One Sentence That Pastors and Church Staff Hate to Hear

The moment they hear it, they feel the “cringe factor” throughout their body. Even as the first few words are spoken, the recipient feels his or her emotions plummeting. It is the one sentence that is uniformly dreaded by pastors and church staff. It typically begins with these words:

“People are saying that . . . “

The full sentence could say; “People are saying that you don’t visit enough.” Another example is: “People are saying that our student ministry is not doing well.” Or one more example is: “People are saying that you don’t have good office hours.”

The sentence might specify a group while maintaining anonymity for the individuals: “Some elders are not happy with you” or “A lot of the staff are unhappy.”

You get the point. It could be phrased a number of ways, but the meaning is still similar. “People” is never defined. The true complainer is never identified. It is one of the most frustrating and demoralizing sentences pastors and staff will hear. Here are some reasons for the frustration:

  • The complainer lacks the courage to speak for himself or herself. So he or she hides behind the deceitful veil of “people are saying.” Leaders in churches know that when complainers lack courage to speak for themselves, or when they have to hide behind anonymous complainers, they are trouble in the making.
  • The leader has no recourse or action to take. These complainers never identify the source or sources. So the pastor or staff person cannot follow up and speak directly to the dissidents. He or she is left with a complaint that cannot be resolved due to anonymity.
  • The leader immediately questions the motive of the complainer. The moment the ministry leader hears those words, “People are saying . . . “, he or she doubts the credibility and the heart of the complainer. The approach is cowardly; it thus is always seen through the lens of doubt and frustration.
  • This approach is a double frustration for the ministry leader. First, he or she has heard yet another criticism. Most ministry leaders have to deal with criticisms too often. Second, the ambiguity of the complaint and the source of the complaint can leave a leader wondering if the problem is really bigger than reality. He or she can waste a lot of emotional energy on something that really may not be such a big deal.
  • Indirect criticisms can be the most painful criticisms. Most ministry leaders deal better with someone who is direct and precise in his or her concerns. But indirect criticisms such as “People are saying . . . “ or “I love you pastor, but . . . “ hurt more because cowardly actions and duplicitous behavior are added to the criticism itself.

As a leader in a local church and in other places, I got to the point where I did not entertain such veiled criticisms. I tried to be polite and say, “I am sorry, but I cannot listen to you further because you will not give me the specific sources of the concerns. If you are willing to name those people specifically or, even better, get them to speak to me directly, I will be happy to hear the concerns.”

Has my approached worked? Frankly, I don’t recall any of these critics being happy with my response. But I have had to learn that there are certain people in churches and other organizations who have the spiritual gift of complaining. And they will exercise that gift frequently and with vigor.

I have to move on to those who have positive and encouraging solutions. Life is too short to deal with cowardly complainers.

Let me know what you think about this issue.

Posted on December 17, 2014

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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  • Dana Hakes says on

    We graduated together at SBTS. I’m now retired working at a local Walmart, and attending at a vibrant church. I have enjoyed reading your blogs and keep you in prayer.

  • I’ve also discovered that when someone says “everyone” it almost always means them and one additional person they have persuaded to agree with their point of view. Still hard not to feel the sting of the words though.

  • Erik Maloy says on

    Thank you Thom for this post. I have experienced this as a lead pastor and staff member. Unfortunately as a staff member I have heard it from my senior pastor, any advice for that situation?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Erik –

      I would respectfully say, “Thanks for the input. I know you hate it yourself when a critic says ‘People are saying . . . ‘, so I would greatly appreciate it if you let me know the sources of the criticism so I can address them directly.”

    • I’ve been there Erik. It could be that it’s an issue someone brought to the pastor in confidence which the pastor doesn’t want to break. In which case you heed whatever nugget of criticism is valid and pray for God’s grace to do better.

      It could be that it’s a small matter that your pastor thinks wise to inform you about but doesn’t think it useful to give a source for the sake of avoiding tension in your relationship with that person/those people. I think that would be unwise, in fact, but it comes from a good heart. Again, find the kernel of validity and course correct.

      It could be that your pastor doesn’t understand how to biblically resolve conflict within the church. It could be that your pastor is a coward who won’t admit that he and/or his wife and/or his children are the “people”. In these final two cases, pray hard and prepare your résumé. …that’s not a joke, though I wish it were.

  • Mark Dance says on

    Thank you for articulating the problem and solution so clearly. Pastors not only have permission to turn away anonymous criticisms, I believe they have an obligation to disarm cowardly snipers by ignoring them.

    “Avoid someone with a big mouth” (Proverbs 20:19 HCSB).

  • What is the proportion of average church members to church leaders who subscribe to your posts, Dr. Rainer? The reason I ask is that this post seems to be targeted to members, but if mostly pastors read it, they are sitting back pointing to the screen saying “Yeah! What he said!” and the members who do this kind of complaining keep doing their complaining, creating a further divide between pastors and staff on one side, and complaining church members on the other. Pastors sit back and smugly say to themselves, “I don’t have to listen to the ‘people are saying’ complaints, because Dr. Rainer says I don’t.” Members bring those complaints, some of which may actually be right-motived and legitimate even if anonymous, and they get ignored, because you’ve given the staff and leadership license to. I’m not saying I disagree that this is not a good way to bring concerns to the church leadership–I just disagree that they all deserve a blanket dismissal like “I’m sorry but I”m not listening unless you name names.” For instance, what if the statement, “People are saying,” was followed with “People are saying that the youth ministry isn’t monitoring high school boys mixing it up with middle school girls at some of the youth activities”? You are right with serial complainers; but staff have to learn to also recognize legitimate concerns voiced in similar phrasing.

    • If the complaint’s not important enough for someone to own by attaching his or her name to it, then it’s not important enough for me to consider. That’s been my rule long before I read this blog.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Monica –

      Our most recent survey showed the readership to be approximately one-third laypersons, one-third pastors, and one-third church staff other than lead pastors. Regarding your other point, I don’t know how anyone can deal with any issue unless they are able to address those who have direct knowledge and are willing to speak to it.

    • Monica, I think the better way to look at it is to ask “How does the bible command us to resolve issues?” The clear answer is in Matt. 18. Not only is it biblical, but it teaches people the proper way to resolve issues. For anyone to come in and speak on behalf of anonymous ‘others’ is not biblical, nor helpful, no matter how legitimate the issue is. If we want our people to grow in sanctification, we must do everything we can to direct them to do things as biblically as possible.

    • Agreed. If I was the clergyperson, I’d also be asking myself why my members are reluctant to express a concern as their own, or to me directly. Do I put them on the defensive? Am I dismissive? Am I distracted? Do I intimidate them? Are they trying to protect the confidence of a friend who has expressed a legitimate concern in private? Do I give the outward impression than their concerns are unimportant, or less important than my other concerns? Do I have a history of criticizing or dismissing member complaints to others (maybe even publicly on my website), leading people to state their own concerns as “People are saying …” so as not to be the butt of the clergyperson’s critical assessment? Discernment into the complaintant’s intentions and self-assessment would be great places to start questioning why people start their conversations this way.

  • If they refuse to identify the person complaining, I refuse to listen. Do so from day one and the complaints fade quickly.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Well said.

    • Velma Hampson says on

      The comments may fade. The feelings of sadness and neglect may fester and grow.

      • People are not neglected based on their thwarted attempts to manipulate or coerce a pastor or staff person with anonymous complaints. Loving, supportive, committed laity help develop loving, supportive, committed pastors and staff, and vice versa.

        Passing on (or originating) anonymous complaints to leaders robs them of some important things. First, it robs them of the opportunity to deal with the issue creatively and caringly. It also robs them of being able to trust their people, leaving them to wonder, “Who is thinking that, and why don’t they come and talk to me themselves?” Even in the face of overwhelming love and appreciation, that seed of doubt can do great harm.

      • Very well put, Mary!

  • I fully support the “put it in writing and sign it, send it from your personal email, or come in person” approach. Also do not complain through a proxy (spouse, friend, etc.). If you wish to complain then come right to me. I used these frequently when I was on a condominium board (which is a thankless task) and they worked well overall. Those who really had legitimate concerns and complaints came in person. I also had a policy when I heard complaints based on rumor was that the person had to listen to me tell them what really occurred and not walk away until I finished. I did it once rather forcefully with a serial complainer and it kept said person quiet for a few years.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Good word, Mark.

      • Carolyn says on

        Mark, unfortunately, sometimes the pastor because of confidentiality issues, can’t tell the complainer what really occurred, even if that would get the pastor or staff off the hook. That’s a frustrating situation, but a pastor has to maintain confidentiality.

        When someone approaches me with the words: “Pastor, people are saying that…” I usually reply, “I can’t do anything with an anonymous complaint. Please have those who are upset or concerned, come to me. But since you’re here, what do you feel about what those people are saying? Usually, if it’s a genuine concern, they will give me a reasonable answer. If it’s not, they usually mumble something and leave.

  • Thom, once again you’re right on target. I am blessed to go through these times with good deacons who support me and with fellow pastors who understand and pray. It seems “they” like to share such statements just ahead of vacation times, deacons meetings and even worship services. After 12 years in the same church I’d hope such backbiting and gossip would cease. I don’t like telling my family, so when do you recommend that I do?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Don, I’m not clear on your question.

      • Thom, I usually keep such pettiness from my spouse and family. When I do tell them, they become quite upset and take it as an attack on them too. I get that, but my question is does my family need to know or are there situations when they should be told?

  • This post is extremely encouraging to me! A deacon sat in my office a week ago to tell me that “I hate to come to you in this manner, but every time I come to church people are grabbing my ear to tell me that you are…”

    Frustrating, yes, but my response was comical: “They’re grabbing your ear every time you come to church? You must have sore ears.”

    Thanks for shedding light on this subject. Now if I could just share this on our church Facebook… 🙂

    Have you ever write on how Administrative Pastors can find sources to help the church form policies (i.e. Building use, transportation, writing job descriptions, finance policies, etc.)?

  • Sadly, how true. I’ve felt the sting of this type of criticism.

    Most of us pastors recognize we are not perfect but want to be the best we can. Constructive criticism given in a loving manner from a humble heart can be so helpful. This type of cowardly criticism, however, not only wounds the pastor’s soul but also harms the church by preventing the pastor from learning and growing in ministry.

    Thanks for all you do, Dr. Rainer, to encourage and support us pastors.

  • Thom, yes! Thank you! I really do hate these words. I don’t enjoy criticism, but I have so much respect for the one who brings it in their own voice!

  • People may not have been happy with your response, but it was still a good one. My standard response is essentially the same, though not quite as direct. I generally ask, “Who’s saying it?” If they give me names, then I know the complaint may have some substance and it’s at least reason enough for me to check it out. If they don’t give me any names, I’ll say something like, “Well, thank you. I’ll keep it in mind.” I keep it in mind for about 15 seconds, and then move on to more important things.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you, Ken. Well said.

      • Usually they are the one thinking it and just use this phrase to cover up.

      • That has been my experience at times before, Bill.

      • Mr. Rainer I am in need of some serious help, and don’t know how to get it, I joined a church in a big city and was exited about it because the field is white unto harvest in the city, what I did not know is they only allow White people in this church, they say all other people are cursed, and they tell me if I win someone to Chirst that is of another race do not bring them here, God is ony using me to reach Blacks, Hispanics Chinese, and some Muslims, what should I do the pastors have throne me under the bus for this because they apparently did not want other people to know they are racist, what do I do with these people and what do I do with me, please reply to my email, thank you Brent.

      • Run away, far far away. There are likely other congregations that are both inclusive and active in ministry.


      • It would seem you have two options. Either one includes continuing to minister to your local community. First you could leave that church to find a truly Biblical church who welcomes all of those God has seen fit to welcome into His family. The second option would be to stay at that church and follow the Matthew 18 example to confront the pastor(s) about the issue. I would advise to prayerfully consider which way God would take you.

      • I have to concur with Karla and Jared on that one. I’d find myself another church if I were you.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Brent –

        I could have no part of a church that bans people because of their race or ethnicity.

      • Lola Nelson says on

        I would leave that church. This issue of racism with the church leaders and most likely the congregation is possibly just the tip of the iceberg. What else do they find offensive? Then add to the racism that they don’t wish to be exposed for being racist, means they are also hypocrites and very likely liars. The chance of your reforming a church with that sort of an attitude is highly unlikely.

        Get out of there and do it quickly!

      • Kind of like Jesus showing up in front of Saul, and completely changing him from a Christian killer into a missionary….God can do great things with all people, no matter what the circumstances. I think it is interesting that most people who have commented to this question have limited God in some way. Maybe God has Brent in this situation to minister to the church and get the church back on the right path. If he leaves without praying for guidance, he leaves without God’s decision- that is never a wise thing to do.

      • Mark Ang says on

        Once there was a coloured man trying to enter the Church full of white congregation. He was not allowed to go into the church to worship God alongside the white people.
        He stood lamenting and crying at the church door. He was asking God why he was not allowed to go into the church

        ” O my heavenly Father you know I love you and you have accepted me as your child.
        Why can’t I be accepted by your white children to worship you in the same church ?
        A reply came from the Lord and this is what the Lord said to the coloured man.

        “Don’t you worry my son, I have also waited here for a long time and they have also not allowed me to enter the Church”


      • Brent, I hope you will pray about whatever decision you make. God may have you at that specific church for a reason. I will agree with you in prayer that God shows you how to handle this difficult situation with all His grace and dignity. Take care, and God’s blessings to you and your loved ones.

      • Velma Hampson says on

        I wonder if this church could lose its tax exempt status for this open political stance (racism). I trust someone will notify the IRS about them.

      • Don’t invite the government to get involved. That’s not a good idea.

      • I agree with Alecia on this one. Racism is deplorable, but getting the government involved would set a very dangerous precedent.

      • I would start preaching about people like Rahab (inhabitant of Jericho) and Ruth (Moabite). Both those women were under the general curse of their people, but both were forgiven through their personal faith in God. Then the bombshell for your congregation (which fits in well with Christmas) Ruth is mentioned explicitly in Jesus’ genealogy (Mt 1.5).

      • I just checked the other detail I was looking for in the genealogy: Rahab was Boaz’ mother. Rahab and Ruth are both ancestors of Jesus.

        That said, racism is generally irrational, so there’s no guarantee that people will be willing to change. However, from your message, it sounds like the Lord is giving you a marvelous harvest where you. Please, even if you feel you have to leave the church where you are, don’t give up on spreading the gospel and winning people to Christ.

      • Andee Parker says on

        Dear Brent, I am sorry that this congregation and their leadership has caused you pain and confusion about what their ministry is about. My advice to you is to pray for them, and then say goodbye to them. Although it is a knee-jerk reaction to find fault with this attitude you describe, there seems to be some value of worship and ministry for some of the congregation to attend there. Easy as it may be to feel negative, the judging of their attitude is for a higher authority. God has got this. Blessings to you in your faith journey, praying that you find peace and if it is to be, that you find a faith family that feeds your soul and makes you a part of their ministry.

      • Kristin Gordon says on

        I have been struggling to speak with my son’s youth leader. I have on more than one occasion asked him to speak to my 14 yr old. I know he has had issues in the past that have been brought to his attention. I don’t want to complain just to complain but I feel like he will not hear me out, He will just make a half hearted attempt to correct things like he has shown me in the past with other issues. My son’s walk with Christ is very important to me and I feel that a Youth Leader should lead. Not every situation is so black and white. How do you voice a concern that you feel will fall upon deaf ears?

    • While I have experienced this, I have learned there are 2 sides to this. The pastors and the staff must look at themselves and ask a few questions “Why aren’t they coming to talk to me directly?” “Am I truly approachable?” “Have I helped build a culture of safety where people can be truthful with me without fear?” True, there will always be complainers…but I think if we just lump everyone into that category we can miss out on helpful feedback that will help us become better leaders. To me, it’s more telling of the culture you are building at your church. And you’re the leader. Just my 2 cents 😉

      • Tom E,
        I disagree with you on the premise that an anonymous complainer means that the leader hasn’t created the right kind of culture. My experience has been that complainers complain. They complained at their last church and they will probably complain at the next one after the eventually leave yours for some petty reason.
        I believe a much BIGGER concern is always the person bringing you the news. Why did this anonymous complainer feel that they could approach you about their issue? Have you expressed the same things to them or others. My first question is always, “How did you respond?”
        I believe that a leader’s best response is always to look inward first. So, I agree in the sense that even when criticism is harsh, cowardly, and insensitive that as a leader you should ask yourself if there any validity to the claim. I have found that sometimes there is, and things need to be changed, but many times there isn’t.
        But remember, you will never make a person who is prone to complaining happy. So, I do my best to never make changes based on someone’s preference.

      • CJ, in my experience it is a bit from column A and a bit from column B. It is folly to simply dismiss it as “complainers will complain”. While this is true, I have seen first hand what happens when you are both the person saying “Pastor, the people are saying that…” and the Pastor who is receiving the complaint. I have learned to do both… find out the original source by challenging people, and examining how I do business to see if it is indeed open and approachable. To write it off as complaining and dismiss the second part is to invite further strife.

      • Hi church
        My name is pastor Elisha Msemwa from Tanzania, am servant of God bethel Pentecost church, am married with three children.Am request to relationship with you

      • While a few complain for the joy of it, many are frustrated that they have an opinion no one wants to hear. No one valued them in the last church and by not hearing the concern behind the complaint you are sending them on to the next church without bothering to pastor them. The “some people say” is a defense mechanism for a wounded spirit, and sign of a deeper spiritual need than the topic would indicate. A flip dismissal may indicate truth to their words.

      • “Some people say” is also a cover-up for people who have axes to grind. I repeat, if it’s not important for you to own it, then it’s not important enough for your pastor to waste time with it. It’s just that simple.

      • Morris Algarin says on

        I totally agree with this approach. It may not be quite so simple with a large congregation, but good trained leaders can deal with many issues that may be overwhelming for the senior pastor.

        I was only a paid part-time Leader over the video/audio Ministry for almost 15 years, but when I finally spoke against the abuse and bullying behaviors by staff members, I was terminated, fired and eliminated from Ministry along with the Spanish Pastor and his spanish congregation. His termination came from a root of bitterness from the senior pastor which I observed on a regular basis.

        It’s been four months since I left the church and I am currently praying on how to move forward.

      • Well worded.

      • I have to disagree with you on this point. While I never said, “people are saying . . .” I left a church I had been attending for 28 years. I did consult with one of the pastoral team, giving my frustrations, but never confronted the “offenders”. The reason was not out of cowardice (as some would like to write it off as) but that the people were unapproachable, and worse than that – unrepentant. Other people had confronted and were told, “we don’t need you here, just go somewhere else.” “fine then – be a quitter, just go elsewhere.” I saw no point to confronting someone, only to be browbeaten into submission.

        Was it wrong of me to just give my notice and then leave without another word? Perhaps. But if I have to remind the minister that lying is bad – well . . . what else do I need to remind him of? No – it’s best to just leave that situation.

      • Jeff, I concur with you. Been there myself. It doesn’t matter who says it if it is true, it is true. But as you say, usually the leadership is unapproachable and lacks humility. Our pastors have a CEO mentality instead of a ministry calling. You are their best friend as long a you support and don’t confront. But if you ruffle their feathers you will not be asked or allowed to serve on influential committees or teach but you can be an usher or door greeter. And they will still be happy to cash your checks.

      • Yes, there is always room for self evaluation but that is under the normal course of face to face conversations and not the veiled criticisms shot like arrows from the cover of darkness.

        You are correct that building the right atmosphere is important even while other forces are at work building their own. Dealing directly with the issue of anonymous complaints is a step toward a building a healthier atmosphere.

    • Ken Swenson says on

      One of the people I follow as a mentor calls it “death by paper cuts”.

    • Love your boundary-setting sentence. One thing I also add is the following “now, if you find this complaint/problem/situation to be troublesome as well, how about you and I talk about it now?”

      I’ve found through the years that this addition opens up space for a person who is embarrassed to admit it but sees merit in the “anonymously brought-up” presenting issue themselves.

      • Replying to no one in particular, but I have a hard time understanding people wanting to put all anonymous complaints in one basket. What if the person is not a “complainer” and has never had any complaints before? What if the person just has a problem questioning someone in authority? I know, having been brought up Catholic, that questioning the priest was engrained in me to be a big no-no, and a lot of that is hard to shake. I know a lot of parishioners will complain about an issue amongst themselves, and instead of talking to the pastor, will just move on to another church to avoid any confrontation, or quit going to church altogether. I would think (particularly) if your church attendance is decreasing, you might want to consider the validity of whatever complaints you hear, no matter if a name is attached them or not.

      • Amen!

        Those who are abused will always put out feelers and look at the results before slowly walking down the path from anonymity to openness.

        I’m sorry to say, if anonymous complaints are coming in it is most likely a problem with the leadership and their style. Do not ever just write them off, but deal with them directly and openly. Light always shatters darkness. As a youth pastor all the pastors here just writing off complaints sound a lot like parents who write off their children’s actions as the children just acting their age. Then they wonder why the children leave the church or worse their family after they go to college and never look back. It’s like the teacher whose students never learn anything blaming the the students, current culture, and parent involvement. I’m sorry, in most cases its the teachers fault, the parents fault, and us pastors fault. Blowing it off and forgetting about it is just dysfunctional and a tool of darkness. We need to open it up and bring it to the light honestly and prayerfully. Otherwise we become callous, slowly get beat up, and push many people out of the fold.

        be God’s, jonathan

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