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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  • I have received this comment in the past also and what I have done is; I ask the leader to tell me who has the question or problem, so I can address it with them directly. Inevitably, I get the response of “Oh they wanted to remain anonymous, to which I respond apologetically that I cannot adequately respond to this matter. Also, I inform the leader that if the “person” is timid or too shy to come to me directly that they the leader should offer to accompany them to visit with me. If again this is met with resistance, then I let the leader know that since I cannot know the person nor can I meet with them than I am considering this gossip, and I will not participate.

  • Sorry, but it must be fellow pastors who like your response. I think it sucks because it devalues people’s ideas and devalues them. They will leave. People need a way to improve their church. The right response is, “thank you for your thoughtful idea. I will consider it sincerely.” Now you know you can’t do anything about it for various reasons, but the response is respectful. You need to focus on unity. If you dismiss people’s complaints you sew division. If you value their ideas, even though you can’t implement them, you breed compassion and unity.

    • Not to be tacky, but I’ve went directly to my pastor with issues and that is all that is ever said or done. I have even offered to find an acceptable middle ground to attempt to make all parties happy, but needed specific materials. I pretty much get that response and get nowhere-no production of materials that I could work with and no action. I am now considering leaving as one main issue I have brought up, and not as “some people are saying” but what I feel/believe is actually contradictory with Biblical instruction. Many pastors etc will give responses like that and is likely to never do anything whether it is implementable or not. Those like me, realize that and then struggle with what to do when you believe so strongly in an area that affects how you feel led to minister.

  • I know this is an older post, but I have to comment because this has been my husband’s (the pastor to students) struggle for the last five years. Except the one who kept telling him “People are saying…” was our Senior Pastor. When my husband asked him who those people are, he would respond that he didn’t feel at liberty to give their names. After a while, my husband told him that if he wouldn’t reveal who the people were, so that he could address their concerns, he was enabling gossip–sin. He pointed out how unbiblical it was, and that if someone had an issue, he would appreciate if the Sr pastor would direct that person straight to him. At one point, my husband even made extra office hours and advertised them as a time when parents of our students could come share their concerns or ideas. He really put himself out there. Still, no one ever came. They always went to the Sr. Pastor. Now, after a total of seven years at this church, we’re basically being asked to leave (quietly, of course, so as not to make waves) because there are so many “concerns” in my husband’s file. The personnel committee and the pastor review it every year, during the annual job evaluations. They know who the complainers are… But we don’t. So, here we are. Headed out of this ministry with nowhere to go next (although, we trust that God has a plan for us). And, in a nutshell, after all the complaints, and a Sr pastor says he loves us but didn’t exactly have our back, and wasn’t always honest with us… We (especially my husband) feel pretty low. Demoralized was the word you used in your article. That was the perfect word to use. To add to the discouragement, it’s very difficult not to tell on people before you leave a church. I so wish we could let the church at large know how we’ve been treated over the last several years, but to do so would mean speaking against the pastor… And we won’t do that (except for this anonymous comment). Actually, it felt pretty good to get this off my chest, whether anyone ever reads it or not.

  • I do understand and for the most part agree with this, but I also know that sometimes people really are saying. I know of a particular situation where ministry team members complained to the leader, the leader went to the staff and said “team members are saying” and was not given the benefit of the doubt.

    The leader was treating it like a business would employ tells manager, manager tells his boss. However, the staff response was “we want names, print out the emails, etc”. This aggressive response put the team members in panic & they all back peddled and hung the leader out to dry. Yet, until that point, the leader had zero history of creating problems or complaining.

    It was unfair to take an immediate posture that the leader was in the wrong or trying to stir up trouble. There are some leaders who are unapproachable with criticism or even just concerns. I think as leaders it is imperative that we create a culture where our church body or ministry employees/volunteers know they can be direct with us.

    So, I think we need to include with this piece some introspection about the culture we have created. If we have people coming up to us regularly, airing their complaints or concerns… and a few peppered in vague “people are saying” moments; it is fair to say we are approachable. However, if you are reflecting back on your leadership history and “people are saying” happens way too often… well, then you may be unapproachable.

  • hazel Gibb says on

    l have stood up to two vicars in my Parish and told them what l think of them especially when they are so wrong. l have also told them yes other people are not happy with them and yes these people come to me because the are afraid to tell the priest in charge and that leaves me with no option but to keep the name of the person secret as they are often elderly and afraid of repercussions which should not the way at all. if l am not happy with them l tell them so

  • I have found it terribly unhelpful to receive complaints from folks who are not bothered about something themselves but offended on someone else’s behalf… not wanting me to go visit them, but bothered I haven’t been to see Mrs. Smith – this being confidential, I’m not sharing with them that I have already have been. of course, if I’d been, she would come back to church, except that she cannot stand to be around the person complaining… people who get offended on someone else’s behalf…

  • “Since it isn’t wise to deal in second-hand information, ask those people to set up an appointment, and I’ll gladly speak with them.”

    This response forces the person to own the complaint and to admit it is his or her own, or sends a message of openness and willingness while putting the ball in the hand of the complainer.

    It should also end the conversation (which often occurs at inopportune times). If it doesn’t, then the complainer is the one speaking to you.

  • We have been attending a church for 38 years. This church was started by a family in 1965. The church consists mostly of family members (60-70)%. We have never had a pastor leave on good terms. One died with a heart attack. One left upset. The next one was fired and the last one was strongly encouraged to retire. This family and their closest friends occupy 80% of the positions in the Church. The CWF President held that title 34 years and then passed the title down to her niece who only kept it one year because the aunt tried to tell her how to do everything. The Queen Bee is another aunt. She tries to run everything and the entire family listens to her and sticks together. The Queen Bee is a bully. She tells her family members what to do and ends up running new members away from the Church. One of our ministers said “They (meaning the family) runs them off as quick as I can get them in here.” They will run off anyone who disagrees with them or tries to get them to do the right thing. Out of 8 Elders 3 are family members, 3 are very close friends, and 2 will do whatever she says. They even act intimidated or fearful of her. One of the family members is Chairman of the Stewardship Committee and he will try to spend money on what the family wants without consulting his committee. Many have complained. My husband, who was elected Chairman of the Board, has taken a lot of the heat. He has raised questions about this. Now after 38 years, this family is trying to get us to leave the Church. Their behavior to us has changed overnight. Now I know that I did not mean anything to them in the first place. Our family was just extra money in their collection plate. There are not many people left in the Church that are not family members for this reason. Most of the young people never come back after college because they have been turned off by this behavior. Many of the members feel oppressed. We thought we could make a difference, but are realizing that it is almost impossible. If we leave the Church, we will give the family what they want (pure control) and if we stay, we will probably be miserable. They like members who come for the sermon, give their money, and leave to go home. The Church has not always been this way. It has got progressively worse over the last 10 – 12 years as the older ones died out. What is your suggestion to us?

  • I am a pastor of a baptist church in Buruburu, Nairobi Kenya. I came across this article and can really relate. Thanks thom

  • Vanchenzio Scarpacci says on

    Then you’re an idiot – if you walk away from someone because you feel they have not given you every last minor detail including who the first expressed the complaint then you are an ineffective leader and know little to nothing of leadership skills and statistics when it comes to the dynamics surrounding the complaint and how it finally was presented to you. I personally hate pastors that believe the word, knowing the bible and having a few years of theological classes somehow has prepared you to be a true leader of people – let me as someone who spent 20 years in the military, supervising between 500 and 1500 people at a time tell you without question your comments only proves your level of ignorance and complete lack of ability to lead in ANY capacity. Hypocrisy at its finest – judge the person bringing you the complain so you do NOT have to address it. So, please do not listen to me because you feel the message presented to you was not presented in a manner that contained enough detail for you. Too ignorant to understand your own ignorance . . . I Love IT !!

  • I think your attitude of ignoring or dismissing so casually a complaint or concern, even if the person refuses to name the complainer, is condescending and definitely NOT pastorly. I am my church’s council president, and I receive numerous complaints about things our new pastor is doing and changing. These people do not feel comfortable complaining to a pastor. They are good, honest people who love our church and respect the pastor. But nevertheless are unhappy. They feel comfortable going to me as president, confident I can take the issues up with the pastor without betraying their confidence in me. So the next time someone tells you ‘people are saying,’ perhaps you should take it to heart! Now let me ask you a question. We are a small local church with deep roots. We are over a hundred years old. Two years ago we hired a new pastor. Since he began, he has fundamentally changed our worship service so drastically people tell me they don’t feel it’s their church anymore. These are lifetime members!!! People who’ve spent 50 years in this congregation. I’m a sixth generation member. My great great great grandfather was a member. I’ve seen loyal members fall away because of the change this pastor continues to make. Every time I’ve broached the issue with him he has an excuse or assures me he’s planning on going back to the old litany next season. He not only doesn’t. But he ignored council saying we do not want the newer worship book the elca put out a few years ago. We are happy with the two we use. So he went behind our backs and bought one book and he’s been copying the litany and printing it in our buletins each week. That’s him getting around council. He says he didn’t get the congregation the books we didn’t want! We always had communion at the alter. From his start, he did it by intinction. The council said we like it at the alter. He gave a semi valid reason so we said fine. But we want it at the alter once a month. It’s now two years and he hasn’t done it ONCE at the alter. So every week I get members complaining to me. I continue to talk to him but he actually rolls his eyes when he knows it’s an elderly member and brushed it off if it’s others. I no longer tell him who says things. It should mean enough that a member is unhappy. That should mean something to a pastor!!! So what would you do in my situation? A few years ago our church was struggling. We couldn’t get a pastor. So now everyone is afraid to say anything to this man because they don’t want to go back to where we were. They don’t want to upset him. Please tell me what you would do? He continually ignores what the council says, or he finds a way around it but technically saying he did what we said. I no longer feel good going to my own church. Any advice?

  • chris hunt says on

    Do you have any suggestions on how to convey the message of this article to a congregation? Will they they eventually get the message when the pastor simply refuses to respond to anonymous complaints or is a more direct approach feasible such as making this article available for them to read personally?

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