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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  • Precious says on

    Mr Thom this is interesting read the book ‘leading change when nobody wants it’ so looking in to this issue of people are saying I see it as when they meet up with some hundles in church it leads them into complaining about the changes happening so as you said such comments just need to be ignored coz the have no source are duplication.

  • Great comment and helpful boundary!
    To add to the generalized approach, many who are ‘passive aggressive’ also use
    this complaining approach. It’s important to let people know there is. a better way to share
    and their taking proper responsibility for their thoughts as well as the specific sources
    is the mature way to go.

  • Jayapura Nokamura says on

    Hey there Tom, I’m currently in a situation where an “executive campus pastor” (It’s purely a title) has repeatedly made people feel uncomfortable by speaking down to them through anger as if they were children (in a dysfunctional family) and with the goal of triggering shame to bring about a positive change within the person.

    It has been raised to our campus pastors (with fewer descriptive words) a few times by various leaders and nothing seems to have been done about it.
    Now we’ve been around for 3 years it is clear that this person gained his position through growing up with the senior pastors children at the main campus.

    Recently he came back from a 2 week mission trip where he shared the story of his trip to then disclose that he doesn’t understand why our campus was not like this 18 month old church plant (matching in zeal, excitement and a willingness to do anything and everything to build the church, literally- they were converting a warehouse). This other campus was full of single people will a few unemployed people willing to offer labour. Our campus is made up of families (with complex needs) and students all of whom sacrifice a lot on a weekly basis to volunteer to keep the church going. It feels like we’re repeatedly told off for not being excited enough, in truth we’re tired.

    When he told us off he clearly was already angry with us and was waiting for us to slip up in some area because it sounded rehearsed. He asked who had been at church or caught up on the preaches over the past 2 weeks. No one had in our group of 10 people (who volunteer regularly), the preaches are uploaded to YouTube on different days and time’s so it’s very difficult to plan to catch up. We’ve also had viruses go through our campus. He scolded us and told us to catch up on all the preaches and come to the bible study ready to ask questions about the preaches rather than waiting for questions to be asked. He said if we cannot manage to do that he will change the group to a new Christian group so we can start again from the beginning. None of this felt right or biblical to me. I felt threatened but then I thought he can do what he wants because I just won’t come – problem solved.

    I agree with his point (to keep up to date with the preaches) as others did however it was the way he spoke to us. It was awful and very difficult to describe to you accurately. I feel I need to raise this with him (not just one on one as I feel threatened) as someone else did this week and was basically swept under the rug as the many others before them (for the same issue). With the excuse, “I pulled you up because I care” or something of that nature. It’s not good enough, to me it’s abuse.

    Do you have any advice? I fear that raising the issue may just create a rift and make church life uncomfortable (which happened 2 years ago when my spouse had an issue with how they were treated) since then we have been left out of discussions about building the church and discussing day to day things.

  • Michele L. says on

    My husband is a pastor and we have been struggling with this. We will try this approach. Thank you.

  • Just read this – very good
    Another reason is paranoia. You’re there thinking, “Was it her, or him, or them?” which can be quite paralysing.

    Neither can you evaluate. A comment about music from a Charismatic & a Dutch Reformed I take equally as seriously, but obviously take in to account their background.

  • Gena McCown says on

    I was reading the article on 9 traits of mean churches, and I believe it is something that should be considered in this piece. If you are in a “mean church” which has cloaked decisions, power groups, and members keep in silence due to fear… it could result in the “people are saying” statement.

    Generally speaking, people do not remain 100% silent, they find people to vent to or who share the same concerns. If someone comes into the fold of leadership (either as a leader, or at least a person with input) who actually seems like a willing ear, they may share their concerns in confidence with that person. Then you have a position where this person is wedged between protecting/keeping the confidence they were trusted with but also coming to the leadership directly with the concerns they are hearing.

    If we created an environment within our church where the body feels as if they can approach church leadership with questions, concerns, or legitimate constructive criticism; then we have created the “people are saying” statement as the only means in which this information is conveyed.

    As church leaders, we need to have some sort of self assessment when we hear these words. Are we dismissing what we don’t want to hear? Is there legitimacy to the concerns? Who is the person bringing this information to me (are they credible, typically involved in drama or not, etc)? Have I prayed over this statement, asking the Lord to open my eyes to what truths I have been unable to see?

    I would think, in a healthy church with openness to communication, the phrase “people are saying” wouldn’t be happening in the first place.

    • I rarely would ever use that phrase but i did and i felt they didn,t take it very seriously ,I am not a gossip and not too long I saw the varry thing MYSELF . when kids at our highschool said things about young people making out in the balcony i had to tell what i heard and then i saw something that kids did that gave creedance to that. so not all people who use that phrase are liers. but only have good intentions.

  • Dean West (on behalf of "people who are saying") says on

    Telling them that you will ignore their concern until they name names was hurtful and self-serving of you. As a leader, you are well aware that in a voluntarily joined organization that the views and opinions that you or others have of the complainer can make an enormous difference not only in their happiness, but their success as a member.

    Knowing that they are either wishing the solace of “safety in numbers” or even simply trying to use a common phrase to make YOU feel better (the “I love you, but”) you decide to dismiss them – and the concern – out of hand until they are willing to risk their reputation and upsetting you.

    Next time, why not do what you actually get a salary for – and one oft times paid by the very person you want to dismiss – and listen? And realize that any complaint – complained in a “proper” fashion or not – is worth listening to?

    After having listened to the complaint, address it, or share how you’ll address it. Then – only then – give them the counsel of, “I hope that my willingness to handle this concern of yours as promptly as I have will give you – or the others you didn’t mention – the knowledge that you can always come to me, openly and with no fear that I’ll be angry over hearing such complaints.”

  • Hey Thom, I know I’m about 2 years late but just getting to this. My questions would be;
    How do you train your lay leadership to handle these phrases and complaints directly with the complainer, in love?

  • This is vey clear and how I feel and there is a member I know who harbors other gossipers to do this but once you confront her she is so passive aggressive that she denies everything ! Frustration is not the word. But when it comes from a leader in the church and you know it’s the same sister harboring resentment and you are being addressed with the same veiled issue, and secrecy only God!!

  • John Wesley says on

    I think this is an unfair assumption that the complainer is just griping or is wrong. The problem with the majority of churches and leadership is that 99.9% have no experience in leadership, leadership development and business management skills. The vast majority of the ministries that I have seen are much like a wild bunch of toddlers running in every direction, but getting nowhere. In short, they lack these traits because seminaries are buying into the whole Ph.D. and not on training effective leaders. Garbage in, garbage out. I challenge anyone to ask this hard question: “Would I go into business with anyone on the church staff?” The answer is no because they have no real training.

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