A while ago, I was in a meeting where a couple concerns were raised about the worship service that past Sunday. I felt they were more like complaints, but considering I’m the Worship Pastor at Trinity CRC, I admit up front that I’m probably a little biased and more than a little sensitive! Nevertheless, I began wondering what would happen if we were to regularly enter into these sorts of discussions. I suspect we as church leaders might think we’ve become the complaints department, which will quickly discourage and distract us from the real work to which we’re called.
To be clear: I am not opposed to correction and suggestions for improvement. But I encourage us to distinguish that from complaining. When it’s in fact complaining we’re dealing with, I offer three things that have come to my mind on the subject…
1. Everyone is a complaint magnet.
Members of the congregation know which deacon, elder, pastor, or other leader to approach when they’re not pleased with something new or unexpected in the life of a church. Likewise, members know which leader to approach when they’d like to see change because they’ve become bored with things remaining too much the same. And those leaders are seldom the same person!
If people routinely approach me with remarks on an issue with which I empathize, I may feel that there is a broad consensus on the issue, when in actuality, people are only seeking out someone who has similar feelings as themselves. It’s not that I cannot engage these people, but I need to evaluate whether I attract certain types of comments but not others which are equally legitimate and also need to be heard.
2. Complaining is not a spiritual gift.
The apostle Paul warns about grumbling several times in his letters. My favorite occurrence is where he addresses it in the same train of thought as idolatry and sexual immorality. The sin of grumbling is not just a “little” sin. Elsewhere Paul holds up grumbling and arguing as being opposed to being blameless and pure. As a leader in the church, I am called to promote more of the latter and less of the former.
When it comes to worship in particular, grumbling can be unnecessarily hurtful for the pastor, especially when it comes within moments of the final “amen.” Moreover, it’s just completely inappropriate to immediately critique the service: I am not the audience who determines whether the worship was any good. God is the audience (as I wrote about here). Worship is not about me and what I like or dislike. People engaging in post-service criticism need stop it. Listen carefully: I’m not referring to discussing the message or saying what song really spoke to you. I’m referring to griping, pointing out everything that was wrong, or criticizing the pastor or other worship leaders as the postlude is still playing. If some evaluating, correcting, or improving indeed needs to be done, come talk about it on Monday in a kind and encouraging way.
3. Engage the complainer.
When someone complains, I’m tempted to right away tell them that I’ll bring their concern to the rest of the leadership. Instead, I’d like to get better at engaging the person – but not immediately following worship, remember (see point 2 above)! I could ask the individual to coffee later in the week to discuss the matter. If it’s important enough, they’ll agree; if they decline, I just received a signal of how important the issue truly is and whether it ought to go further.
If I have the privilege of meeting with someone later in the week to discuss something bothering them, I need to listen carefully lest I think I hear them saying things I expect or want them to say instead of what they’re actually saying. Having heard them, I might be able to respond winsomely and with information I already know. If I don’t know the answer to something, I can always check with a couple other leaders and then report back to the person. That way the person knows they have been heard and that they are appreciated. Accomplishing this, therefore, does not require immediately taking their issue to the entire leadership body, even though doing so may seem easier in the short term than taking the time and energy to engage the person. As time goes on and I have more of these conversations, I may begin hearing common themes emerge, and these are things that may then be worth discussing with the rest of the leadership.