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 seldom 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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. Preach on Matthew 18 once a year.
Preach on what godly conflict resolution looks like in action and follow it congregation-wide.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. Understand that people with unresolved issues will “work them out” on you.
Father issues. Authority issues. Etc. Don’t let them.
10. 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.