“Pastor, I need to talk to you about something.”
As soon as he heard those words, the heart of this experienced pastor skipped a beat. Too many times before, those words signaled that a well-meaning church member was about to share a concern, problem, or complaint. Hoping for the best but mentally preparing for the worst-case scenario, the pastor took a deep breath. He smiled and asked, “What can I help you with today?”
It doesn’t matter if the size of the congregation is 50 or 5,000; serving as the spiritual shepherd for a local church is taxing work. Every pastor who has served in the ministry longer than two minutes knows that it’s impossible to please everyone in the church. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for pastors to hear complaints from their members. Sometimes these complaints concern another church member, or it involves a disagreement with a decision made by church leadership. Sometimes, the church member’s gripe is with the pastor himself.
It’s worth noting that there are instances when a complaint is valid and needs to be taken seriously. Legitimate instances of false teaching, accusations of sexual misconduct, or suspicion of financial impropriety are all matters that must be investigated and corrected. Some complaints are valid and need to be addressed.
However, most issues that church members have with their pastor or another person are of a much more trivial nature. Perhaps the pastor didn’t call the church member before their minor surgical procedure. Maybe the Deacon Chairman forgot to mention the bake sale during the announcements. Perhaps the Nominating Committee didn’t ask a particular church member to serve as a new small group leader. The potential list of complaints could go on and on.
The Wrong Way
Most of the time, the best thing to do with trivial complaints is to keep them to yourself. However, if you insist on telling your pastor about your concerns, you should avoid sharing your complaint with your pastor in these five ways:
- Don’t complain right before the worship service begins. The primary task of your pastor is to preach the Word of God to the congregation every week. He has likely spent many hours in prayer and preparation before he steps behind the pulpit. The last thing he needs is a church member to pull him to the side to complain about him or another church matter just before he preaches. As much as he may try to focus on the preaching task, his mind will likely revisit the complaint numerous times throughout the sermon. The result is a distracted and discouraged preacher. There is a proper time and place to share a complaint. Just before the service begins is not that time.
- Don’t complain behind the pastor’s back. If you have a complaint against the pastor, don’t vent to ten other church members while failing to share your concern with him directly. This leads to gossip and slander and will likely sow division within your church family. If you have a complaint that needs to be shared with the pastor, share it with him. Don’t allow him to find out about it through the grapevine.
- Don’t complain publicly. I once made a decision that a church member strongly disagreed with. To my horror, they began to air their grievance with me in a very public manner just before the worship service began. Dozens of church members witnessed this outburst, as well as several first-time guests. (It should come as no surprise that they never returned for a second visit.) If you need to share a complaint with your pastor, don’t do it in a setting or a manner when it’s likely that others will hear your conversation.
- Don’t complain on social media. Social media has many benefits. It also has many pitfalls. One of its significant problems is that some people don’t stop to think before they post. I’ve read multiple posts of a disgruntled church member who chose to criticize their pastor or their church online – for all the world to see. When this happens, not only is the reputation of the pastor and church negatively affected, the name of Jesus is also brought into disrepute. Social media has many good uses. Posting complaints about your pastor or church is not one of them.
- Don’t complain anonymously. Most pastors have received the occasional anonymous letter from a “concerned” church member. Others receive anonymous suggestions in the offering plate. These incognito acts are often a display of cowardice. Not only is this person unwilling to speak with the pastor face to face, but they are not even brave enough to attach their name to the complaint. If a church member considers it unnecessary to identify themselves when they share their concerns, why should the pastor find it necessary to take the complaint seriously? Many pastors have a personal rule not to read unsigned letters, and I can’t say that I blame them! However, even if they choose to read it, they have no way of following up to address the concerns specifically. It places the pastor in a no-win situation.
The Right Way
Again, if the complaint is trivial, the best thing to do is let it go and not share your complaint. However, there may be times when sharing your concern with the pastor is necessary. In those (rare) instances, here are three suggestions for how to do so.
- Do so prayerfully. Before you share a complaint with your pastor, pray about it. A lot. Ask the Lord to reveal if the concern is trivial or a legitimate problem that needs to be brought to the pastor’s attention. After you’ve spent a considerable amount of time in prayer and you still feel it’s best to talk with your pastor, then you can proceed to the next step. Otherwise, it’s best to keep it to yourself.
- Do so privately. As I mentioned earlier, don’t confront your pastor in a public setting or on social media. Schedule a time to meet privately. A face-to-face meeting is the best option. However, if you can’t schedule a convenient time to meet face-to-face, discuss the matter over the phone or video call. Because the potential to be misunderstood is high, sharing your concerns in an email or text message is discouraged.
- Do so graciously. Regardless of the nature of the complaint, you should share your concerns with Christian grace and kindness. Remember, no one is perfect (other than Jesus), and that includes your pastor. Just as we have been the recipients of grace, we should extend grace to others as well. Share your complaint in a way that avoids personal attacks but simply gets to the heart of the issue.
Fielding complaints from church members comes with the territory for pastors. It’s a component of leadership. Moses often dealt with complaints among the people he led (see Exodus 14:10-14, 15:22-23, 16:1-4, 17:1-4; Numbers 11:1-3, 12:1-3, 14:1-10, 16:1-3, 20:1-5, 21:4-5 – just to name a few). The apostles had a similar experience in the early church (see Acts 6:1-7). It’s a reality for every leader. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul provides a long list of his physical sufferings in his gospel work, but his greatest burden is described in 2 Cor. 11:28, “Not to mention other things, there is the daily pressure on me: my concern for all the churches.” Without question, pastoral ministry is taxing work.
If you are a church member, I hope you’ll recognize this reality in the life of your pastor and church leaders. I hope you’ll also carefully consider if your complaint is serious enough to place an additional burden on your pastor. If it’s not worth it, keep it to yourself. If it is necessary to speak with him about it, make sure you share your complaint the right way.