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Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A., Editor
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Dealing With Difficult Letters
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
- Libelous letters are virtually always a catalyst for pastoral discouragement. Whether
signed or unsigned, they tend to sap some of the joy out of an otherwise joyful ministry.
- Unsigned Letters
- When you get a signed libelous letter, the first thing you should realize is how lucky
you would have been if you had received an anonymous one instead. Anonymous letters are
like "get out of jail free cards." As discussed in "Those Libelous
(Ministry Health #188), they are
best dealt with by simply discarding and forgetting them.
- The writer doesn't have to face you with their problems; you don't have to respond back,
either. There's something really satisfying about that when you have an unsigned libelous
letter before you. That something is that life and ministry can go on virtually carefree
and continue with "business as usual."
- The Conundrum Of The Signed Letter
- Signed letters generally present a much more potentially difficult situation. Virtually
all of them require pastoral judgment calls. Because they are signed, there is no get out
of jail free card. The letter writer(s) is willing to let others, and specifically you,
know of their complaints.
- Unlike anonymous letters, signed letters always require a response. The response
made--and how it is made--are often significant decisions. Thus the response ought to be
measured, reasoned, and well thought out prior to and during implementation.
- A Rule Of Thumb
- Count on it. You are not the first to know of their concerns. You may be
dead last. In his Ministry Health article,
"Ten Things Your
Congregation Probably Won't Tell You," (#161), Rev. John Simpson,
General Superintendent of the Baptist Union of Victoria, Australia, reminds pastors of one
of the most frustrating principles of ministry, "the pastor is always the
last one to know."
- Since this is often the case, pastors are often at a disadvantage in dealing with the
issues. The letter writer, and perhaps others, have wrestled and considered the issue for
days, weeks, months or longer than the pastor. They have had time to wrestle with various
approaches, responses, and reactions. Since the pastor is at a disadvantage in this
regard, a measured, timely response is very important.
A Pastoral Approach
- Often the complexity of the issues mentioned in signed letters are such that they raise
greater confusion in the minds trying to wrestle with the situation. Following some sound,
Biblical principles and common-sense guidelines can help deal with these letters in a
- The most important--and obvious--principle is to be eminently pastoral. This
means several things.
- * First, it means you must restrain reactive responses (e.g. anger,
aggression, outbursts, withdrawal, denial, gossiping, et al);
- * Second, it means you must be able to actively love even your enemy;
- * Third, it means that you must take the high road;
- * Fourth, you may have to take risks of reconciliation; and, among
- * Fifth, it means that you may have to take the initiative to confront
the other(s) face-to-face, perhaps on their own territory.
- Meeting The Letter's Author(s)
- The meeting will probably not be comfortable for you or them. But it must be held.
- The confrontation can be made easier if you know your primary objective(s). These
objectives should always be things that you can control. They must not be manipulative,
driven by "righteous" self-interest, or beyond that which can be reasonably
expected given the time frame and past track record. These objectives may include...
- * Demonstrating a truly professional level of pastoral ministry;
- * Offering a genuine understanding;
- * Setting ground work for understanding the real issues which lie under the presented
- * Finding some (any) common ground or concerns that are shared;
- * Looking for avenues of genuine, spontaneous contrition and repentance; and
- * Keeping the door open for future meetings.
- Hopefully other objectives peculiar to the situation can also be addressed. In initial
stages it is important to deal with those things which can be controlled. Since there is
little you can control, including the outcome, the most important thing you can control is
your sense of churchmanship. If this gets out of control, the process has not only been
derailed but you will certainly experience greater, escalated attacks against you and your
- At all times listen carefully, be compassionate, and show a Christian willingness and
intent to deal with, resolve, and move forward with Christ's forgiveness and blessing
whatever the result.
- Some Helpful Don'ts...
- In general, pastors should avoid a number of behaviors. Don't "call them on the
carpet." Don't "mandate they come to a meeting." Go to their house, their
turf. Don't go to attack. Don't go to defend. Simply visit with them in their own home to
hear their concerns and understand them. Indicate from the very beginning of the visit
that you have received the letter and want to understand their position further.
- Specifically, pastors ought also to observe other don'ts.
- 1) Don't rush. Indeed, cancel all other appointments on the afternoon
or evening of the visit. Let your spouse know that you may be late. A hurried mannerism
will only reinforce their negative feelings toward you.
- 2) Don't over-react. Let the sun go down on your anger. And, as Speed
Leas said, let the sun go down on your anger...twice if necessary. Reactivity is
a poor stance for constructive resolution. Get a hold of yourself. Focus on the issues,
not the emotions. Focus on the final resolution, not on the release of your immediate
grief and pain.
- 3) Don't promise to do anything other than to listen. You may wish to
invite them to come to share their concerns with other leaders.
- 4) Don't give false impressions that you necessarily agree or disagree
with anything. Simply listen to their issues and interests. Relax and be non-anxious. Let
them see your pastoral concern not your potential rage, anger and vindictiveness that they
have dared write such an inflammatory letter.
- 5) Don't walk out--no matter how painful it is to stay. It's almost
always political suicide. It's not the mark of a "Holy Warrior." Instead, it's
the mark of a fearful coward. The best and experienced ministers know what it is to
endure. You also have plenty of opportunities to learn that lesson, too.
- Regardless of how uncomfortable it might be and no matter how many others leave or walk
out, stay there. Stay until the issue is fully discussed or if they specifically ask you
to leave. If the latter occurs, don't get emotional. Just kindly indicate your
disappointment in their unwillingness to deal with and resolve the issue. If possible, say
a prayer for reconciliation and leave peacefully. (You can shake the dust off your feet at
home if you need to!)
- 7) Don't burn any bridges. Let them do that. As for
you, do everything reasonable to build bridges. Name calling, emotional outbursts, anger
and accusatory remarks and behaviors do nothing to help the situation or yourself. Indeed,
all they do is escalate things into a more uncontrollable state. Stay calm, eat crow, and
keep your focus on the long-term resolution not the immediate pain of conflict, hurt and
- 8) Don't forget the purpose of the meeting: to start the process of
reconciliation. Don't expect immediate miracles. Be patient. Building relationships takes
time, patience, sacrifice and lots of prayer.
- 9) Don't be surprised if "The
Issue Is Not The Issue" (Cf. Ministry
Health # 20). It seldom is. Patience, empathy and some good
investigative skills used effectively over several sessions together can go a long way to
help facilitate the surfacing of the real issues or interests. Things to look for: wanting
to be heard, wanting more input, fear of change, feeling as if they are not valued, etc.
- 10) Don't rule out the possibility that there may also be family
stressors--often in multiples--fueling their response. Family Systems theory is helpful to
keep in mind here. Retirement, job and marital dissatisfaction, financial pressures,
mid-life "crisis", children becoming more independent and rebellious,
disagreements with other members, anniversaries of deaths of significant others, personal
health problems and unresolved spiritual issues are but a beginning of some of the things
that can trigger such stressors. Sometimes what looks like an attack can be a cry for
- 11) Don't grab your gun! Grab your clerical collar and your Bible.
Offer them the best pastoral ministry of Law and Gospel possible.
- 12) Don't have high expectations for instant or even short or long-term
miracles. As the writer of Proverbs wrote, "Leopards don't change their spots."
Solomon wasn't called "wise" for nothing. People rarely change...except in pain.
The change that might need to happen ultimately is your own ability to effectively deal
with the ongoing nature of the complaint and complainant.
- 13) Don't base your ministry on their response or lack of it. Your
calling is to minister. Therefore, minister...and minister well.
- 14) Don't forget to end the meeting with a genuine prayer of
thanksgiving. Thank God for the opportunity to hear their concerns. Pray that God will
bless them (yes, you can do it!) and that God will promote the mission of the church
through this process. When especially nervous, saying the "Lord's Prayer"
together after an initial short prayer can help ease the tension--theirs and yours!
- Other Considerations
- 1) Open with healthy amount of chit-chat.
- Actually, this is informal information gathering. In casual conversation, ask how they
are. Ask about their family. Without being obvious, look for signs of declining health,
family trauma, work difficulties, marriage stressors, financial indicators, etc. If you
have visited their home before, look for signs of any change in the house. Major
changes--all new furniture (which they can't afford) or disarray can be indicators of
- 2) Allow them to have another person with them to assist them if they like.
- When people are threatened they become very sensitive to an "uneven" playing
field. Hauling in all the Elders into their home is demeaning, unethical and unchristian.
Any perceived "ganging up" will hurt the process. However, if they want someone
else with them, permit it. If you feel you need additional support, indicate that you
would like to bring an extra, too. After all, what is fair is fair.
- 3) Consider the person's track record.
Not all difficult letter writers are equal.
- a) Trusted leaders with written disagreements require a different approach than those
which have not been in leadership or have a track record of distrust. Ministry Health's, "When Trusted Leaders Become
Troubled" (# 80) can be an excellent source of reading.
- The dynamics of the relationship which existed prior to the receipt of the letter may
greatly influence the degree of effectiveness of the visit. If they truly trusted
you in the past, it is probably likely that the resolution will be able to work to rebuild
it. Build on that trust. Go slow. Re-light the fires of trust and proceed carefully,
cautiously and supportively.
- b) Letters from those who have never trusted and apparently never will also require
careful and prudent pastoral ministry. Though the agenda may be different from that of
dealing with trusted leaders, the goal is always the same. To offer the best Christian
ministry appropriate for the given circumstances.
In both cases, demonstrate the highest sense of pastoral churchmanship. Give reason for
their trust. Listen, care, and be pastoral.
- 4) Always keep focused on the goal.
- The issue will likely not be settled immediately. As in marriage, conflicts are often
resolved over a longer term of cooling down and re-considering the consequences. Other
issues will be raised, some relevant, others not relevant. Listen to them all...but keep
focused on the goal of reconciliation.
- 5) Use Investigative Techniques.
The best investigative techniques are not aggressive, probing and threatening. Instead,
investigative listening is intentionalized active listening. Listen. Don't interrupt the
awkward silences. Silence, as any skilled investigator knows, is a catalyst for
information. People are uncomfortable with silence. So they often respond with
Learn to tolerate 20, 30, 40 seconds of silence or more. The longer you wait, the more
uncomfortable they become with the silence. Let silence work for you as they fill the void
with valuable insights and information to apply toward reconciliation and healing.
- 6) Shut Up! (Sorry for the frankness--I just wanted to be sure you were
- People in stress want to be heard and listened to. The more you talk, the more you risk
conveying that you are not listening (even if you are). Instead of worrying about what you
are going to say, focus on how you will not speak. "Be quick to listen and slow to
speak" James wrote. That's still excellent advice.
- 7) Control Yourself.
Patience and self-control are the hallmark fruits of Christian character. Even if the
disgruntled swear, curse and direct hostile invectives at you, keep your cool. Don't blow
up! That's exactly what they want! If you do, their case will become strong in their eyes
because you walked out, etc. Certainly it can be appropriate to calmly indicate your
disapproval at their words and try to calmly refocus the issues.
If they persist, simply ask if there might be another time to meet with them when it
might be more convenient. You may need to eat your fair share of "crow." But to
subject yourself to unbridled abuse is not necessary or proper. It is good to be willing
to bend over backwards and go more than half-way as part of the process, but don't sell
your soul, either.
8) Don't Get Legalistic
One of the classic signs of reactive legalism is a reactive, impulsive appeal to
Matthew 18. When this directive for church discipline is followed in a hasty,
"surgically clear" literal "One-Two-Three" you're out fashion, it's
not being used properly.
Peter's question, "How many times should I forgive my neighbor, up to seven
times?" was intended to make this paradigm of church discipline a loveless,
legalistic process. "If I just do this, then that, then that," Peter may have
thought, "Then I can excommunicate, right?" Jesus' infamous response was
disappointing to Peter and anyone else seeking quick-fix church discipline.
Whether the precise translation is "77 times" or "seventy times seven
times," the meaning is the same. Reconciliation and church discipline take time,
patience, and sacrificial love. As hard as it can be, give the Gospel a chance to
predominate and forgiveness to reign.
- 9) Promise Only Consideration, Process, And Resolution, Not Specific
- The issues discussed often will not be settled in one meeting. Even if they insist on
it, or if the proposals seem appropriate, watch what you promise. Don't promise you will
give them what they want. Don't come to an immediate, firm agreement on congregational
issues in the meeting. Instead, indicate that you will
* Share their concerns with their permission and with their names
attached with the appropriate powers that be.
* Invite them to specifically share their concerns in a meeting.
* Focus on their suggestions and comments for further consideration.
* Pray about what has been tentatively agreed, share it with the
appropriate congregational leaders, and follow-up with another visit.
- The key here is not to be evasive, indirect, or manipulative. Instead, the intent is to
give both parties an opportunity to discuss, reflect and reconsider the issues, the
possible solutions, and to re-evaluate any suggested solutions.
- 10) Watch Out For Buyer's Remorse.
- Decisions or reconciliative resolutions made and agreed to quickly may appear wonderful
when made. But, after a couple of days, buyer's remorse might set in. For this reason,
follow-up is important to monitor how the acceptance process is going. Besides, both sides
will likely want to talk with their supporters. When they do some reinventing or
re-structuring of the solution may occur. Expect it, plan for it, and welcome it. Again,
this is good reason not to make firm resolutions the first time they are suggested.
- 11) Time Is On Your Side.
- Where there is time, there is opportunity for healing. Time is on your side. Most issues
are not "life and death." They may appear urgent when they really aren't. What
may be urgent is the letter writers feelings regarding the issue, not the issue itself.
Nearly everything can be delayed, if necessary, to help facilitate healing.
- 12) Don't Rush Things.
- Some professional counselors often leave their answering machines on all the time. They
hardly ever answer a call directly. Why? Because they know that some people need time to
settle down. They also know that if they give some people time, they learn greater
capacities for dealing with their pain. Judicious, intentional avoidance of playing
"fireman" can help raise the capacity for pain in others, to.
- 13) Again, Don't Rush Things.
- You don't have to control this situation. In fact, you're really not in control anyway.
God is. You're simply an instrument to deal with what has been presented on a piecemeal
- 14) Be Wary When Other People Rush Things.
Sometimes relatively earth-shaking decisions can be made in meetings which surprise
everybody. People get caught up in the discussion, take a vote, and before you know it,
major changes or ministry initiatives have been approved.
Certainly, the pastor ought not be an obstructionist. Yet one ought to be fully aware
of the unpredictable consequences of instant, broad-scale decisions can be. Perhaps the
best thing is to make these instant decisions subject to final decision at the next
meeting. After all, what's the hurry?
- 15) Be Patient.
- Watch your expectations. Don't expect instant results. Your impatience creates a sense
of tension and anxiety. These will certainly be projected toward others, making them
tense, anxious, and impatient.
- 16) Adopt A Romans 12 "Possibility Attitude."
- Romans 12:18 begins, "If it is possible, be at peace with everyone as far as it
depends on you." There are impossible situations. Sometimes reconciliation will fail
in spite of all your best efforts. St. Paul's words are a reminder that even
"perfect" pastors don't have spotless records. God doesn't hold you accountable
for other's responses. Romans l2 reminds us that all He wants is that we give it our very,
very best...and leave the rest to Him.
- 17) Don't Cave In On Essential Ministry Values.
- Many things may be subject to compromise. Christian congregational values cannot be.
Issues such as Biblical doctrine, the pastoral office, the vision of the congregation, its
obedience to the clear commands of Christ, etc. cannot be overlooked and compromised
without compromising the church itself.
- Programs which implement these visions may be altered and adapted without damaging the
church. But caving in on the essential Christian core values upon which the church is
founded are essentials. They are not "up for grabs"...no matter what the price.
Though conflict may ensue, this pastoral attitude is a core element of the "habitus
practicus" (cf. Ministry Health Article
244, "What Ever Happened To Habitus
- 18) Proceed With Church Discipline When Necessary.
- In worst-case scenarios, church discipline will need to be exercised. Regardless of the
pastor's right to exercise it or not, it is rarely wise for a pastor to exercise this
power by himself. Christianity is a religion of due process and fairness. Taking
short-cuts not only undermines the Scripture, but it undermines the character of pastoral
ministry. Most damaging, perhaps, is that it incites victimization. Since everyone loves a
victim, reckless church discipline will nearly always result in a victimization of the
accused and virtually unrestrained retaliation against the aggressor, the pastor.
- What Are The Results?
- Results can never be guaranteed even when ministering to trusted leaders. Past
performance just isn't a good indicator of future results.
- Sometimes the immediate results are good; other times not so good. But don't be too
quick to assess the results. There are many dynamics and relationship interactions of
which you may be totally unaware. When expectations can be set aside and replaced with a
continued prayer of faith, God can sometimes surprise His called servants in very
- Perhaps the most important result is a personal affirmation that what was done was done
according to the will of God. Though mistakes will certainly be made (we are sinners,
aren't we?), the well-executed dealing with difficult letters can give the pastor a sense
of greater confidence. It can even become another step along the way of developing
character. Things like patience, self-control, and other fruits of the spirit are not easy
to display in difficult situations such as presented by difficult letters.
- Most important, however, is that dealing with difficult letters forces you to keep the
Gospel at the forefront. It is difficult to maintain a posture of being willing to give
and receive genuine forgiveness. But it is a joy to see the Gospel forgive, renew and
recreate fresh new beginnings for your ministry and theirs!
- Yes, difficult letters are burdensome. Yet, persisting in the hope that God's grace will
triumph is the greatest hallmark of our Gospel-driven ministry for Jesus Christ.
- Thomas F. Fischer
Index Articles 1-49
Articles 50-99 Articles
100-149 Articles 150-199
200-249 Articles 250-299
Articles 300-349 Articles
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was revised on:
Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:30 PM