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The Ministry of Complaining

I once preached a sermon by that title, and my main point was simply that complaining can be a valuable activity. We need people who notice things that are wrong and are willing to point them out. We need critics. I was reminded of that sermon today when I read the post Clergy Haters from Adventures in Revland.

There are indeed people who are just going to complain. If you’re a pastor, and new members show up tearing down their previous pastor, beware! In some cases they may have an honest complaint and you may do better. But more often than not, the complainer is going to keep on complaining, only now it will be about you.

I recall coding a small program together with one of the toughest critics I have ever known. We were doing some simulation. I would propose an algorithm, and he would shoot it down. I’d modify it and he’d explain why it just wouldn’t work. From time to time he had suggestions, but he was rarely satisfied even with his own suggestions. I would finally propose something that was close enough, based on both our input, and once he was that close he would polish it off. I must note that he was the better programmer of the two of us. His criticism, however, was one of two most critical elements for the project.

But complaining is rarely a ministry. Some might even complain (!) about my use of the word “complain” in this context. But I rather like the effect, so words are just going to have to mean what I want them to, nothing more, nothing less, for the duration of this post! Why is it that pointing out faults and failings is viewed so negatively?

When I have a manuscript to edit and proofread, I will pay people to read and mark the errors in the manuscript. They’re really useful people: proofreaders. What they do is point out faults and failings, much like complainers do.

So what’s the difference between those folks and the ones you don’t really want in your church or business?

When I was younger, I was always told that there was a difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. Constructive criticism, I was told, involves having a solution to suggest to the problem, and not just pointing it out and leaving it at that.

I’ve had a problem with that for years. I can call the power company and point out that the electricity is off without having any idea what to do about it. As an editor, I can point out a section in a manuscript that is unclear, without necessarily giving the proper wording. In fact, in practice how I approach that depends on the particular author. For one person I might rewrite the passage and let them accept or reject it. For another I might just say, “This is unclear. You might want to work on it a bit.” It just depends on what gets creative juices flowing.

[For those who are wondering, I have neither proofreaders nor editors for this blog. All unclear passages are the product of my own arguably slightly deranged mind.]

But I’ve found something better to distinguish complaining as a vice and complaining as a ministry: The person(s) to whom you present your complaint.

In my sermon I held up the “blue book” which was our church directory. I opened it to the section that listed the committee chairs and members. I pointed out that there were people who were charged with the various ministries and activities of the church. “To make your complaints into a ministry,” I told the congregation, “you first have to take them to the right people.”

You see, I had a great example handy. I had been leading a Bible study group. The chair of the Staff-Parish Relations committee attended because she was interested in joining. (For my non-Methodist readers, replace “Staff-Parish Relations Committee” with whatever group of people deals with the staffing of your church and interfaces between the paid staff and the members.) A massive complaint session broke out in the study group. I can’t even remember what brought it on, but it was something in the passage we were studying that the group members felt applied to their church. They were pretty negative.

After a bit I pointed out that we had the SPR chair in the room, and perhaps they should address their comments to her. Now in case you’re thinking that the complaint session broke out because she was there, it turned out that nobody else knew she was the SPR chair. I will provide the excuse that she had only been in that position for a couple of months, but still…

She immediately said that if they had suggestions or complaints that she would be willing to write them down and deal with them. She already had a pen and paper out and was ready to write. But she pointed out that they had yet to provide her with anything specific that she could actually address. She asked for the specifics or offered to meet with anyone who needed to present something in a private setting.

Silence descended on the room. So far as I know, no appointments resulted from the meeting. You see, those folks wanted to complain, but they were much less anxious to sit down with someone who was ready to hear them and ready to take action. One problem was that they weren’t very clear on what was bothering them. But I think there was also the simple fact that it’s easy to complain in general to people in general, but when you start complaining to the person with the power, you’re putting yourself on the line.

I don’t want to downplay the usefulness of combining your complaint with positive comments on things that deserve them and with suggested solutions. But you should also be ready to have your suggestions set aside for ideas brought by others.

I must tell one other story here about taking suggestions and complains. I once discussed the worship service at my church with my pastor over lunch. We were discussing how to improve a particular service, and grabbing a convenient napkin and pen I outlined five ideas I had. There were things I didn’t like about the service and these were ideas to improve it.

The pastor implemented changes, five for five. Each change was recognizably related to one of my suggestions, but each had been modified and, I must say, substantially improved. They fit better into the worship setting and connected with the members better than what I had suggested. Basically, that pastor took seed from what I said and grew something much better. The congregation started thanking the pastor for the improved service.

What did he do then? He gave me credit for the whole thing! If you’re a pastor or a leader and you want to improve the “ministry of complaint” in your church, organization, or business, try that approach.

Turning complaint into a ministry requires courage. One of the things my wife and I determined shortly after we got married was that we weren’t going to answer for each other when we write, speak, or teach. You many wonder why not. Do we not support one another in our respective ministries and calling? Indeed we do! Are we embarrassed by what one or the other teaches? Well, occasionally, but that’s usually because we’re telling stories on one another. More than one weekend seminar at which we both spoke has been generously seasoned with stories of our courtship!

But we discovered quite early that in places where people wanted to complain, certain folks would come to me to discuss what Jody had to say. It sometimes happened the other way, but it may be a comment on church culture that it was more likely someone was coming to me. In general, it wasn’t clarification they wanted. The undertone was that I needed to straighten my wife out on some point.

I should note here that one doesn’t straighten my wife out. She’s actually quite teachable, but you better line your ducks up in a row and get them quacking in unison. Then she’ll straighten herself out once she’s fully convinced. But at the same time each of us is quite capable of responding to questions put directly to us. As soon as I perceived that there were people who thought they could tell me that my wife was wrong and that I’d somehow go and take their complaint to her, I made it my policy to simply say, “If you have a question about what Jody said (or wrote) go ask her.” Nobody who first came to me ever has gone on to take their question to her.

We were having a discussion about that the other night and it brought me to this point of courage. Can you take your complaint to the actual person you want to complain about? Can you explain it to them? Sometimes there are privacy issues. Sometimes there are issues of retaliation. But most of the time, especially when the complaint is about a pastor, I think there are simply courage issues. The complainer wants to get someone else to do the hard work of telling the pastor he’s wrong about something, not to mention avoiding the embarrassment of finding out it wasn’t the pastor who was wrong, but rather the complainer.

To be a ministry, your complaint needs to be honest, it needs to be brought to the right person, and you need to bring it with the right attitude. It’s a shock, but the complainer could, in fact, be wrong. At the same time, an honest complaint needs to be heard and dealt with. A little bit of courage to face the person against whom one has a complaint will go a long way in improving your own success, and that of your organization.

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  1. She asked for the specifics or offered to meet with anyone who needed to present something in a private setting.

    Silence descended on the room.

    Not surprising. It’s always scary to start talking to someone who may disagree with you, or who you have to convince of something. This is why people are so terrified of dating and job interviews – there’s nothing worse than a near-lethal dose of adrenaline to the cortex.

    On that note, I’d suggest that there are actually two distinct forms of courage at work here. One is the “intellectual” courage required to go to the SPR chair’s office and knock on the door. The other is the “physiological” courage required to not have an incapacitating panic attack once you get there.

    When we talk about courage we normally mean intellectual courage: having sufficient willpower to act contrary to your emotional preference. But I’d like to see more discussion of physiological courage: having sufficient immunity to adrenaline that you can act contrary to your emotional preference and still do a good job.

    “Just do it” was a wonderful motto long before Nike started using it. But having more intellectual courage than physiological courage can e.g. leave your car wrapped round a tree or your foot wedged firmly in your mouth.

    1. Yes, you have a point on the courage required. On the other hand, anonymous complaining generally does more harm than good. Perhaps a “silence unless one has the courage to speak to the right person” code would work?

      1. That would work, with the slight downside of reducing the available supply of office banter somewhat (I’m from England, we complain about everything). The main difficulty is realising when you’re doing it.

        Speaking personally, I’ve dropped my involvement with a couple of quasi-political groups because I felt they were just talking shops. I guess a good rule would be: first add value, and then talk about the whys and wherefores. I recall that Scott Adams’ book “The Dilbert Principle” suggests the same principle, except that he describes it in terms of “fundamental activities”.

        Ironically, by posting on this blog I am completely violating that principle. Meh.

        By the way, I realise it was completely off-topic, but I’d be interested in your response to the whole “two kinds of courage” thing. It’s something that hits me personally because a) I’m looking for a new job, and b) I’m keen on improving my lines of communication with the opposite sex.

        Currently both initiatives are going quite badly because I basically panic and start displaying all sorts of adrenaline-inspired behaviours. And then I feel like an idiot and have trouble forcing myself to try, try again. I’ve heard and read no end of advice on things like interview techniques, but it all goes straight out of my head as soon as the neurotransmitter hits the synapse.

        This is something that it seems like people should get the hang of as they grow up (being only 24 I of course do not consider myself “grown-up” yet. Maybe in another decade.) Or maybe I’m just missing something obvious. If any of the older, wiser minds around here would care to shower me with pearls of wisdom, it would be greatly appreciated 🙂

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