Seven Considerations for the Church Leader Who Receives an Anonymous Letter

May 20, 2019

On occasion a church leader at Church Answers will share with the community that he or she received an anonymous letter. The leaders are inevitably hurt, and they are frustrated because they have no way to respond.

Over the years, I have seen a common theme with anonymous letters. I can best delineate it as seven considerations.

  1. Most all church leaders will eventually receive an anonymous letter. It goes with the job and the ministry role. Even though it does not take away the sting of the letter, knowing others have gone through it makes it more bearable.
  2. The typical content of an anonymous letter reflects a hurt or mad church member who has unmet and/or unrealistic expectations. Some church members have weird ideas about what church should be like and how church leaders should act. The cowardly church members will express their frustrations anonymously.
  3. The toss-it principle is still good counsel. It has been common for church leaders to dispose of anonymous letters as soon as possible. Some pastors and leaders have an assistant who reads letters that come to the office. That assistant may be instructed to dispose of anonymous letters before the church leader ever sees it.
  4. The best way church leaders handle anonymous letters is to pray for their own hearts. These evil letters can be an incredible source of distraction and discouragement. The pastor or other church leader must pray for his or her own heart. God can certainly handle the situations we think are nearly impossible to handle, such as dealing with the pain of these letters.
  5. Many church leaders make a point to pray for the author of the letter. It’s hard to stay mad at someone if you are praying for them, even if you do not know them. Though their actions are cowardly, they are obviously people who are hurting, angry, and disappointed. They need prayer.
  6. Where possible, some church leaders are making it known that anonymous letters never get to them. This communication can be tricky. If done in a corporate worship setting, it can distract from the act of worship. It can also be seen as petty or vindictive. But a number of pastors have found ways to get the word out they never see the letters. That usually stops future letters written in anonymity.
  7. Healthy leaders move on quickly after they get an anonymous letter. They know it will hurt them and their ministry if they dwell on it. The best way to move on is to focus on the ministry God has given them and forget about a letter where you can’t respond.

Anonymous letters are common. Anonymous letters are painful. Healthy church leaders deal with the pain (if they see the letter), and then they move on.

There is simply too much good work to do for God’s congregation to be distracted or discouraged too long from such a cowardly act.

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42 Comments

  • Busy today, aren’t we?

    Can I just say this? Whoever you are, you can delete this comment afterward, whatever, but just between you and me, can I just tell you this?

    I’m sorry to make so much work for you, whoever you are, moderator/censor. I guess I just feel riled up. I’m horrified by what I’ve seen here.

    You can’t be like OKAY with what’s in Rainer’s post here, right? Or with these comments I responded to? I speak here to you, the person reading these words in the middle of the night, connected to me by this tendril of digital ink. I assume you’re Christian, but I really don’t know. (I’m waiting for laundry, if you’re wondering! Buzzer just went off, so this is it for me for a while.)

    It’s crazy how poorly SBC/evangelical pastors treat people and then beat their chests about how Jesus-filled they are and how great it’ll be when they control everybody’s lives. But these anonymous letters, and pastors’ reaction to getting them, tells me that y’all have a very seriously dysfunctional group. Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away. People will just leave if they can’t be heard. I’m really worried that if SBC pastors keep regarding anonymous letters like Rainer suggests, they’ll cause emotional abuse to their congregants. Please talk to him. This is so not okay. This suggestion is going to make the SBC’s downfall all the worse, but before that happens it will create more scandals.

    Anyway, thanks. You can delete this – you have my permission, though you’ve shown already you don’t need it! Thanks for listening and have a good night.

    Thom Rainer used to be so much more chill about comments from us unwashed heathens… I wonder what changed?

  • Peter Walters says on

    I love my friends pastor. “You can send me as much mail as you want. My sister’s my assistant and I never see them!!”

    • Captain Cassidy says on

      Absolutely nothing will tell that pastor’s flocks how little respect he has for them, and how unsafe he is to offer feedback to, than this. Good work! I can’t imagine how this could ever backfire for him. He’ll easily be able to pretend that there’s nothing to criticize! Out of sight, out of mind, amirite? And you’re celebrating, you sound giddy, about this non-solution to pressing problems in churches?

      Oof.

      Your friend’s pastor does realize that church membership is optional now, right? If he keeps abusing people, does he seriously think they’ll just hang around and take it? He sounds genuinely emotionally-dangerous to be around and I really hope that the people unfortunate enough to be caught in his orbit wise up about him and find somewhere better to worship. Or, ya know, realize that “Jesus” somehow let this guy into ministry and start wondering why Christianity is so full of awful ministers and stone-cold hypocrites.

      Good heavens, I really did not need yet another reminder about why I’m glad I’m no longer Christian. Really, I’m full up–you don’t have to keep offering more to me!

  • I once received an anonymous letter complaining about a lay officer of the church I was serving. It included a photo of him taken from a car. The writer said that this man was not a godly man and was doing things he shouldn’t be doing outside of his marriage. Basically it said that he was a predator of some bad sort. Since it was unsigned and it was a serious matter, I did not reveal it to my church or pastor’s committee, but I did send it to my ecclesiastical superior just in case they wanted to be advised that something might be amiss. I heard nothing about the matter since then.

    • Captain Cassidy says on

      This is the exactly kind of ministerial behavior that is emptying churches worldwide, you know. You are completely complicit in this peer’s probable wrongdoing.

      You should feel ashamed and guilty that you only passed word up the ranks and then didn’t bother investigating further–or even finding out if this peer was in fact preying upon the vulnerable in your church. You didn’t even worry about the safety of your church congregation.

      Abusers get shuffled constantly by their superiors, and their abuses get covered up completely. Thanks to a culture of secrecy and silence, exactly like the one you were in, they know they can operate freely and without fear. And their superiors just cover it up and move the abusers around–without warning future congregations that a confirmed abuser is coming into their midst.

      One day, you may well find yourself in the same position that Cardinal Pell did: called on the legal carpet to explain what he knew and when, and then asked to justify his response to whatever he saw and heard. Until then, I have no words for how aghast I am that you sound so self-satisfied in how you handled this situation. This is why people rightly are losing all faith and trust in Christian churches, and why they are awakening to what ministerial abuse implies about their religion’s claims.

      I can only hope that the person who did that investigation had more compassion and decency than you did, and pursued the matter as far as it needed to be taken. This mindset you display here is exactly why the SBC is declining, and why it deserves to decline.

  • I appreciate the article. I’ve not gotten any anonymous letters yet in my chaplain work or at my pastorate. However, I’m encouraged by your considerations to check for authorship first.

    Then if no author, there is no message to read…and I may light it in teh hearth as a type of burnt offering while praying for the author and the church.

    • Captain Cassidy says on

      Don’t. Seriously. Sean, don’t take anything in Rainer’s post seriously. I mean it. What he’s suggesting will only close the door further to the feedback you need. I’m amazed that so many people took his listicle seriously, because it’s going to be just disastrous if followed. He calls complainers “cowards,” implies that their concerns are irrational and silly, and suggests ignoring them or passive-aggressively insulting them.

      People complain anonymously because they don’t feel safe bringing their concerns to their leaders in person. In authoritarian groups like the SBC’s churches, people rightly fear ostracism and retaliation for stepping out of line or saying something unwelcome. If you do what you propose, you are only fully confirming that you are not safe for members to talk to about serious things they know you won’t like hearing.

      Instead of focusing on who’s bringing the complaint or how it’s worded or delivered, focus on the complaint. Whoever’s making it and anonymously delivering it feels very unsafe talking to you directly, and that makes their complaint doubly important to consider, investigate, and resolve.

      If you can’t do as I suggest because it’s what a grace-filled leader would do anyway, then I urge you to do it because the next step for your complaint-makers is simply leaving your church and then telling everyone they know how unhappy they were there and how awful you were as their leader. Church membership is completely optional nowadays, in case you’ve forgotten.

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