit…If there are the 5% cowards in the congregation, there are also the cowards in the pulpit…the ones that address a situation from the pulpit instead of going to the person they are really preaching about in person…to me that is another form of bully/coward. ..especially in small churches where everyone in the congregation know who the pastor really is addressing. There is a lack of maintaining counselee confidentiality in some situations that is appalling and is not exhibited by the secular world.

    • Christopher says on

      Well, if the pastor is suspected in a crime then an anonymous tip is appropriate. Otherwise it’s cowardly.

      • D avid Tro ublefield, DMin says on

        Can a layman be fired from his membership in a local church for doing what is right biblically? If he can, then is that congregation worth joining to begin with?

        Can’t a mature and emotionally-secure adult member of any local church who has a legitimate reason to suspect that his/her pastor is guilty of a crime–of all things!–meet with that man to inquire about it. If not, why not? (Cf. the New Testament on this; take a witness or two, re-set the broken bone carefully–and mindfully of personal tendencies to the same, and etc.)

        The Bible describes love/agape as: “to pursue always, unconditionally, and at all cost to oneself the TOTAL wellbeing of another simply for the prize that person is and has become to one” (cf. John 3: God loves us–pursues us–that way in Christ, all the way to the cross). To fail to challenge a person who guilty of wrong-doing for fear of what might be said about me is me loving me (pursuing my own total wellbeing) and not me loving my neighbor (pursuing his total wellbeing). Love does not take “No” for an answer when it cannot be the answer. Love as the Bible describes it never abuses, but sometimes love hurts (cf. wrath: love’s reaction to unrepentant sin).

        Biblical convictions AND the godly courage that should accompany those convictions. There is nothing wrong with them.

    • Apples and oranges. Most anonymous letters to pastors are complaints and / or criticism, and they’re often over very petty issues. If people want me to pay attention to such things, I expect them to attach their names to them.

      • What about the complaints and criticisms that are true even though the letters are not signed? Is it REALLY good leadership to ignore those just because they aren’t signed? Or, should they actually be checked out?

      • How are you going to know the complaints are true if the letter is unsigned? I repeat, if it’s not important enough for the complainer to attach his / her name to it, then it’s not important enough for me to waste time on it.

      • You are going to know if the complaints are true by doing your job. It is the work of the leader to lead. In order to do that, the leader needs to know what is going on. Choosing to not investigate matters brought before you JUST because they were done so anonymously is not leading. It is going through the motions.

        And, your church deserves better than that. God demands better than that. That is why the Bible says that pastors shall have to answer for their leading of their flock. It does not say that they shall only answer for the ones who signed their names or acted according to the expectations of their shepherd.

    • Police departments are sword agents of the entire community they serve and so anonymous tip lines make sense because 1) a tip could legitimately come from a broad group; and 2) there should be no assumption of relationship between an average citizen and the police department.

      Churches are families that assume there is a relationship and have an exclusive membership. Moreover, they are organisms that demand honest communication. Imagine what it would be like if your pain receptors were all anonymous. It would be a horrible way to live.

      I can certainly see some settings where a member would feel an anonymous letter is easier to send, but I can’t imagine any settings where sending a pastor an anonymous letter about himself would be Kingdom centered.

  • Mark Smith says on

    In my opinion you have to be careful with the immediate dismissal of the “I love you but…” criticism. They may genuinely love you, and are trying to communicate that before sharing something that is concerning them. You can’t just make the blanket assumption that anyone who starts out with “I love you but…” is a hypocrite.

    • Thank you for this clarification. I agree. It’s the mode that Paul took when addressing issues i the church. He never led with criticisms but with compliments…

    • Here are Dr. Rainer’s words: “This church member prefaces criticisms and diatribes with a disingenuous comment of love and support for the church leader.”

      The operative word is “disingenuous”. The next obvious question is, how do you know whether the “I love you, but” statement is sincere or disingenuous? Usually, you can tell by the tone of what follows.

  • I have found that most who are critical of the leaders will end up leaving the church. Perhaps the best way to handle them is to simply wait on the Lord to deal with them. After all, the chance of pleasing the 5% will be at the risk of hurting the 95% that are supporting you. Sadly, the lack of true Christian honesty and loyalty seems to be missing in some churches.

    • Your method was done. It resulted in two generations now missing from most churches. If doing anything good for the younger people would have hurt the other 95%, then how did Christianity survive as long as it did? You mention loyalty. When I see incompetence in leadership, do you really expect loyalty?

  • E. Thomas Anderson says on

    By labeling each of these types of communicators “cowards” we are inviting pastors to dismiss the communication that they are receiving. For example, with the “business meeting aggressor,” their language is described as “passive-aggressive language or outright venom”. While this is obviously not the type of language that a follower of Christ should be utilizing what is important to recognize here is that this person obviously cares about the business of the Church otherwise it is more likely that they will simply remain silent. Instead of looking at conflict as a reason to let people go away unheard pastors should look at conflict as an opportunity to better understand their congregation. Also, conflict is an opportunity to show their congregation how to communicate in a more clear, concise, and most importantly a loving way. Often people will begin employing the methods of communication listed here when they feel as if their pastor and/or church leadership will not listen otherwise. Because of this labeling these people cowards and inviting pastors to dismiss their communication is the last thing that these people actually need.

    • Janet Parham says on

      Thom –

      Thank you.

      Thomas –

      The lecture is not helpful. Thom explained himself well in the last paragraph.

      • E. Thomas Anderson says on


        I wasn’t attempting to lecture, I was just trying to make my concerns clear, which is arguably what the entire post is about. I disagree that “Thom explained himself well in the last paragraph.”, because while I agree with Thom’s statement that pastors need to “…remember you are their pastor. ” I don’t honestly see how categorizing them as “cowards” helps pastors do this. This is not an attempt to undermine you are Thom. As someone who is currently in college to enter the pastoral ministry, I am simply expressing concern and seeking to understand why this use of language is necessary, let alone beneficial, to the conversation. If my initial post came off as a lecture I apologize as that was not my intent.

      • Tony Watson says on

        If this person has a legitimate concern, there are better ways to handle it than to air out a grievance in front of a crowd (which is often a tool to gather or fuel a following). Over the past 30 years, I’ve seen this type of person repeatedly in churches, and very seldom with pure motives. If there is genuine concern, a private conversation with the pastor or pastor and leadership is in order.

      • A person who doesn’t tell the truth is a liar. A person who steals is a thief. A person who won’t go to a the appropriate person, but uses one of these methods of communication, appears to be a coward. It’s important to hear all complaints, and listen to those that are valid, but it’s also important to deal appropriately with cowardly communication. Every instance Thom mentioned will harm the body of Christ. A good shepherd takes care of the sheep.

  • #8 is another one of my pet peeves. In my experience, the person usually comes up to you and says, “Don’t think we ought to…?” What he / she really means is, “I think you ought to….”

    • Thom Rainer says on

      You are so right, Ken.

    • I generally responded with “Yes, we should, do you want to lead that up?” and when they backpedal, I point out that if they’re not willing to invest in what they see as a problem, they need to be careful about other people not dealing with it.

  • I have seen quite a few leaders who have been blindsided by their refusal to give an audience to those people who did not have the courage to identify himself or herself. Putting your head in the sand simply because the writer refuses to sign the letter is unwise. Like cancer, suicide, and so many other things, ignoring warning signs is unwise.

    You don’t need to accept the letter as fact, but you shouldn’t just ignore what it says. That is when true leadership kicks in. That is when the ability to assess the situation comes in. That is when the need to take off the blinders and tinted glasses occurs.

    It is certainly easier to weigh the information if you know the source. But, if all you can do is what is easy, leadership is not for you.

    • I disagree. You start worrying about every anonymous letter that comes across your desk, and you’ll end up driving yourself crazy. My rule is very simple: if it’s not important enough for the person to affix his / her name to it, then it’s not worth my time.

      • Except if it alleges abuse. Then you need to act.

      • “Except if it alleges abuse. Then you need to act.”

        Yes, I agree there. In the state where I live, it’s illegal not to report allegations of abuse. However, my experience has been that most anonymous letters are complaints and / or personal criticism. Certainly I’m open to listening to such things, but only if the person making them is willing to attach his or her name to them.

      • D av id Tr ouble field, DMin says on

        The traditional (and still effective) Southern Baptist model for church growth has only 5 steps; it begins with Step 1: Discover all of the brighter tomorrows for which your congregation has the potential in its setting. In business, this is referred to as market research–and its results always, during all these years, could be received from anonymous sources that are no less worthy of consideration and compared with the whole. As this step is the very first of 5, if it is gotten wrong then a congregation/pastor/whoever has little chance of successfully achieving his/its God-given biblical objectives.

        I.e., act wisely, listen to all feedback, consider the source if you know it, and monitor and adjust as the other 4 steps of the SBC traditional model are taken. And use that 5-step model! :-))

      • I would submit that any leader who cannot make time to consider the content of an anonymous letter is not leading. They are going through the motions with indifference to the truth. If you ignore a letter merely because there is no signature attached to it, you can very well be setting yourself up for disaster. But, worse than that, you can be setting your flock up for the disaster.

        Does a shepherd really ignore ANY potential problem when it comes to the sheep? Or, do we only guard the flock against wolves that have been reported by people who signed their name?

        There is a HUGE difference between worry (which is often sinful in itself) and investigating. Does a shepherd fail to investigate a problem because he might become worried?

        The problem with simple rules is that they lead to simple actions (or none at all). I can guarantee you that the enemy knows your simple rules and how to get around them to attack your flock.

      • Too many leaders are more concerned with the roof on the building than teaching the faith. I never saw any teach the faith.

      • The enemy also knows how to use anonymous letters, too. I have enough real problems to deal with, so I don’t have time to chase down imaginary ones raised by people who aren’t even mature enough to own their complaints.

      • A wise leader finds out which are real problems and which are imaginary, regardless of the source.

        Retail managers, for instance, have used secret shoppers for years to find problems in their operations. They have no idea who these shoppers are. And, they have no idea whether the problems are real or perceived. But, they do know that they need to look st the situation to see which it is.

        And, given the hostile tone of your comments, it would not surprise me to find out that the reason people do not sign letters to you is not a matter of maturity. It is a question of backlash. The end result of the attitude you project (whether real or imaginary) is seldom positive.

        I would suggest to you that, if you cannot even read anonymous letters and check to see if they have any validity before simply ignoring and discarding them, it may be time for a change of leadership.

        Since I have attached my name to this, you might want to think about it before falling back to an unthinking rule.

      • “Retail managers, for instance, have used secret shoppers for years to find problems in their operations.”

        Apples and oranges. The manager knows who the secret shoppers are. How many retail managers run their stores on the basis of anonymous complaints?

        “And, given the hostile tone of your comments, it would not surprise me to find out that the reason people do not sign letters to you is not a matter of maturity.”

        Sir, you do not even know me. As for your accusation of a “hostile tone”, I suspect some psychologists would call this “projection”.

        “I would suggest to you that, if you cannot even read anonymous letters and check to see if they have any validity before simply ignoring and discarding them, it may be time for a change of leadership.”

        And I would suggest that you read a few books on leadership, particularly pastoral leadership. Many of them agree with me about anonymous letters. I’m certainly no dictator; on the contrary, I often consult with several lay leaders before pushing forward with projects. Thus, I don’t think it’s asking too much that the self-appointed critics own their criticisms.

    • I ignore 100% of anonymous letters I get. With no chance to engage the idea and clarify a concern (assuming it is legit), how can you use it productively for the Kingdom? How would you even know it’s from someone in your church you’re accountable to shepherd?

      I think in order to take that position you have to set a major tone of approachability and tell people you are ignoring anonymous letters in favor of actual dialogue between two children of the King.

  • Steven A Menteer says on

    Number 9 is unclear to me. Can you elaborate?

    • Mark Freeman says on

      Steven –

      Here is an example. John is unhappy with something in the church and thinks it’s the pastor’s fault. Instead of going to the pastor, he goes to Fred, a deacon in the church. John now expects Fred to handle the problem with the pastor.

      John is a conflict-avoider, so he handles it in a cowardly fashion.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        You nailed it, Mark,

      • Mark it looks like you clarified number 8 not number 9.

        Number 9 is about those that have someone come to them complaining about the leadership, and instead of defending their Church leadership they just take it in like a sounding board for the complainer.

      • Mark Smith says on

        I believe you just described the #8 Delegator, not the Silence is Golden.

    • Les Ferguson says on

      Try this:

      Pastor Patricia is taken on by Aggressive Al and Silent Sam sees it but does nothing. Instead of standing for the correct action of the Pastor, the Silent one just lets the Aggressive one run roughshod over the Pastor.

      That’s number 9. “If I don’t get involved I’m not involved.”

  • There can also be cowards in church leadership who roll over and will not deal with the cowards you describe.

    • Yep.
      Paul said to “Act like Men.”

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Your right, Mark. Silence is not always golden.

      • but it might be golden. If you see your leadership doing something of questionable morals its better to remain silent. At least that’s what your leadership would tell you if you bring it up….

      • And the leadership might provide veiled threats to insure your silence

      • And as a kid, you did not dare talk to the leadership as they would have gone right to your parents and you would not have been able to sit down for a week.

      • Went find anything about that in here. This is for sheep shearing. Lol

    • D av id Tr ouble field, DMin says on

      Managing conflicts = people leave.

      Resolving conflicts = problems leave, and they cannot come back because in the course of learning to resolve problems (rather than only to manage them as we are want to do) everyone must grow up (pastor and laymen alike) and now can identify problems for what they truly are: something not to let back inside the building or relationship.

      Often, folk do not want to grow up–so SBC churches and others continue to experience conflict (sometimes related to disobedience related to church growth activities we want someone else to do besides us), the same conflicts (due to too much time on our hands because we persist at avoiding church growth activities personally), and members or guests leaving (even the solid core finally will depart looking for the place of peace they are certain must exist among God’s born-again people–and it does: but only where congregations have chosen to grow up).

      Most important question: What results does God expect for each local church to achieve for the community within which it exists? Answering that question answers all related ones and provides direction for immediate and future work. The answer: EXCEPTIONAL RESULTS (not wishy-washy or even average; on the average: our neighbors are dying and going to a perpetually wishy-washy place called Hell). Only high performance teams (or groups by equivalent names; choose the one you like) ever consistently achieve exceptional results–and those groups are known to possess 6 characteristics (not 60, not 16–but not only 2) to a great degree:

      (1) Common purpose (establish it once for all in real time and space);
      (2) Clear roles (define them for everyone involved, with no overlap, based on spiritual giftedness, evangelism styles, and JJSW mission passions);
      (3) Accepted leadership (offering no solutions?–then you only are out for a walk, alone; leaders offer solutions–and administrators put them into action, creating organizational health [a local congregation going rapidly on mission with God in this world while there still is time]);
      (4) Effective processes (i.e., ways that work consistently today);
      (5) Solid relationships (Christians are ones “from the same womb”–but “God does not have a womb,” except in the case of brothers in Christ who can act like family with His help); and,
      (6) Excellent communication (utterly impossible to over-communicate).

      Great pastors encourage other believers to hold biblical convictions–but also to have the courage which should accompany those convictions. Pastors–especially senior pastors–are NOT famous today for listening BUT will need to do so when their growing fellow church members share info/concerns/etc. that can help to move a congregation forward, if it will move.

      This all is doable.

      Matthew 22:37-40

      • Just the opposite at our (old) church. The pastor is a bully. He yells at women till they quit & leave there positions as secretaries & school administrators & teachers. Men have stood up to him for his behavior, only for him to tell them they aren’t the pastor. His latest favorite saying is “shut up & obey me”!!! I just can’t believe this man is a pastor!!! This behaviour needs to stop.

      • D avid Tro ublefield, DMin says on

        Sad to hear it . . . being permitted.

        It is OK for a group to become a less-effective team on its way to becoming a mission-achieving high performance team with its 6 essential characteristics–it just is not at all OK for that group to remain that less-effective team, especially if it is a church.

        Sometimes, a high performance team slips back to less-effective team status–say, if conditions in its environment change (e.g., the zip code demographics shift from one culture to another, or if an oft-used technology fades away, or the senior pastor begins to bully) or if team members choose to leave (as often happens in churches–especially where senior pastors become bullies). Then, even more intentional concerted effort is needed to regain high performance team status for the sake of the overall mission–by regaining/recruiting team members, or adopting new technologies or strategies, or whatever is called for by the circumstances (e.g., dismissing a bully-for-a-pastor fellow; this is termed “a blessed subtraction”–a subtraction from the group, for sure, but one bringing blessing to the group and its mission).

        Several things might be legitimate explanations for the behavior being seen. What will the supervisors of the pastor do about it, and how soon will they start/finish that?

        Nothing seems to take as long to die as a Southern Baptist church.

      • Irene Neate says on

        Why is he allowed to remain as pastor? The congregation pays his salary, if people aren’t coming to church, then he needs to go.

      • The numbers are way down. From 115 to 30. This pastor doesn’t care about numbers. He believes he is the only one that deserves to get paid. The cleaning people & bookkeeper have given up their pay (reluctantly) so he could get his paycheck. The church secretary quit. The church called for a vote & he won by 3 votes! He said “I won”. He also said he will board up the church before he ever leaves! This pastor needs a severe change of heart.

      • Janice Little says on

        Can’t believe how many so-called Christians refuse to “read” their Bible then, they would learn that such behavior is not only unbiblical and unacceptable but that such pastors are to be censured or even removed by the congregation. No pastor or church leader owns the church. Again the real cowards in the church are the greedy, degenerate, unprincipled, money-grubbing pastors and church leaders who only care about, money, control and their own pleasure. These frauds are unbelievers who have destroyed the Church. Where are they on gay marriage, pedophilia, legalization of drugs and all the rot happening in the culture? They are so morally filthy the approve of all manner of sin. They lack moral Christian conviction. The church in our republic is the moral leader of our culture. Truth is the church leadership is directly responsible for the moral decay & moral degeneracy of America.

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