Monday, April 17, 2006


People need to be heard. Sometimes we’re a little “non-plussed” about what they feel they need to be heard about. But they need to be heard.

They also need to be trained to bring their complaint in the right way to the right people – people who are either part of the problem, or part of the solution. When third parties are “triangled” into the situation, it can feel like gossip or backbiting, even if that is not what’s intended. In that regard….

1) Don’t take unsigned letters, or complaints. These should go immediately into the round file. Whoever gets it first should disposes of it immediately. Unsigned “bombs” are the written equivalent of burning a cross on someone’s lawn and running away.

2) Don’t allow people to say things like, “I’ve heard from a number of people who’ve told me that….” This is the verbal equivalent to people giving us an unsigned complaint. It just makes the reporter the paper it’s written on. It presents us with nameless, faceless people out there who we can’t get back to, or give an explanation to. Whenever this occurs, the follow up questions should be “Who are these people” and “Why haven’t they talked to the person directly?” We want to deal with problems on the merits, not based on public opinion or polling.

If complaints, criticisms or accusations are brought to you (big or small), you should:

1) Listen to what they have to say, and reply, “OK, I understand.” Remain calm. Express confidence that God is bigger than this problem, no matter how big this problem may be.

2) Be careful about joining their feelings (even though we’ll often share them), because, believe me, many people will take that and run with it (“I talked to Dave…and he agrees with me about Fred!”). It is a hard thing to not “join in”, and requires us to discipline our own feelings at times, but as you go up the ladder of leadership you have fewer and fewer rights, and greater and greater responsibilities. The fact is, having someone else feel the same as the complainant can magnify the problem, or worse yet, be a crack in the wall that can be later exploited for division. Satan loves to use the predictability of human nature to breed dissension. Against this attack, we will only be as strong as our weakest link.

3) Ask yourself, “Spiritually, what’s going on here, if anything?” Be discerning about motivations. Sometimes (not always) the “problem” is with the person bringing the complaint. Ask yourself, “Is this person dissatisfied with life? Are they a chronic complainer? Is this person generally supportive? Is ‘the problem’ not the real problem? Is there something else going on here? Do they have in mind the best for everyone, or just themselves? Are they in a position to really understand the bigger picture?” If unsure, probe deeper to find out more.

4) Affirm the person being talked about as a brother or sister in the Lord. Say, “I know that God is doing some great things in sister-so-and-so, and, regardless of the problems, I’m really glad she’s a part of our church family.” Affirm the person, not necessarily the decision, or their behavior. The fact may be that their decision or behavior was inappropriate (remember: we’re ALL sinners).

5) Ask the person to consider how important the matter really is in the bigger scope of things. Sometimes people need to get perspective. I think it is the job of leaders to help people put things in perspective. It may be one of those things where we need to extend grace to people and allow them to be different from us, or even to fail. Love covers over a multitude of sins. We each carry a bucket of water or of gas with us. We can either pour gas on the fire and magnify the problem, or pour water on the fire and minimize it. Ask yourself, who is going to get a name for themselves here; God or Satan. If it’s Satan, we want to minimize the publicity he gets for what he is doing in people’s lives. If it’s God, we want to maximize the publicity He gets for what He is doing in people’s lives.

6) If the matter remains substantial in their minds, instruct them to go directly to the person with whom they have a complaint – the decision maker. The process outlined in Matthew 18:15-17 is bedrock for problem solving in God’s family. Don’t accept or volunteer for the job of “messenger boy.” Say in very clear terms, “I think it would be best if they heard that from you directly,” or “Why don’t you tell that person exactly what you just told me?” If they say that they already have talked with them, then offer to go back with them a second time. But let them do the talking. People need to own their own feelings, and not have us be a facilitator, caretaker, or enabler for them. One of the clearest indicators of how big the problem really is, is a person’s willingness, or unwillingness to actually talk with the person responsible. Until the person has gone to the offender directly, we don’t have anything but a disgruntled person on our hands.

The difference between functional families and dysfunctional families is not that one has problems, but the other doesn’t. Both have their problems. It’s just that in a functional family the problems are dealt with directly and appropriately.


Sam Middlebrook said...

This is easily one of the more helpful articles I've come across on this subjecty in terms of it's clarity and practicality. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

Pilgrim's Project said...

I'm not so sure that putting anonymous comments in the round file is such a good idea: often there can be a certain amount of fear to those in authority and people don't want to be stigmitized as whiners or complainers. And yet there may be legitimate issues. So if they know anonymous letters are tossed, it will lead to either complacency, gossip or perhaps discussion on public forums like blogs.

Instead, maybe those comments should be tested to see if they hold water or not.

Dave Browning said...


Yes, that may be an overstatement. I appreciate the feedback.

I guess what I'm reaching for here is communication that is direct and mature. I understand that people can have fear about authority, but I think that fear needs to be resolved so that direct communication can take place. I understand that people don't want to be stigmatized as whiners, but that is why we need to have a system filled with grace and truth.