Think of the name of a person who recently told you they’re unhappy and thinking about leaving your church.
Would you believe me if I told you that that person is not an outlier?
What if I told you that that person kicking up dust, threatening to leave, folding their arms in services, talking behind your back, etc., is actually following a well-established pattern of behavior that EVERY SINGLE ONE of your fellow Senior Pastors is dealing with?
I’d like to take you on a tour inside the mind of a disgruntled church member.
My reasoning is two-fold.
First, nothing causes more stress and anxiety for the Senior Pastor of a church under 1,200 than the ripple effects of a disgruntled church member.
Second, once we understand their go-to bag of tricks, we rob disgruntled church members of their power over our peace of mind and the well-being of 99.5% of the amazing people in our churches who are an absolute joy to serve.
The Five Accusations
Every Senior Pastor, regardless of denomination, theological background, leadership style, and philosophy of ministry, undergoes the same five attacks by disgruntled church members. I call these “the five accusations.”
1. “You’re not feeding people”
“I’m not being fed” is hands down the number one accusation leveled against us and usually comes at the hands of self-serving bottom feeding Christians who hop between churches like a swarm of locusts draining the resources of every church they attend before they move on. As you can probably guess, I’m not very fond of these people.
2. “You’ve mismanaged money”
This is not a charge of financial impropriety. If we handle money inappropriately, we should get fired. This is the charge that we’re directing, or championing, the use of the church’s money for things that this person thinks we shouldn’t be spending money on “right now.” This charge usually comes to the surface as an excuse for people to leave the church once they hear what you’re raising money for in a campaign. But don’t worry, they’ll come back once the campaign is over and celebrate what God has done through “us.” In the words of my pastor friends in Mississippi, “Bless their hearts.”
3. “You’ve mismanaged staff”
This charge almost always comes on the heels of firing a staff member, especially if the person making the accusation was either good friends, or a family member, of the person fired. For those of you in churches under 600, this is what makes it hard to fire someone who is terrible: they’re relationally connected to 1/10 of the people in your church.
4. “You’re doctrinally unsound”
This charge almost always comes from the person who has been at your church for less than three years, is a founding member of the “I love John MacArthur” fan club, and listens to 19 podcasts a week by people who use the title “Apostle ______” or Prophet _____ “. It always involves some idiosyncratic pet doctrine that doesn’t matter, and they truly believe in their heart of hearts that if they can just get you to sit down and listen, they’ll get you to change the entire theological direction of your church.
5. “All you care about is growth”
This always happens when you prioritize evangelism and ask people to change their behavior to reach those Jesus called us to reach. I’ve talked before about A leaders (5% of our congregation), B leaders (15% of our congregation), and C leaders (80% of our congregation). This is exclusively a charge leveled by C leaders – people who want you to hold their hands like a personal chaplain. The moment you stop giving them one-on-one personal attention, they try to manipulate you into showing them attention again by trying to castigate your priorities.
So those are the five accusations. Undoubtedly, you can take almost every criticism you’ve ever faced in your ministry and place them into one of those five categories.
But here’s the thing – not only do the accusations you face follow a predictable path, the way in which the person making the accusation goes about airing their grievances follows a similar path as well.
But before we get to that well-trod pattern, I want to briefly touch on five toxic Senior Pastor relationships we should avoid like the plague.
The reason many people level accusations against us is because we began a personal friendship with them, then broke it off, when we realized things started to get strange.
I tell my staff all the time: “Beware the person who meets you at the train station.”
People who quickly rush up to you to be your friend almost always have an agenda. It may take 5 years or 15 years to flush it out, but trust me, it WILL come to the surface.
Here, in no certain order, are the types of relationships we should always run from.
5 Toxic Relationships Every Senior Pastor Must Avoid
- I will give, but not until…
- I have a problem, and I only want to meet with you.
- I’m brand new here and want to take you and your wife out to dinner, and be your best friend, and go golfing next weekend, and go on vacation together, and buy the house next door to yours, and co-parent our children together.
- I’m so glad you’re here because I didn’t like the former Senior Pastor.
- I will continue to give, and sacrifice, as long as you’re paying attention to me.
It is important to bring up these types of relationships because in most smaller churches the accusations we face often come on the heels of a “break up.”
If we can avoid these types of relationships in the first place, that will go a long way to help prevent a lot of dust getting kicked up before an accusation even happens.
How Disgruntled Church Members Process And Air Their Grievances
The path disgruntled church members take to process and air their grievances is just as common as the accusations themselves.
Step #1: “I’m hurt.”
It always starts with something you did or said that hurt them.
I want you to notice, however, that the reason people STATE for why they are upset is almost never the UNDERLYING reason they’re hurt.
It just sounds more spiritual to say you’re “doctrinally unsound” than it is to say that you don’t call them up to go to breakfast anymore.
Step #2: Looking back to build a case
Once an unhealthy church member is hurt, they look back over their entire history with you and begin “building a case.”
What I mean by this is everyone in your church has bumps, run-ins, problems, and issues with you that they overlook. It’s called living in community with one another. Tiny things. Small things. That time you walked past them in the hallway and didn’t shake their hand. Or visit them in the hospital. Or you made a joke that they took the wrong way.
These are all normal things that happen in every congregation, and they’re never a problem.
But when an unhealthy person gets hurt, they go back in time and start making a list of every single thing you’ve ever done in their time at your church that you’ve done wrong.
Again, 99.5% of the people in our churches are healthy. They follow what the Bible says about conflict resolution and forgiveness, and they’re done with it.
But not for that .5%.
Step #3: Building an alliance
The unhealthy church member takes that list and starts shopping it around, looking for people to join their alliance like on the TV show Survivor.
The people who join their alliances aren’t hard to figure out: they’re always people who are unhealthy themselves. They usually transferred from another church and are looking for a connection, so they bond over their shared dysfunction.
Sometimes this materializes in the form of what we at CCV call “rogue” groups. These are groups of people who don’t want their “group” to be a part of our official Small Group Ministry at the church. Their reason is simple: what brought them together is their shared dysfunction and desire to complain about you. If they joined your small group structure, their sin would be found out.
Like rats starved for food, the sad thing is these people always end up cannibalizing each other, and their kids are the ones most hurt.
Step #4: “Everybody is saying that you… (insert accusation).”
This is a power play.
Whenever someone appeals to a large, growing, unhappy swarming mass of people ready to revolt because you are doing this, and this, and this, ALWAYS ask: “Who is everyone?”
They’ll balk and won’t tell you because there is NEVER a large, growing, unhappy swarming mass of people.
It’s always that person, their spouse, and that 38-year-old guy living in his parent’s basement with 16 cats.
They’re talking this way to try to bolster their case.
Listen, healthy people don’t act this way, so whatever you do, don’t play their game. And it is a game.
Step #5: Trying to cause as much damage as possible on the way out
When they realize that you’re not going to play their game, that person will always try to inflict mass relational causalities on their way out the door.
For instance, we had a situation where a person was asked to step aside from serving because they were involved in an immoral situation.
Wanna guess what they did?
They plastered their grievances all over social media. I mean, they recruited friends and family members to post crap on message boards, review sites, literally everywhere they could post their grievance. Their complaint? I was doctrinally unsound (accusation #4) and didn’t understand the “love” of Jesus and accept their lifestyle.
Wanna guess what I did?
My thinking was, “Wait, you’re willing to gather 5-6 people to spend countless hours spreading the message that our church has moral standards? HOW CAN I HELP YOU WITH THAT?!?”
People are smart. They read stupid Yelp reviews and know 1-star reviews that are terrible always come with an agenda and are always inaccurate.
This final step never scares me because I trust our people. Everything these disgruntled people “think” they do to damage the church, me, and our staff, on the way out, ALWAYS backfires.
10 Practical Steps You Can Take
Here are ten things I always share with Senior Pastors I coach that will help you as you deal with the ever-present problem of disgruntled church members.
- Realize that this is a .5% problem. 99.5% of the people in our churches are loving, awesome people that are a joy to serve. Don’t ever lose sight of that.
- Always be humble and willing to admit when you’re at fault. As a Senior Pastor, you can’t take things personally. Sometimes we say and do things that are wrong. If someone points something out – be humble, admit your error, ask for forgiveness and move on. Making mistakes is forgivable. Hubris is not.
- Preach on Matthew 18 once a year. Preach on what godly conflict resolution looks like in action and follow it congregation wide.
- Kick people out of your church and the word will spread that you actually follow Matthew 18. Like children listening to empty threats of discipline, disgruntled church members will thrive until they realize that you will dis-fellowship them. You can do this in a way that is gracious and firm, free from authoritarianism.
- Do not accept people into your fellowship and grant them membership if they left their former church because of a conflict and left it unresolved. We do this all the time. “Go back and meet with those people, work through Matthew 18, then come back here.” Trust me, do this. Block the contagion before it can spread to the body.
- Take your staff and leadership through a study of Kenneth Haugh’s masterful book Antagonists In The Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict. This was one of the most helpful studies we’ve ever done.
- Make sure you teach your Elders that one of their priorities is to protect you. Nobody can possibly know coming into it that forming a line of defense against the crazies so you can minister to the 99.5% is the task of an Elder until we to teach them.
- Protect your spouse and kids. I RARELY tell my wife about the dust that gets kicked up my way. And I NEVER tell my kids about it. My kids grew up thinking that being a Senior Pastor was an awesome job, because it is, and because I only shared positive stories around the dinner table.
- Understand that people with unresolved issues will “work them out” on you. Father issues. Authority issues. Etc. Don’t let them.
- Know that you are worth more than your ministry at that particular church. If you’re in a toxic situation that is unhealthy for you and your family, and you’ve tried your best, find another ministry. There are kind churches out there that love their Senior Pastors. I’m at one of those, and you deserve to be at one too.
P.S. Can I ask a favor? Will you share this on social media? There are undoubtedly a lot of leaders out there that need to be encouraged right now. Thanks friends.