by Eddie Pipkin
Now is about the time when those New Year’s resolutions start wearing off, so if you have any complainers in your circle who swore off that habit for 2023, they should be slipping right about now. (Such a vow would be undertaken only by amateurs, it should be noted. Professional complainers consider their work a righteous avocation, essential to the progress of humanity.) Of course, we all have complainers in our circles (if we are not, ourselves, the foremost, featured complainer). There are, however, distinct levels of complaining, different qualities of complaint, disparate styles of expressing one’s dissatisfaction, and divergent motives behind the bellyaching. I thought it might be fun this week to take a quick look at some of the various classifications of criticism and some potentially useful responses to each.
We all complain. It is one of the most useful of all spiritual discipline exercises to try to go a whole day without complaining. Such an exercise – abstaining from complaining – hones our sense of gratitude and gives us a clearer sense of our balance of negativity to positivity as we move through our day. It also helps us think with more precision about the line between constructive criticism and griping for griping’s sake.
If you work in ministry as either a staff member or volunteer, you are familiar with the ubiquity of complaint within congregations and ministry participants. Some local churches have a more troubled history with a hard-to-dislodge culture of complaint that has been allowed to fester for too long, but even in the best run organizations, complaining is a human habit that is practiced with enthusiasm. It’s good to think about how we will deal with complaints (whether warranted or not), but not all complaints are created equally. They come in a variety of categories, and each unique category should be dealt with in a manner that is appropriate for the conditions at hand.
18 Categories of Complaint
- The Common Complaint: This is any complaint made regularly by a lot of people. Such complaints require response! If a number of folks are complaining about any one thing, it’s a real issue, so figure out how to solve it or designate a team to solve it and communicate to people that a solution is in progress. If the complaint is an indication that people just don’t understand your vision for the future, double down on your communication so that your vision is clear and reaching those who need to share it.
- The Uncommon Complaint: This can be either the “Idiosyncratic Concern” or the “Insightful Concern.” In the case of the idiosyncratic concern, it is generally a very personalized preference, so sometimes it’s easy to solve (and sometimes important to solve depending on who’s having the issue), and sometimes you just have to say, “That’s your personal preference – most people like it the way we’re doing it, so I’m afraid you’re just going to have to live with it.” An insightful observation, on the other hand, can be quite useful because it is something that everyone else may have missed. Act on that observation, and encourage the person who made it to offer more observations. They have a good eye!
- The Exotic Complaint: This complaint can be more fun than the idiosyncratic kind because it’s about something very unusual like maybe that a logo design or set decoration is inadvertently offensive to a specific demographic. Even if it’s not a useful observation, an exotic complaint can be good for a laugh around the office just because it’s so off-the-wall.
- The Obvious Complaint: These are often hard to deal with patiently because they are oft-repeated (e.g. “Yes, we know the water fountain water is not cold enough”). These are generally for long-term problems that are difficult to solve without major expense. It’s best to have a scripted response for such moments – hopefully detailing a proposed future solution – and practice delivering this scripted response with patience, empathy, and good humor.
- The Loud Complaint: This one is delivered in as public a manner as possible. Its delivery is intended to let as many people as possible know it has been delivered, and that its deliverer has a bone to pick or a presumably better idea. It’s best to deal with loud complaints with equally public responses (polite and positive when possible, but definitely public). There is an alternative strategy if you think you can work with the complainer to pull them aside privately and suggest that they, themselves, make an equally public adjustment of their previous complaint – such a public revision can be excellent for team cohesion. It must be said, however, that on occasion a loud complaint must be unapologetically nipped in the bud for all to see – which can also be critical for team cohesion, especially if other team members’ efforts are the subject of the original complaint.
- The Quiet Complaint: This one, bless it, is delivered privately and politely, person to person Praise its deliverer for their decorum; honor their concerns; act on them if at all possible.
- The Passive Aggressive Complaint: Frequently this type of complaint is delivered with a dose of angry “humor.” Our temptation is to meet snark with snark, but a much better strategy is to immediately address the true nature of the complaining. Say, “Okay, I hear what you’re saying. But just to clarify, your issue is. . . .”
- The End Run Complaint: This is the complaint that is made to someone beside you but is clearly intended to make its way to your ears. If you can, do a little detective work to track the complaint back to its original source. Then you can deal one-to-one with the originator, but you’ll also have to be more public with addressing the topic if the issue has now morphed into a public topic.
- The Complaint that is a Threat: This is a complaint that is expressed with promised consequences if it is not immediately addressed. Don’t negotiate for hostages! Don’t make a change just to prevent someone from acting on a threat – that way leads to madness! Try to separate the threat (undesired outcome) from the issue (which may be the subject of a legitimate complaint), but be sure that the person making the threat understands that this is not the way you do business.
- The Bogus Complaint: This is often “The Complaint That Is Not Really About the Thing Being Complained About.” It is often a cudgel wrapped in faux constructive criticism that is weaponized against an individual for the purpose of causing damage (either to you or someone on your team). Deal with this situation forthrightly, prodding the deliverer to clarify whether they are genuinely complaining about a specific item or whether their true beef is with the person in charge of it. If it’s the person, and if there is bad blood, everything that the intended target does is going to generate a complaint from their chief prosecutor. There is a different process for rectifying a specific issue than there is for the laborious work of repairing a relationship.
- The Confused Complaint: Also sometimes the source of sustained laughter around the office, this is the one where we are not sure exactly what the complaint is even about. For those of you who have ‘comment cards’ in your worship space, a blank space on your attendance cards, or an ‘email us’ tab on the website, they are frequently the kinds of badly written diatribes that leave your staff scratching their heads. Address them with their authors if you can decipher them! Here’s a fun (and familiar) example of complaints to a hypothetical pastor, a “Letter from a ‘Concerned Church Member’.”
- The Painful Complaint: This is the one that hurts to hear because you know in your heart that it is true. Yes, you know the audio tech is doing a terrible job on Sunday morning, but doing something about it would require more effort than you can currently muster. Yes, the website is out of date, but that’s not your skill set and you’ve floundered in getting anyone to do something about it. Resist the urge to respond defensively when such a complaint is issued – it’s actually a perfect starting place for demonstrating humility and building empathy! See instead if you can recruit the deliverer as an ally in finding a solution to the problem.
- The Comparison Complaint: The one that is really about how things are better run, hipper, more creative, better looking, or more fun somewhere else. We always want to be taking inspiration from others, using their best ideas and practices when their methods can be adapted to our unique context. But for someone whose goal is to have things exactly like they are somewhere else at the cost of sacrificing what is unique to our context, it’s best to bid them a good natured bon voyage and wish them well in their new home if that’s what they choose.
- The Rumored Complaint: This is the orphan complaint with no discernible author. We often hear it expressed in whispers or as a staff member or volunteer reporting “lot of people are saying” so and so. We should have them name names as a way of defining ‘lots of people’ (which can often be one disgruntled person or even just them). Rumored complaints can be bogus complaints; they can sometimes, however, be legitimate complaints that can’t find their way through normal channels because communication systems are broken.
- The Formal Complaint: This one is expressed in writing, often in detail, sometimes to an official leadership person or committee. These kinds of complaints no matter how minor or major should also be responded to formally, taking the level of formal response appropriate based on the nature and form of the complaint. Don’t try to deal with a formal complaint informally.
- The Implied Complaint: Also known as the indirect complaint, this type of observation can sometimes be a judgment rendered against specific individuals or groups (frequently youth groups, for example, as in, “You know, the common use area is really showing some signs of wear and tear – some groups are abusing that space, don’t you think?” Narrow the focus of the complaint and clarify what it’s really about, particularly if you sense it ultimately is about a specific group or individual. It is important to reiterate the importance of ministry and the realistic impacts of some kinds of ministry on budgets and facilities.
- The Complaint Accompli: This is the cousin to the “fait accompli” (defined as a thing that has already happened or been decided before those affected hear about it, leaving them with no option but to accept it). This technique is used when a person has already taken action to change something without communicating their intent to implement the change, often with no warning. They then use the complaint as evidence for why the change needed to immediately happen. Sometimes it is necessary to undo the change, if nothing else as a means to honor legitimate decision making processes.
- The Compliment Complaint: This one is awesome! I hope you get lots of them in 2023. They are a faux complaint that is intended to make you both smile and feel great about yourself and your ministry: (e.g. “You know you and your team are doing such a great job that so many people are coming that I’m having to park farther away from the building every week” etc.). Respond with a faux solution (“Guess we’ll have to start dropping the ball more”) or just offer a really big smile.
Since complaints are a regular part of ministry and life, one of the keys to sustained mental health is to have a well-thought strategy for how to deal with them. It’s important to keep them in perspective and always consider the source (and the source’s perspective). It’s productive to consider them objectively and take them seriously, using that feedback to make changes when possible, but it’s also essential to not get overwhelmed by negativity and to remember that change, even positive change, takes time. Give yourself the grace to fix what needs fixing without succumbing to the pressure of perfectionism.
The other key component of dealing with complaints, as we noted multiple times in the list, is articulate, frequent, and focused communication. Ask questions to clarify the true issue. Explain when a fix is already in progress. Solicit suggestions for how the complainant would rectify the issue – such suggestions may be obvious or they may be revelatory. Detail the issues that keep a preferred fix from happening, even if they seem obvious and apparent to you. Restate your vision if the complainant is seeking a fix that conflicts with where you think the ministry should be heading. Communication does wonders; it makes people feel valued, and it creates space for understanding and empathy.
What categories of complaint have I missed? Are there some categories or styles of complaint that get under your skin more than others? What are some of your tried-and-true strategies for dealing with everyday complaints? How does honoring the complaints of those we serve make us better leaders? Share your thoughts in the comments section – all complaints welcome!