Seven Considerations for the Church Leader Who Receives an Anonymous Letter

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.

Posted on May 20, 2019

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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  • They should not always be tossed aside. There are people who cannot risk putting their names on a letter. I am thinking about kids who want to comment or ask questions but whose parents tell them “no, you will not rock the boat.” Something needs to be done to let them comment and ask questions before they turn to social media.

    • Yes, reading for trends and perceptions. But, as a pastor, if someone has a significant issue – one way or the other – they should feel able to approach the pastor. If someone can’t approach me, as their pastor, with an issue – even with me – I’m not effectively ministering with my parish.

      • Christopher says on

        There are always those who don’t want to approach you except to stab you in the back.

    • “The pastor is not approachable” is often just another way of saying “the pastor won’t do what I want him to do”.

  • If you want to be a public organization these days, you’ll have to expect harsh reviews from passersby. Restaurants live and die on the whims of Yelp reviewers. Google displays reviews in search results for pretty much every business now. Take those nasty anonymous letters, display all of them on the internet to be seen by anyone who looks you up, and then you’ll know what most small business owners are going through these days.

    • Christopher says on

      So….are you saying that pastors should just suck it up and get over it or are you saying that church members, who are supposedly Christians, should not be held to a higher standard than Google reviewers? Or maybe you are saying that the modern church is no different than any other business in which case I agree with you.

      • Act like a business and you’re treated like a business. There’s a reason why church attenders have a consumerist attitude. Marketing got them in the door. They know an advertisement when they see one. When the product fails to deliver, expect a harsh review.

    • The church is not a business. ‘Nuff said.

  • Talk about cowards.

    Facebook provides a format for cowards (snipers) to say anything they please about the church, the pastor, the staff, and I should say deacons, but I suspect a lot of that comes from deacons.

    It seems that almost all the problems in churches today are not solved by deacons; they cause it.

    It is difficult to set aside the kinds of mean and vindictive things people anonymously say. As was previously posted, it is equally hard for pastors’ wives and children to deal with all the mean things their husband/dad get and, unfortunately, they get as well.

    Snipers (cowards) often lie and can do harm that can never be repaired.

    I am glad I am old and retired from ministry.

    After having been literally wiped out in my last church by Facebook users who in one case used an anonymous name (a man used a woman’s name), I can tell you first-hand what irreparable harm cowards and liars can do.

    I don’t know how pastors put up with that; I could not do it any more. It is, as my grandmother used to say, a “shame and a disgrace” the way some pastors are treated by “Christians” – so called by themselves.

    Where is all this going?

    • Right on! Christians have always been good at gossiping, but the internet has increased the problem exponentially. Social media and the blogosphere provide all kinds of platforms for people with axes to grind to spread half-truths and blatant falsehood. Many people read those blogs with no discernment, and take them as gospel. I can name at least two prominent sites that are regularly used to slander Southern Baptistleaders, and I fear they will be the death of the SBC.

      One thing does give me comfort: God will still be the final Judge.

      • There are times though that some people deserve what is written about them, and it is the truth. Not talking to certain (classes of) people and expecting them to stay quiet is a big mistake.

      • Be careful what you justify (Matthew 7:1-2).

  • In a previous church I had a member who was a retired major general in the Army. At one meeting someone was talking about “people” being upset about something. I looked across the table at the general and could see his blood pressure rising. Finally, he put his hands on the table and said, “don’t give me people! If it doesn’t have a name, it’s not a problem!” I’ll always remember that wisdom.

    • That’s a benefit of being a pastor with a military background (not chaplain either). Just like my military days, all suggestions are read – because they give one person’s perspective. The weight afforded the suggestion was based on the signature – no signature = “duly noted” and trashed; signature = all due consideration and reflection given.

  • My rule is very simple: if it’s not important enough for you to attach your name to it, then it’s not important enough for me to dwell on it.

  • Christopher says on

    Another form of anonymous letter that is just as cowardly is getting someone, such as a deacon, to criticize the pastor for you.

  • William Alan Secrest says on

    My worship leader received an anonymous letter and I believe that he read it. However, he also then shared that from here on out he would be throwing them straight into the trash. After reading your points, I realized that one of the problems in our churches is that members do not know which people to approach when they have a concern. I have a Pastoral Relations Committee whose job it is to act as a mediator between the church and myself. They exist not only for the church members but also for me as well when I have concern. Actually, I will be meeting with them tonight because we have not met for a while. That is a good thing. We also need to remind our people of Matthew 18:15-17 which tells us how to deal with a sinning sister or brother. The main points is that you have to go directly to the person. There will be no working from behind the scenes. People have to be taught the correct way to address problems in church because they are going to happen.

  • James Harper says on

    I have received occasionally over the 25 years I’ve been a pastor. At first, I kept them to myself and fretted over them. Then I changed my strategy. While the writers of negative anonymous letters want to attack you in the dark, I decided to bring the letters into the light by sharing them with my board of Elders. It was much easier to deal with them when reasonable, knowledgeable leaders could process them together. It significantly improved how I was impacted by the letters.

  • Mark Smith says on

    Here is something to consider. I am a college professor. Every semester I am required to hand out a course evaluation. I tend to teach the freshman/sophomore classes for general education rather than the major only junior/senior classes. Most students write nothing, but some really zing me. Is most of the bad stuff true? No… and I get frustrated about it. But some of it is true and helps improve me and the class.

    Either way, this material gets officially entered into my record! There is nothing I can do about it.

    Perhaps pastors need to realize that the people in the pew have to eat a sandwich they don’t want to as well from time to time, and allow a form of feedback.

    • Ruth Gardner says on

      Mark –

      Your lack of awareness and insensitivity toward pastors are shameful. I am a pastor’s wife. I see the constant feedback and criticism my husband gets. There is no place whatsoever for anonymous letters. You need to descend from your ivory tower and see the real world. We are eating plenty of sandwiches down here on earth.

      • Fred Kiffins says on

        Ruth –

        Mark is a pastor-hater. He has an abundance of time to drop by at this site and spread his negativity. I wish Dr. Rainer would not approve his comments. They are not helpful at all.

      • Mark Smith says on

        Fred, I am no pastor hater, friend. I love pastors and the work they do. I hope things go well for you.

      • Pastor John says on

        Hi Ruth,

        As a pastor and a professor, I understand both your and Mark’s response. I am evaluated by students every term and I also get anonymous letters from “church goers”. Although I don’t like either, I read them to see where I can improve as I am not perfect. Sometimes, the criticism in not founded and completely silly; other times, there may be a speck of truth. I pray for those anonymous people, eat the meat (what little there is) and spit out the bones (which is usually most of the letter). As hard as some of those words are, I am confident that Christ can turn anything around for the good of those that love him, even a painful, negative letter.

      • Mark Smith says on

        Ruth, I am sorry you are criticized so much. So am I… I live in no ivory tower. It’s more like fake imitation plastic. I am not allowed to ignore anonymous criticism. I have to embrace it and respond to it!

    • Christopher says on

      Feedback is fine, and I’ve received my share, but anonymous feedback is cowardly. Furthermore, you never have to see those students again whereas pastors are trying to build long term relationships.

      • Mark Smith says on

        Christopher, how do you know I don’t see them again? Plus the reports they make anonymously go into my professional record. I have to report their evaluations every year on my annual review.

    • 100% I’ve never even been to a church that “welcomed feedback” or had a “suggestion box” ZERO. People should be allowed to say what they want to say without fear of retaliation. That is why people write something anonymously, particularly if they are a long-standing member.

  • Thanks Thom:
    It seems #3 is the best idea. If a person tends to dwell on the negative (and our enemy encourages us to do that) it is hard to do #7 after the content is in your head. If a guy gets a lot of them, maybe he should turn them in a book. LOL

  • Thanks Thom:
    It seems #3 is the best idea. If a person tends to dwell on the negative (and our enemy encourages us to do that) it is hard to do #6 after the content is in your head. If a guy gets a lot of them, maybe he should turn them in a book. LOL

  • I have received several anonymous letters over the last thirty years. Unfortunately I had no one to read them before they got to me. However I did receive one anonymous letter that was very positive and uplifting. It was also hand-written. That letter I kept. The others got trashed.

      • When I was a prison chaplain, I got several notes that were overall very positive from the prisoners, including one from a former SBC pastor. I kept those and the one that wasn’t positive I threw away.

        As a pastor, I haven’t gotten any anonymous letters, but I have been getting older members who come up to me. I normally hear something like this: “People have been asking…” Or, “people are wondering…”

        In fact, I was just approached yesterday with one. “Why are you preaching the qualifications for an elder from Titus 1? Why do you remind people that they need to be saved before taking communion? Everyone already knows…”

        My answer? Because it’s in the Bible.

        I was pretty upset yesterday, but I took this church knowing there was a huge opportunity to minister to this community. However, the members are still spiritually lethargic and see the going through the motions as the true mark of growth and godliness.

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