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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  • D avid Tro ublefield, DMin says on

    Bro. Thom indeed has gotten good and needed mileage out of this blog posting during the past two days–because the issues among us are real and serious and continuous.

    Another reminder: Presently, over 70% of all SBC congregations are plateaued/declining in terms of their numerical growth (cf. [this is research done by NAMB’s Richie Stanley only a few years ago])–and the percentage is even higher among mainline denominations. And: about 1/3 of all of the US churches that close once-for-all EACH SUNDAY also are/were (before they died) SBC congregations (again, And: 100% of those congregations are led by senior pastors (even if about 5% of local churches are without a senior pastor at any one time, as LifeWay’s staffers say [it’s still true, though])–who are supposed to be loved by the rest of us as they seek to fulfill their biblical calling/roles–i.e., equip us saints for our works of service happening alongside of theirs. It seems clear, doesn’t it, that f the current trend continues, then more of the paychecks mentioned above will be gained by pastors from work done by them outside of full-time vocational Christian ministry. And it will be everybody’s fault; 50 million more Americans live in the US now than 20 years ago–obviously, the potential for all-good things experienced by local churches is absolutely outstanding still–and nothing at all about the culture has so changed in this time that the nation cannot be reached somehow/someway with the gospel and for Jesus Christ. The Kingdom’s culture never was a thing easily established in towns/cities around the world–but it has been possible anyway ever since the Resurrection.

    A really great “Why?” deserves a really great “How?”–as in, “How do we fix this?” SBCers usually get lots-and-lots of what’s and way-too-few how-to’s (but this is where LifeWay and blogs like Thom’s can come in). But here’s a truth from SBC history: it never was possible for a congregation to have a full-time pastor until it had a full-time Sunday morning small group Bible study program (or equivalent term without so much negative connotation as the word “program”!) like the Sunday School.

    Obviously, it will be the Lord who fixes what ails so many of us church-wise; but another reminder: God permitting approximately 3000 American churches to close-up once-for-all annually seems to be His way of telling us that He is committed 150% to the doing of His part for church growth and Kingdom expansion AND that He also is committed 150% NOT to do your part or mine. In 1446 BC, the Lord parted the Red Sea but then He told Israel, “Go; walk all the way across to the other side!” It was either walk or drown for His people then, and it is for us today too.

    So, again: (1) Common purpose: establish it once-for-all (they are listed in the New Testament); (2) Clear roles: define them (and nobody gets to yell at anybody else!); (3) Accepted leadership: become it (no born good-solution-finders–just ones of us becoming them); (4) Effective processes: find them (and then keep on finding them as necessary); (5) Solid relationships (what else is there to say about this one?!); and, (6) Excellent communication (again: utterly impossible to over-communicate, ever).

    Ephesians 3:20-21, y’all :-))

  • Alex Clayton says on

    Three cowards to look out for:
    #4 The Sniper – anonymous letters that are directed at the Pastor or Leader from a distance. The Biblical answer is “Do not entertain an accusation against and elder (pastor, leader) unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. 1 Tim 5:19

    #5 Phantom Leader: always in the background with the money and the ear of the leadership. No move is made without consulting the phantom leader.

    #6 The Customer is Always Right Leadership: in an effort to appease the the complaining and critical member (customer) leadership falls pray to going to the Pastor with the complaint and letting him know that he/she, they/them, or several people have complained. The simple solution to this is ask the leadership to set up a meeting with the whoever, and the pastor to discuss this. Usually does not happen, because leadership does not want the Pastor to know who is complaining. Also advise that there must be more than one complainer to legitimately to be heard. THE CUSTOMER IS NOT ALWAYS RIGHT.

    • Alex Clayton says on

      One other thought, when someone brings a complaint to you, ask them what they believe and how they feel. Do not talk about the anonymous source. Put the one bringing the message on the spot. Yes, shoot the messenger. This way it will not happen again.

  • Thom, I would like to hear your perspective on situations that involves bringing the attention of the church leaders to a situation that is ultimately harmful to the gospel…that is, if the world is showing more love to a person than their church, in the style of a Good Samaritan, and they try to address that problem and they are slapped down for that…how is that good leadership? How will that help someone in the future coming into that church? Scripture speaks of the cries of the widows and orphans being heard by God. There are some things that need to be addressed for the sake of the gospel. In other words, If i can rely on the love that the unsaved have to offer me rather than the love and support of the church, something is off key about a church like that .

  • Les Ferguson says on

    The best response to a #6 (withholding pledge) was the Pastor whipped out their checkbook and said “tell me what you give and I’ll cover it.” The bully essentially stormed off in a huff.

    The reality, the bully only gave ~$1,000 a year. The money wasn’t missed and the lack of toxicity was appreciated.

  • Dr. Rainer has been equally tough on pastors who do not shepherd well as he has been toxic church members over the years.

    This particular post is appreciated in the sense that I do not believe we have a ‘We have too much God-honoring behavior going on in this church!’

    Decades of teaching Gospel lite, ignoring the full-counsel of God’s Word, ignoring church discipline and allowing ‘power players’ to run rampant in churches, often leaving pastors and ministers twisting in the wind, just praying someone will come alongside them, has led to this current situation.

    We certainly cannot deny the pastor’s responsibilities in the face of such people. No one is disputing that. The tenor of the thread is interesting. Far too many ministers have left the ministry because of such repeated behaviors and no one coming alongside them. I can think of three good friends who left the ministry because of these kind of things and two who basically left the faith or are on the margins at best, because they experienced such things as young ministers and there was no one there to walk with them.

    Yes, pastors must deal with conflict, but not all conflict as not all conflict is equal and if the pastor is in the middle of all conflict, he is unable to do his job. This is where deacons and other ministers and godly lay people must also help with church health.

    Thank you, Dr. Rainer for this post. I know that it won’t be long before you post something to call pastors and ministers to courage or account. We are all learning and still works in progress. Many of us appreciate it when you address the other side of things, wolves in the church, because in a twist of irony, some of the same troubled people will use your blog when you call out pastors to hammer their pastor further, and completely ignore or rationalize away posts you make concerning church members and their role in church health.

    We are all accountable to one another as a body to build that body up, not tear it down. Thank you for being balanced in your writings and saying things, that we ministers, at times, simply cannot say to our congregations because it would come across as self-serving.

  • Titus 3:10 = “Reject a factious man (person) after a first and second warning.” Thankfully, this group is small as has been pointed out, but can do significant damage. I was just listening to another podcast in which the speaker was identifying 3 types of people from Proverbs: The Wise person who listens to correction, the Fool who will not listen to correction and it is always someone else’s fault. And the Evil person whose purpose it is to be destructive. Food for thought.

  • First off, Thom thanks for speaking the truth. As a pastor and a pastor’s kid I’ve seen all of the things you’ve listed. Sadly a church can often be steered or controlled by a small handful of naysayers & complainers.

    Secondly, the mention that a pastor forgets who gives him his “paycheck” is just the kind of talk that drives too many pastors out of the ministry. In truth, God provides for His pastoral servants through the local church.

    Thirdly, I also agree, except in the case of abuse, anonymous letters should be ignored. Without a name how can the writer’s issues properly be addressed? Anonymous letters do not allow for follow up questions or clarification of the problem.

    Finally, I am sad to read about so many folks on this blog that seem so negative and bitter. I’m sorry there are pastors who do not lead well or are “power hungry”. But I contend that number is small – just like the number of congregants who are mentioned in the beginning of the article.

    Thankfully God is still on His throne!

  • Perry Robinson says on

    A good article Dr. Rainer. I see this in my work place in a correctional unit as well when it comes to leadership and staff interaction.
    Have a good day,

  • All of these different types of people exist in the church, no matter what you call them or how you label them. The problem is, when they act the way they do, they are divisive and cause dissension in the church. I also agree, except in the case of abuse, anonymous letters should be ignored.

  • This post is another good cause for reflection.

    Are sheep ‘cowards’ or acting ‘cowardly’? Either way, if one behavior-describes or name-calls, it is a judgment (as others have mentioned). There are several heart judgments in this post. Even ‘groupies’ seems dishonoring.

    Maybe if behavior-describing, it should be called acting’ stupidly’ as used recently in another post here about shepherds. But, again, probably the best label is sin (if it is not ignorance, poor discernment, immaturity).

    And re the conclusion -: “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.” –

    It seems it would be good to include having much face to face communication with individuals about this, in counseling, disciplining, training, etc. since God honoring effective communication is a major theme of this post.

    Maybe daily reading of 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12 etc would be good for all too, because we are not unaware of the Lord’s word to all in Eph 4:15
    but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.

  • Da vi d Tro ublefield, DMin says on

    So, then:

    1. Biblical convictions;

    2. Godly courage that should accompany biblical convictions; and

    3. Mature ability to say “I’m really sorry” and “I really forgive” and “I’m really hungry–let’s go together right now to get a double cheeseburger with bacon and a strawberry milkshake [or vegan equivalents thereof]; and, I’ll pay!” The Lord Jesus did not die a cruel death on your cross and mine–and for us–so that we would NOT also continue to choose each other lovingly after apologizing and forgiving.

    Doable everywhere, folks–tonight :-))

  • Sometimes church staffers forget who gives to them a “paycheck”. If a congregant is unhappy with a staffer, even if it is just one congregant, the staffer needs to listen. Paul told us to not be offensive to others; Romans 14:19-21 (CSB)
    19 So then, let us pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another. 20 Do not tear down God’s work because of food. Everything is clean, but it is wrong to make someone fall by what he eats. 21 It is a good thing not to eat meat, or drink wine, or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. Now that isn’t just about food. We as ministers sometimes offend our congregants by the way we dress, the music we listen to, or whatever. Some SBCers consider the current casual look of ministers as disrespectful to the office of Pastor or staff minister. We as ministers have caused the backlash we have received and a part of that is due to the fact that we as ministers have the attitude of “we are the staff, you just need to sit down, shut up, and take it, because none of you have a voice. It is our way or the highway” and we’ve called that Biblical, and folks, that isn’t Biblical. We may be the Pastor or a staff minister, big deal! We are not the lords of the local church. We are there for one purpose only; to teach that local congregation how to do ministry, period! The congregation will be there long after we are gone and it isn’t our ministry, it is the congregation’s ministry, they should be the ones that make the final decision of changes, dress codes, etc. It is THEIR MINISTRY, NOT OURS! That’s what we have forgotten and that’s why we receive all the negatives that hit us like a bomb. It is our own fault, and no one or nothing else is to blame! We need to stop being Pharisaical Bullies.

    • Perry Robinson says on

      Yes, the undershepherd should love the sheep as our Shepherd loves us.

    • Christopher says on

      So, in other words, the pastor is just a hired hand who just needs to shut up and wait for a business meeting so the church can vote on what color tie he should wear.

      • D avid Tro ublefield, DMin says on

        In a word, Yes.

        Not really :-))

        Knowing how Christian pastors/senior pastors and congregations are supposed to behave is not the rocket science part of all of this; the rocket science part of all of this is: actually behaving that way everyday and around each other like the Bible says.

        When the senior pastor messes up, he should admit it and quit it and forget it; if he won’t, then he should be man-enough for you or me to challenge him in a godly way about it; if he won’t, then he isn’t the senior pastor who can help the congregation achieve its biblical mission: bringing people into the Kingdom, not driving them from it–and he should leave to pastor a congregation whose immature core values are a match to his. No hard feelings. For laypersons in the church: same thing.

        Ephesians 4:1-32

    • What if the congregation is bullying the pastor?

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