When "Some People" Complain

September 26th, 2012

Pastor Smith is winding down after a long day of ministry. Her first six months in her new church have had their challenges, but overall she feels like she’s being accepted by the congregation. She’s just settled down in the only comfortable chair in the parsonage and started reading a book by a theologian her seminary professors always raved about, the book she thought she’d have time to read once she graduated five years ago, when the phone rings.

It’s David, the lay leader at First Church. They spend a few minutes chatting about his kids, and he says some nice words about Pastor Smith’s sermon last Sunday, when David clears his throat and she knows they’re about to start a difficult conversation. “Look, Pastor Smith, you know I think you’re great, and a lot of other folks do, too. As far as I’m concerned, you’re the breath of fresh air our church really needs. The thing is, though, I’ve gotten some phone calls from some other members. And, well, there’s a general feeling that there is an area of concern or two...”

Pastor Smith is not real, and yet she is. She’s every pastor at one point or another. No one is in ministry for very long without having a conversation about comments someone heard from someone else. The names are rarely, if ever, attached to the comments. “Some people are concerned...” “There is a perception that...” The presenting issues are often vague, and they’re made to sound like they represent the consensus of the entire congregation. But do they? How should Pastor Smith respond to these concerns when she doesn’t even know who they come from or what specific thing has triggered them?

David the Lay Leader is trying to be helpful, but he’s engaging in a communication technique called “triangulation”. Just like triangle has three points, triangulation involves three parties. Person A has something to say to person B, but instead of drawing a line of communication directly between A and B, person A gets person C to pass the word along.

The concept of triangulation in interpersonal communication originated from psychologists who studied highly dysfunctional families. The only way for these families to become healthy was to break the cycle and deal with one another honestly and directly. Like a family system, when triangulation becomes the norm for communicating concerns, the church becomes a highly dysfunctional community where frustrations and resentments grow and little, if any, positive progress results.

Pastor Smith hangs up the phone very frustrated and discouraged. She knows David is a good person and was only trying to help, but she doesn’t know what to do with the issues he brought up. Who is unhappy with the way she does the pastoral prayer? What exactly is inappropriate about her use of humor in her sermons? How exactly can she be “more spiritual”? And didn’t the church say they wanted more young people? Why exactly is it a problem that she spends so much time with the youth?

The problem with triangulated, unattributed comments is that they offer no opportunity for dialogue. Pastor Smith is robbed of the possibility of having a deep pastoral conversation with whomever voiced the concern to the Lay Leader. She doesn’t get to use their concern as an opportunity to get to know them on a deeper level and find out what has motivated them to share their feelings in this way. She doesn’t get to consider the source. Is it Mr. Jones who always finds something to gripe about, or is it Mrs. Jennings, who never has a bad word to say about anything or anyone, and therefore a concern from her is something to take seriously? Are these David’s personal gripes, and he’s portraying them as the voice of the entire congregation? Pastor Smith wants to grow as a pastor, but these comments don’t help her know how!

In short, triangulated comments deny Pastor Smith the chance to be a pastor. They undermine her ministry and make the church an unhealthier place. When David the Lay Leader shares a concern in this way, he’s genuinely trying to make an uncomfortable situation as easy as possible, but in reality it has made things worse. Pastor Smith will likely sit in the chancel area and scan the congregation next Sunday, wondering who is talking about her behind her back, even as they smile and say, “nice to see you, pastor” on the way out.

What to Do

Before hanging up the phone, what Pastor Smith needs to do is not let David the Lay Leader off the hook so easily. She needs to insist on taking the opportunity to be the people’s pastor, even though it can be uncomfortable. She could say:

“Look, David, I appreciate you sharing these things with me, and I seek feedback so that I can be the best pastor I can be, the kind of pastor you deserve. But these generalities don’t afford me the opportunity to learn and grow. I need to know more about what exactly drives these comments. I need to know who they came from so I can have some conversations with these folks. Let’s dig deeper together so our relationship as pastor and church can be everything God wants it to be.”

Pastor Smith needs to be able to sit down with Mrs. Jennings in her living room over a cup of tea and get to know more about what concerns her about her pastoral prayers. She needs to be able to talk with Mr. Jones and tell him that, while she respects his opinion, she has to devote time to bringing in new members so that the church has a stable future. Perhaps she can even brainstorm with Mr. Jones some ways for the congregation to work together to care for the shut-ins that she doesn’t have as much time to see as she’d like.

If David the Lay Leader responds, “I really can’t say”, or “I don’t feel comfortable sharing who said that to me”, then Pastor Smith needs to firmly, lovingly say, “well, then I’m sorry, David, but I don’t really know what to do with such general, non-specific information, so we’re not really accomplishing anything here. Please ask those folks if they’re willing to put their name to their comments, otherwise there’s nothing I can do.”

These positive pastoral encounters are only possible if Pastor Smith pushes back against the triangulation and refuses to let unattributed concerns remain that way. Some momentary discomfort on the part of her and her Lay Leader can result in positive growth for her as a pastor and for the congregation as a family who truly trusts one another enough to “tell the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). But that will only happen if the pastor and key congregational leaders have the courage to remove the veil of anonymity, take the risk of being truly vulnerable with one another, and open themselves up for grace to transform them all, rewarding their risk.

May you have that type of grace-filled courage in your own congregation.

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