By Eddie Pipkin

I was on a summer road trip during the 4th of July week.  We had to stop for dinner somewhere in South Carolina, and someone suggested Bojangles (yum, spicy chicken ‘n biscuit).  As we were chowing down, I looked at my phone, and because I had location services activated, it brought up reviews of the Bojangles we were sitting in, and this kind of cracked me up: who does dining reviews on a fast food chain?  Well, 452 people, that’s who.  And the vast preponderance were 4+ star reviews!  That is, except for some outlier one-star reviews.  So, I said to the people with me, “Let’s take a look.  Because usually, a one-star review means the reviewer had a particular bone to pick.”  That’s how we got to know Heather, a Yelp mega-reviewer with hundreds of reviews to her name, almost all of which effusively praised the reviewed establishment (awesome food! wonderful people! great napkins!).  About 10% of the time, however, Heather veered from her sunshine and rainbows reviews to a dark, cynical, even angry dismissal, and here was the one flaw that flipped Heather’s switch: she did not like to wait.  Keep her waiting for her chicken biscuit, her table, or her check, and no matter how beautiful the setting or tasty the food, you were star rating dead meat.  Scrolling through her reviews, she flamed people again and again with her moral outrage over this one issue.

Alas, I did not take time to see if Heather had done any Yelp church reviews (and, yes, that is a thing).

But you and I have been involved in ministry leadership to know that complaints are a standard part of the package.  Heck, they are as old as the Bible itself, and even God’s chosen people were famous for complaining.  Therefore, we should be prepared to deal with this reality of human nature.  We should understand that church folk are no different when it comes to complaining (and sometimes worse, given our penchant for rules and our ongoing quest for holy perfection).

The Bible includes lots of specific admonitions against complaining.  Jesus, himself, had to deal frequently with complainers and provides a good model for how to deal with them in a healthy way (as summarized in this article from Crosswalk):

Jesus actually fielded complaints against five different types of people: the fortunate, the insensitive, the unspiritual, the outsider, and the wicked. When all the complaint stories are studied together, several truths emerge about how Jesus handled complaints about other people:  (1) Jesus never gave the complainer the satisfaction he was looking for; (2) Jesus never allowed the complainer to persist in his complaining; (3) Jesus never tolerated an excessive ripping apart of the character of another person, even the ungodly; (4) Jesus often turned the tables and offered a penetrating insight about the complainer’s own heart; and (5) Jesus sometimes even issued a spiritual warning to the complainer himself.

The Bible clearly defines the difference between legitimate forms of complaint (mourning, lamentations, correction, etc., which can be honest and useful) and the destructive forms, often categorized as “grumbling,” from which we should refrain and from which we should encourage our ministry team members and congregants to refrain.

Karl Vaters offers some great strategies for dealing with complaints and complainers, which I’ll summarize and expand on.  When complaints (inevitably) happen:

  • Listen for the potential validity in the complaint. No matter how negatively the complaint is phrased, if we consider it thoughtfully, there is almost always some element of validity to it.  There is something to be learned, something to be acted upon, which can make us and our ministry stronger.  Don’t miss the opportunity to make use of this feedback.
  • Don’t take an automatically defensive attitude. If people are complaining, they are likely invested in the process or program.  Find a way to value them, and as noted above, to value the specific input if you can.  Be a humble and attentive listener.
  • Communicate more vigorously. Our first response when complaints emerge is to hunker down, withdraw, and control the flow of information – our thinking is that if we stop putting information out there, there will be fewer complaints (“what people don’t know won’t hurt them”).  But this strategy is foolhardy.  Try communicating more instead.  Give people additional information – help them see what you see – help them understand the motivations that guided your decisions, and you will gain empathy for your point of view.
  • Don’t put a habitual complainer in charge. Sometimes, we give up and say, “Well, if you don’t like the way we’re doing it, you can be in charge.”  This almost never ends well.  Somebody whose primary mode is complaint is rarely an effective leader.  If it’s important to give them a voice, do it, but not as the vision caster.  (And since the thoughtful leader you pick instead will likely have to deal with the “complainer,” give him or her the skills they need to navigate that territory.)
  • When voices are competing to be the loudest, listen to God’s voice first. When everyone is shouting at you to force home their point of view, don’t neglect to make room for the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit.  The louder the debate, the more essential the need for biblical wisdom, prayer time, and quiet reflection.
  • Don’t equate volume with power. Just because someone is very loud does not mean that he or she is the power broker that matters.  Pay attention to who truly holds decision making power and partner with that person.
  • Don’t attack. It’s reflexive to deal with a complaint by shouting down, humiliating, gossiping about or making personal attacks against the person who is complaining.  Note that Jesus did not model any of these strategies.  Rely instead on the principles of love as leadership laid out in 1st Corinthians 13.  There is no room among Christ’s disciples for winning at all costs.
  • Don’t abuse your power to shut down complaints. Don’t be a tyrant.  Even when you have the power to silence others, resist the urge.  It might be easy, but it’s destructive to the egos of others and detrimental to the values of open and honest communication.
  • Admit your mistakes. When the complaint is on the mark, graciously and humbly acknowledge its validity.  This is a highly valued quality in any leader and healthy for any organization.
  • Give credit where credit is due. If someone’s complaint leads to a correction that makes things better, give them the kudos they deserve.  Don’t be stingy with your praise.  If people feel free to bring mistakes to your attention, your ministry will be much stronger in the long run.

As for the Heathers of the world, know what their pressure points are and anticipate them.  Habitual complainers who are also dedicated and dependable workers are worth the extra baggage.  Use your common sense in managing them, however:

  • Don’t put a person something in charge of something they are not good at or are famous for complaining about. That’s just asking for it.  Encourage people to work with their strengths and engaged in projects about which they feel positive and energized.
  • If you know a person has a specific pet peeve, to the extend that you can accommodate them, do it! If Heather is picking her child up from VBS, for goodness’ sake, don’t make her wait.  That’s just attentive leadership that makes things easier for everybody.  Don’t you love it when people are aware of your pet peeves and do their best to avoid them?
  • If you know a serial complainer, it’s time for some one-on-one attention. Take that person out for coffee and work through some of their issues, soliciting their feedback and a deeper understanding of what drives their unrest and helping them to understand the impact their words may be having. Conversation is always a powerful tonic.
  • Have healthy systems in place through which people can offer their feedback. Give people ways to share their opinions and concerns through online comments, suggestion boxes, surveys, and email addresses, then treat that feedback with respect.  If you don’t provide a healthy outlet for such concerns, they will find unhealthy ways to be expressed.

At the end of the day, we want people to be engaged, even passionate about what is happening in our ministries.  There is a right way and a wrong way to channel such passion.  It is our quest as leaders to provide the healthy channels.

What are your own best stories about dealing with complaints and complainers?  Where have you found success in disarming the negativity and directing people to engage in a positive manner?  Share your own strategies.  We’d love to hear them (and we promise we won’t complain if they take issue with any of our points in this blog).