Breaking the Grumblers’ Grip
BY: JOHN WHITE
For years I’d been awaiting this board meeting. After enduring overcrowded facilities and countless hours of planning by the building committee, the elders now stood on the verge of recommending to the congregation that we accept an offer to purchase our current facilities. The building committee could then begin the construction process.
Dave, our most outspoken and influential elder, raised his voice. “You know, there’s a lot of dissension in the congregation about this project. I’m not sure now is the right time to go ahead.” As he spoke, I could feel the board’s confidence leaking.
In near panic I mentally reviewed our discussions in the last several church business meetings. While some had raised doubts about tackling a project of such magnitude, the overall attitude was definitely optimistic. I knew Dave had been hit by a force I’d battled before: the grumblers.
Like termites, grumblers slowly chew away at the foundation of church vision and confidence until what a majority see as God’s will crumbles into the trash heap of what might have been.
Annoyed that a man of Dave’s maturity was so easily swayed, I spoke up, “Dave, this strikes me as a case of a few murmurers resisting the progress of the church. Let’s be firm and move on.”
Dave wasn’t convinced, and the rest of the elders’ – support waned. They felt his point was legitimate. The meeting’s outcome was disappointing: the issue would be tabled.
I left the meeting discouraged but resolved to do what I could to keep this from happening again. I researched the subject of grumbling in Scripture and thought about my experiences, and here’s what I’ve concluded.
Grumbling Versus Legitimate Concern
We can’t expect unanimity on all matters of church business. The diversity within every congregation inevitably gives rise to disagreements, some emotionally charged. Airing concerns in a constructive manner is healthy for us all.
Paul, a leader in our children’s ministry, announced last year he was leaving our church to attend a church that differed doctrinally. He did, however, wish to finish out the year in his position. The board initially demanded he resign immediately. Then others in the ministry insisted they were short-handed and couldn’t possibly fill Paul’s position on such short notice. Aware of the legitimate concerns of our workers, we decided to let him keep teaching. Their open disagreement contributed to what wound up being a good solution.
Grumblers, on the other hand, express disagreement in unhealthy ways. Complainers seldom take their issue directly to those who can resolve it. If a grumbler dislikes the pastor’s preaching, a dozen people will hear about it before the pastor does. If a board decision doesn’t sit well with them, the “bile bunch” broadcast it to everyone but the elders.
Jean, a deaconess from the good old days, felt I was neglecting her group. Several women approached me about the issue on behalf of a “concerned deaconess” who did not wish to be identified. In each case the perpetrator turned out to be Jean.
I made some adjustments, assuming I could resolve Jean’s concerns. Two years later she stood at a business meeting and expressed the same malcontent to the congregation, still having never approached me personally. (I’m afraid our business meetings are too grumbler-friendly.)
Grumblers use this approach for several reasons. At worst, some want retribution more than resolution. At best, they don’t want leaders to think less of them.
When Patti called the church office and complained that I never plugged her ministry from the pulpit, the secretary offered to put her through to me. She declined, saying, “I don’t want him to think I’m a complainer.” She later reconsidered, calling back, and we resolved the issue.
Grumblers also tend to aggressively build support for their cause. Unwilling to remain a minority opinion, they beat the bushes for sympathizers, hoping to reverse consensus or block implementation of decisions.
When we had to ask one worker to resign his ministry position, I said, “I hope you won’t yield to the temptation to build a base of support against the decision.” I later found out that as soon as he left my office he spent an entire evening on the phone doing exactly that.
Another favorite tactic of grumblers is the Gideon strategy, creating the appearance of greater numbers: “I’m not the only one who feels this way. A number of families are talking about leaving the church.” When pressed, they refuse to talk specifics.
As we neared the final congregational vote on one project, Bill and Denise, who favored it, called: “We’re afraid the proposal will be voted down.”
They had heard via the grapevine that a significant number of members opposed the project. When the vote was cast, over 90 percent decided in favor.
Why the Bible Condemns Grumbling
As I reread the account of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness, I was impressed again with how fiercely God responded to grumbling. Paul, too, warns Christians to learn a lesson from the wrath that fell on Israelites who grumbled (1 Cor. 10:10).
Why such strong condemnation?
Grumbling denies God’s ability to provide. Pressed against the shore of the Red Sea with the Egyptians closing in, many Israelites grumbled against Moses. Forgetting what they had witnessed of God’s power against Pharaoh, they lost their courage and lashed out at the most convenient target.
I couldn’t help but see the similarity with our church’s situation. Our building project would cost five times more than the previous building. That some grew fearful was no surprise, and a few families left the church for the safety of less challenging circumstances. They missed the opportunity to experience God’s provision.
Grumbling may be an attempt to intimidate. In Exodus 16 the Israelites grumbled, pressuring Moses to return them to Egypt rather than proceed into the wilderness.
Change still threatens God’s people today. Many parishioners view change as leaders dragging them unwillingly down an unfamiliar path. But God’s path is most often one of growth, not of comfort. For our congregation to have stayed in our old facility would have meant countless lost ministry opportunities. Instead we moved ahead, and within eighteen months added over fifty new families and have seen many conversions, including the realtor who listed our former building.
Grumblers debilitate God’s leaders. In Numbers 11 the Israelites pushed Moses to the point that he wanted God to take his life. I have often suffered under the Chinese water torture of grumbling, the steady drip of thoughtless, often anonymous complaints that became a thunderous pounding in my mind, driving me to distraction, creating fantasies of revenge against grumblers. This can’t be God’s desire for the relationship between church leaders and members.
In my previous church I made the mistake of being present at the business meeting where the congregation discussed my salary. The board recommended a “raise” that amounted to covering the increased cost of health insurance and social security, period. Roger, a good friend of mine, rose to object. “In a day of pay cuts and wage freezing, how can we justify giving the pastor a raise?” The “raise” went through, but I mentally rehearsed snappy retorts to Roger’s comments for months afterward, and predictably our relationship cooled.
After smoldering for years because of grumblers, I’ve recently taken five precautions to minimize grumbling and its effects.
Don’t Encourage Complaints
Just as oxygen keeps a fire burning, so grumblers often wax bolder and more influential when given a ready audience. As leaders try to address complaints, the flames of grumbling spread and ignite others. While I must be approachable, it’s counterproductive to give the impression I welcome every negative comment.
Once for our worship committee meeting, I facetiously put at the end of the agenda an item entitled, “Beefs and Bellyaches.” When we arrived at that point in the meeting, several members uncharacteristically aired complaints about the music ministry. Their comments weren’t helpful and seemed to arise strictly because I afforded the opportunity to gripe.
I now lean toward the approach of death by inattention. I’ve seen grumbling nearly snuffed out when leaders refuse to pay heed to what is demanded.
This may mean, of course, that some grumblers will make their own Exodus. When we proceeded with the building despite complaints, four families left. But with their absence and with the joy of occupying the new facility, the atmosphere has brightened.
Model a Positive Attitude
A pastor’s attitude is contagious. If I’m positive, most of the congregation will be positive; if I’m negative …
My attitude is regularly tested. At one business meeting, I was tempted to call fire down on grumblers – and partly succumbed – suggesting an attitude of stubbornness and obstructionism might be seeping into the church. A few minutes later, a negative vote on the issue suggested my approach was ineffective.
Like Moses, Joshua, Gideon, and Nehemiah, I must choose to focus on the positive even when besieged by critics. The persistently positive examples of these leaders eventually carried the day.
I take advantage of every opportunity to communicate a positive conviction that God is in control, that he is able to lead us effectively. My most important forum, of course, is the pulpit. The congregation also hears positive words from me regularly via my monthly newsletter column and my report at our quarterly business meetings.
To keep this attitude, I try to stay physically, mentally, and spiritually fresh. “Fatigue makes grumblers of us all,” to rephrase Vince Lombardi.
I saw the importance of this the first Sunday after I arrived at Faith Church. While making announcements, our associate pastor used Sunday morning as an occasion to rebuke the congregation: “Someone left a light on in one of the Sunday school rooms last Sunday. W e all need to be more careful so the church can afford to pay its utility bills.”
I winced at what visitors (and every other nonoffender) must have been thinking but knew there must be a reason for his negative attitude. For five months he had served as lone pastor in a church accustomed to a multiple staff. As a man past retirement age, the heavy load had taken its toll.
I am teaching the church board to recognize grumbling, openly discussing it in light of Scripture.
Our current elders are new to the board but have attended the church longer than I have. They remember when the church made most of its decisions unanimously, and any dissension caused concern. Grumbling had alarmed them, and they were eager to chase down every negative comment.
One incident brought this to a head. In a board meeting, Vic, the chairman, asked me to respond to a parishioner’s complaint. The anonymous person felt I had ignored a concern previously discussed with me. Vic had brought up similar nameless, faceless complaints in previous board meetings.
“Vic, I cannot and will not respond to secondhand, anonymous criticism,” I responded. “Doing so is not biblical and certainly isn’t helpful.”
It was an uncomfortable moment, but the message was dear. We then discussed the Matthew 18 approach to conflict resolution.
Since then, grumblers’ concerns no longer dominate our meetings, and we’ve been able to turn our attention to constructive ministry.
Warn of the Dangers
Many church members view grumbling as normal church behavior. My duty as shepherd is to point out the harm grumbling may inflict upon individuals and upon the church.
One morning Bill and Tina, a couple whom I had been grooming for leadership, left a scathing letter in my mailbox, criticizing me for my lack of pastoral care and accusing other staff and elders of being uncaring and unresponsive. They asked me to pass on the sizzling diatribe to everyone mentioned in it.
Instead I met with Bill and Tina to clarify their concerns, allowing them to ventilate. I then asked permission to keep the letter to myself, explaining that their exaggerated claims and harsh spirit in the letter could cause others to view them with suspicion. They reluctantly agreed and later conceded their outburst was largely unfounded.
Bill and Tina are not chronic complainers, the kind of people I generally ignore. They simply had been upset and needed a pastor to reassure them.
In my warnings to church members, I include these further dangers of grumbling:
Complaining replaces prayer. Prayer, not grum
bling, is the way God intends us to change things.
Grumblers earn a bad reputation. In a church that
values community, agitators will find themselves ostracized.
Grumbling seduces people away from Jesus’ model for
handling conflict. An issue that could be put to rest quickly through one-on-one conversation (a la Matthew 18) can be kept alive indefinitely by grumblers.
Grumbling weakens a congregation’s confidence in its
leaders. While natural, it is unhealthy to believe negative, unfounded reports about others, to presume guilt rather than innocence. Healthy churches, like emotionally healthy individuals, will assume the best rather than the worst.
To warn others against such dangers, I had to overcome a major obstacle in my own assumptions. While preaching recently through the book of Hebrews, the time came to address chapter 13. As I prepared my message, my first impulse was to give light development to verse 17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” I didn’t want to appear selfserving.
But I eventually realized that failing to preach that verse would be an unloving act, for the verse says burdening a pastor (by grumbling and complaining?) “would be unprofitable for you.” As part of my resolve to warn the congregation of the dangers of grumbling, I devoted an entire message to that verse. Afterward several people expressed appreciation for my forthright approach.
Don’t Grumble against Grumblers
When grumblers call our character or leadership into question, it’s natural to see them as the enemy, and, with other church staff or leaders, to grumble about the grumblers.
But my responsibility is not to accuse them but to intercede for them, as Christ does for me when I offend him. Prayer brings me to the One who is able to vindicate me in my innocence, convince me in my
error, and change the heart of the complainer.
Can chronic grumblers be reformed?
I’ve had my doubts. Leonard was a happy exception. From my earliest days at the church he complained, usually by letter, about everything from the Bible translation I used to the number of personal illustrations used in my sermons. When we contemplated a building project, he became even more vocal.
At first the board and I tried to answer his attacks point for point. Finally we decided to proceed on course and ignore Leonard’s protests. By the time we entered the new building, it was Leonard who donated the new offering plates – with a $50 bill in each one. He became a loyal supporter of the church until his death.
What had happened?
By refusing to encourage Leonard’s gripes, we had communicated a clear message: grumbling is unacceptable. But while ignoring his complaints, we did not ignore him. I visited his home frequently, the board prayed for him, and church members often assured him of their concern for his unchurched wife. By doing so we sent another message: we value you as a person.
That may be what most grumblers are searching for.