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Those Libelous Anonymous Letters*

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 188

So You Got One Too!
 
So you got another one of those dirty, nasty, libelous anonymous letters. Now you have to decide what to do with it!
 
Dealing with those libelous letters doesn't always initially seem to be a "cut-and-dried" proposition, especially in a conflicted climate or when the suspected writer is one of the major leaders of a potential opposition movement.
 
Two-Edged Swords
 
Anonymous letters are an antagonist's ultimate ecclesiastical "two-edged" sword. With one razor sharp swoop, they can cause grief to the pastor who receives the cutting criticisms made. With the sharpness of the other sword edge, mishandled letters can leave the pastor and the ministry leadership in a position of reduced credibility and effectiveness. That is why desperate individuals use them. They have the potential to bring a pastor and the ministry to their knees. No wonder they always seem to come up just at the perfect inopportune time!
 
They can be effective. Their potential for disruption is enormous. Best of all, it doesn't take much effort on the part of the writer to start everything up. For some, it's a virtual "free pass" to instant power and control.

Why Are They Written Anonymously?

Why are these angry, vengeful and hateful letters written anonymously? The obvious answer may appear to be because the writers are angry, vengeful and hateful...but don't want anyone to know. Though no one knows all the answers for every situation, a closer examination may yield a few key reasons they write these letters.
 
1) Give A "Voice"
Some people just can't speak up. Others are unwilling to speak up. There are also those whose incessant droning finally annoys and aggravates everyone. Wanting to be heard, they need a new way to express their concerns. The anonymous letter is one such way.
 
2) Create A "Safe" Platform To Air Their "Grave" Concerns
As ironic as it seems, the issues in anonymous letters are so "grave" and serious that they can't be brought up in church. They are so momentous that they can't be given to the leaders. They are so earth-shaking that no one should be told of them. "He must be told. He must be made to listen. But we can't let him know who we are!"
 
3) Place Undue/Unfair/Improper and/or Exclusive Focus On The Recipient

Often the anonymous letter may contain something which indicates that the situation is so out of hand that they had no other recourse but to go straight to the pastor. This simply gives undue attention to the target of the attack.

That's why a general rule of thumb is that the one who receives the anonymous letter is the focus of criticism. Implied in this undue, unfair focus is the threat, "If you don't do anything about it, you are a goner! So listen up, you'd better get moving or else!" "After all, you're responsible for all this, pastor, and not us!"

4) Evade Responsibility
If there's any organization which teaches and exudes the importance of love, responsibility, decency and doing the Christian thing, it's the church. By this fact alone, it would appear that libelous unsigned letters would have no place in the church. Unfortunately, they do find their way in. When they do they always plainly reveal the character of their anonymous authors.
 
Read that letter. Look at what it says. Why would anyone want to affix their name on something that would condemn them for outright inappropriate Christian behavior? Why would anyone want to be held responsible for what it says! That's exactly why it is anonymous! It's trash that no one in their right mind would put their name to even in the darkness of midnight.
 
5) Get Focused Attention
"I just can't wait to see what Pastor thinks when he gets this! Then he'll listen to what's going on!" This is probably the last thought the anonymous writer has just prior to mailing the letter. Frankly, it's probably also the first thought the writer had when the idea of writing a letter first came to mind.
 
The anonymous writer wants attention--focused attention--and lots of it! Having read the letter, those who mishandle these letters by brooding and mulling over them fall right into the trap. They give the letters attention, much more than they deserve!
 
6) Get Revenge
"Since Pastor did this to me, I'll make pastor know how it feels!" A key to understanding anonymous letters is not to look at the case, no matter how eloquently stated. Instead, read between the lines. Hear the feelings expressed. See how the frustration just bleeds from each letter.
 
A key, in this case, is to understand that the letter is the response of an extremely stressed person. Stressed individuals are often operating out of character excesses, cerebral imbalance, or other extraordinary unconscious, uncontrolled motivations.
 
Stressed individuals often confuse facts with feelings and misapprehension and unclear understandings of the truth. Instead of approaching appropriate leaders for clarification, they unfairly target individuals, especially leaders.
 
Pastors are specifically vulnerable. When the troubled are mad at God, the next best thing to attacking God is to attack His representative. It may be satisfying to the complainant. It may be tragic for the targeted pastor. It destroys ministries. But it's just the way some human beings are. Vengeance is a very strong motivational factor in the lives of even Christians.
 
7) Fear
Fear is one of the universal motivators. Given enough fear people will do almost anything. It works on them. It can work on you, too. Anonymous letters can be an effective instrument for creating potentially crippling fear. The anonymous letter writer very likely knows and intends that.
 
Anonymous letter writers fear confrontation, failure, loss of "face," and being "targeted" by others. They also fear one-on-one reconciliation and the possibility that they may, after all, be wrong. One-way communication, such as that in anonymous letters, gives one the opportunity to always be right regardless of the facts.
 
Facts, too, are fearful. If wrong, the anonymous writer may have to face their greatest fears: that they might have to change and learn how to forgive.
 
8)  "Test the Waters" For A Potential Power-Base
The writer of these letters often wonders, "How many others feel like me?" If the letter evokes a large enough or desired response, it is a green light to proceed with their agenda. If not, they may have to acquiesce or, more frequently, patiently seek another opportunity to address their concerns in other ways.
 
Often there is a very small number of people (a "clique") who may share or at least be privy to some of the author's concerns. But the author may not want to risk directly asking for their support. So they seek an indirect means by which, if others in the clique find out about it, they can test their response. Anonymous letters are a perfect "safe" way to test the waters. It is an indirect way to attack, create confusion, and remain unharmed. Indirect attacks are just what the passive-aggressive ordered. They can maintain their "nice" appearance while venting their anger in the most vitriolic manner.
 
9) Hit-And-Run
Anonymous letters are often a reckless kind of a hit-and-run strategy. Plant the bomb, move away to a safe place, blow it up, and then watch what happens. If it stirs up a lot of dust, then the antagonist's light is green to proceed with the agenda. Even if there's no dust and no explosion heard, the writer can at least be self-assured that some damage was done.
 
After the hit-and-run, they patiently (or impatiently) watch and wait for the recipient's response. Any response they see is more potential fuel for the fire that they hope to build on to escalate whatever issue(s) they might have.
 
10) Describe Issues Which They Perceive Are Too Personal, Damaging and Incredulous
If the concerns could be documented in a rational manner, they would put their name to it. Unfortunately, the innuendoes, misrepresentations, mistruths and outright lies are so flagrant that the author won't risk being attacked.
 
Possible Subversive Agendas
 
On the bottom line, sometimes it can be difficult to determine just what the agenda for the anonymous letter is. In spite of the attacks on your character and person, don't trouble yourself and others trying to figure it out. The letter is probably confusing, self-contradictory, and infused with hostile feelings. Since it's anonymous it is impossible to find out for sure.

The best policy is not to respond, react or deal with the letter in any way. There is nothing positive you can do with that letter in any ethical, Christian way. It's useless. Don't act on it. Don't share it with your leaders. Just throw it away.

There is a danger in acting on an anonymous letter. The anonymous letter is a trigger for a gun pointed at its recipient. If you act on it, you pull that trigger with predictably unpredictable consequences. It's a Pandora's box which potentially sets into motion all kinds of mayhem! It rolls out the red carpet for the anonymous writer to exercise a number of options. These include but are not limited to the following.

* Setting things into motion in such a way that others have to deal with congregational problems and challenges without their having to be involved;

* Watching others fail at something major in the church's ministry they know is going to be difficult (e.g. financial issues, institutional issues, growth issues, et al);

* Setting one's self up so that when other leaders fail, they can come in with a white horse to heroically "save the church." 

* Setting a scenario to prepare major changes in leadership after any perceived "failure." Often such things will be heard, such as "See, the pastor and all his sycophants couldn't do it. You can't trust them. They can't do it. We need to take control and do it ourselves." Note, however, that in their eyes "failure" has absolutely nothing to do with the results of any pastoral or leadership efforts. "Failure" is determined exclusively by the criterion of who is doing it. Thus, what the pastor does is by default a "miserable failure." Anything they do is, by default, a rousing success!

* Creating the potential for a pastoral faux pax. Pastors are often foolish in this regard. Their sermons, their giving of recognition, their conversations with others, and other ministry activities often give antagonists substance for their agenda. "Did you hear what pastor said about me?" "Did you see how pastor blew up? That's certainly not very pastoral!" et al.

* Knocking the leadership off balance, proceed with an antagonistic propaganda campaign, attack the leadership, but not have anyone be able to pin anything on them.

* Making the leadership so mad, frustrated, impatient as to "blow their cool" and go on the offensive;

* Discrediting the leadership on the offensive as being uncaring, provocative, and power-hungry. "After all," they may reason, "watch how they treat those nice, sweet friends of ours."

* Putting the pastor in a no-win situation. "Pastor, I heard you had an anonymous letter. What did it say? Oh, so you won't share it, huh? What are you hiding? What else are you hiding? No wonder so many in this church don't trust you!" 

* Setting a precedent that leaders will act on anonymous material if, for no other reasons, than fear.

* Establishing a reign of fear among leaders to stifle innovation and forward movement in the Kingdom. One of the best indicators of this is when leaders and pastors say, "I wonder what people will think?" "Let's not do it. We don't want anybody to get upset, do we?" etc.

* Testing to see if this strategy will work. If it works once, it may be worth trying again and again and again!

The listing above is by no means exhaustive. Yet they give a sense of what libelous letters are really about. They are subversive. They are insidious. They are explosions waiting to happen. They are evil. So now you have one of these in your hands. What will you do with it?!
 
Your "No-Brainer" Decision
What to do with an anonymous letter is the single-most easiest decision possible for ministry.  You don't need a special revelation from God. You don't need to spend forty days fasting in the wilderness for discernment and spiritual reflection. You don't need to pray about what to do. You do not need any spiritual gifts either. You don't need to ask your spouse what to do either. The simple answer is, "Throw it away!"
 
But don't throw the letter away at the church. Don't mindlessly happen to put it into an open wastebasket in the office or another part of the building where others might have access to it. You may know how to handle anonymous letters. But others may not. The letter is no one else's business (and not even a concern of yours). Since any evidence of the letter will certainly work against you dispose of it quickly and prudently in a safe manner.
 
Get Rid Of It
 
You do not want any evidence of this letter being received or read at all. As far as you are concerned, the letter never existed, doesn't exist and doesn't deserve to exist. Isn't that what the anonymous letter writer conveyed when they refused to affix their name? Nameless letters have no owner, no home, and no place in the church. Get rid of it and forget about it!
 
Shred it, burn it, and discard it...IMMEDIATELY in the safest manner possible. Office shredders are excellent for this purpose. Every church office ought to have a shredder. The nature of some of the letters pastors write and receive are highly confidential. A libelous letter in the wrong hands, or in the right hands and presented the wrong way can be a disaster.
 
Don't give the garbage man--or those who might sort through it--rewards for their snooping. Be sure that what remains is thrown away, off campus, where no one will ever happen upon it. Some possibilities include the local car wash, library, fast food trash can, etc. Whatever happens, don't let the mishandling of the disposal of these letters come back to haunt you!
 
Don't They Have Any Value?
 
Letters, like positions, have value only insofar as a person stands up and represents it. Anonymous letters, like positions, are merely manipulative mind games played by gutless, fearful individuals who do not believe in their position enough to stand up for it. If for some foolish, morose reason you want your ministry driven or influenced by these types of individuals, keep it. Post it. Publish it. Tell the whole world. And apply for another job. You'll need it!
 
Give these anonymous ones the same amount of time to address their position that they have given you: none. Throw it away. Whatever it says, ignore it. If the contents are substantial, it will come up elsewhere with real names and faces in a way that can be effectively dealt with.
 
Share It With Overseers?
 
Some might ask if the letter ought to be safely and confidentially retained for sharing with mediators, denominational executives, or others. Some individuals may want to retain it for their away-from-church confidential file.
 
This, however, raises a number of issues. For example,
 
1) Do you want be the writer's willing accomplice and spread the word?
 
2) Do you really want to violate the Eighth Commandment by misrepresenting yourself?
 
3) Since the issues raised in the anonymous letter aren't credible, what reasons might there be for sharing and discussing incredible information from one anonymous person?
 
4) If you show the letter to denomination officials or others in oversight, what will they do with it? Will they take the high road and discard it? Or will they play into the writer's hand and address it?
 
5) If there are already issues which need to be addressed in the congregation it is those objective issues which are the appropriate basis for conflict-resolution strategy development. The anonymous letter is useless for strategy development. Indeed, any strategy so based will certainly work against you. So again, why do you need the letter? What strategy--other than total silence--is appropriate? 
 
6) Finally one needs to ask, given the above, Why take the chance?
Frankly, overseers and denominational executives generally have just one response to anonymous letters. They ignore them. They may politely listen to your grievances, your venting, your emotions. They may give you support and empathy. But as for the letter itself, aside from "idle" curiosity, they ignore them. Why?
 
Frankly, the number of anonymous (and signed) libelous letters often corresponds with the level of responsibility of leadership. Yes, your denominational executives and overseers have had their share, too. They may have had more than they care to admit. But do they share that with you? Of course not. Why? Because they know these letters have no value, either. Seeing yours, at best, will simply remind them that they are not the only ones who receive these special "blessings."
 
Carry On...Boldly!
 
Having discarded your anonymous letter, you are free to carry on boldly. As for the anonymous letter, it's out of your way. Certainly, one should be sensitive for various needs or issues. However, these ought not become an obsessive pre-occupation.
 
God's calling is not to stop the ministry at every bump in the road. His calling for you is to move on and move forward. So, girded with the Gospel and the entire armor of God, continue forward in the blessing of God.
 
Thomas F. Fischer

* See "Dealing With Difficult Letters" (Ministry Health #248) for additional insights.

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:30 PM