Communicating Criticism to Other Leaders

I need some wisdom on how to appropriately communicate criticism I receive from congregation members.

When someone in your congregation sends you an e-mail, text message, letter, etc. that is critical of others in leadership (and you yourself are in leadership), how should you respond?

I recently forwarded on to the rest of our elders a text message I received from someone in our congregation who was "venting" and making a critical comment about another elder. That person then approached me and became angry when I told him I forwarded on his text message to the other elders. He expected his text to me to remain private and confidential.

I have always held a personal policy that if someone has something critical to say about someone or something going on in the church, they should be willing to sign their name to it. As it is, this person has sent several "recommendations" to me on ways we elders should change things in the church, but has asked that I not use his name in discussions with the other elders. I feel like he wants to use me as a conduit to the other elders to voice his concerns, but he doesn't want to own the concern himself.

How would you guys handle this situation?

"Recommendations"

I am only a deacon in my church, not an elder, but I can say how I would personally handle a couple things you have mentioned.

1. Criticism of other elders (and I apply this to those in church leadership) -- I Tim. 5:19 - "Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses."  If someone brought me a criticism of the pastor or one of the other deacons and wanted me to keep it private, I'd tell him to bring another witness, and be prepared to discuss it in front of the Pastors & Deacons if he expected it to go anywhere, and base it on this scripture.  One possible exception -- if the accuser is certain that the accused has committed a crime, I'd tell him to take what he knows to the Police, especially with something related to abuse.

2. If someone wants a change, but doesn't want to use his name or appear personally, I'd tell him "too bad."  If something really needs a change, like you I'd expect the one making the "recommendation" to be willing to own it and come to all the church leadership about it.

I'm certainly not the most people-oriented person in the church, but I'd want to head off any spirit of gossip or undercurrent of discontent.  I'm sure the more people-oriented among you might be more diplomatic than I am, but I expect you'd also want to avoid back-room whispers among the congregation.  If anything is really wrong and needs to come out, then it can't be handled in secret meetings and tribunals.

Dave Barnhart

Context

I suppose you'll have to determine whether the person is (1) a divisive person looking for an ally to start a faction, or (2) genuinely puzzled and/or confused by something happening in the church body. A person doesn't always begin by looking to start a divisive faction.

It really depends on the context. I suppose I would do this, generically speaking:

  1. Let the person know that if he has a particular issue with a particular elder, he needs to address it to that person. Then, tell that person yourself, regardless of whether the complainer wants you to or not. Ignore their requests to keep it "quiet."  
  2. Let the person know that, if they have a general question or issue about something, it is your policy to inform the other elders, so you can all tackle the problem together. In other words, you guys communicate. This will send the message that you cannot be played off one another.

The complainant will know you, and know you aren't out to "get them" or be a "mean" person. But, I would make it a priority to do everything I could to not encourage (deliberately or accidentally) the building of factions. This can only happen if the elders communicate, whether the complainant likes it or not. If he objects, he's basically saying he really doesn't want it resolved. In that case, why complain to an elder?

This is hard, because each context is different. But, from my own experience, these are lessons I've learned.

TylerR is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs here.


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