As a Bishop, one of the concerns I hear about from people in congregations falls into the category of complaints about their pastor. Oh, I hear complaints about me as well, my decisions, my dress code, my height, my theology, my progressiveness, my conservatism. But, this colum is about complaints about the minister.
Whenever, I hear about someone complaining about their pastor, I tend to listen to the way they phrase the complaints, as opposed to the content. For instance, if I get an email, phone call or letter and the language is all about how horrible the pastor is, with no reference to other factors, I wonder if the author has really taken the time to be a thoughtful and helpful participant in resolving differences. In other words, if it's all ‘you’ language, I tend to be suspicious. On the other hand, if the complaint is rooted in some "I" language, I tend to pay attention. As an example, "You know, it's been a stressful time for our community, and I believe our pastor really cares about us, it's just that I notice s/he tends to...." That's a very different form of communication, than "you know Bishop, this pastor has never done anything right in his/her ministry...ever." My response is typically along the lines of "really, never done anything right? Ever?"
All this reminds me of a chart from Ed Friedman's classic book on congregational life Generation to Generation. The chart is below, and I've left it large so you can print it out. Ed's main point is that all of the complaints that have ever been lodged against the clergy can be found on this chart. Rarely is the complaint have anything to do with the content. 99.9999999 times out of 100, it's about unresolved conflicts in either a) the family of the complainer b) the family of the congregation as a whole.
How many times have I been attacked for something I never said in a sermon? Let me count the ways.
Finally, this all should take us back to Jesus and his admonition to first approach the person you have the disagreement, then if unsuccessful in addressing the matter bring someone with you for the second meeting, then a third meeting in front of the leaders of the community. Most of the time, we go talk to everyone else first, and never sit down with the person we have the disagreement. If we did that, we’d solve virtually all the differences. Oh, and then there is that great admonition by St James the Lessor, “Don’t deal with conflictual matters by email.”
Now having said that, it's equally important for the parish pastor to recognize that a third and important factor plays into this as well, and that is c) our own unresolved matters from our family of origin. That's a topic for another post.
For now, spend some time studying this chart, and then listen to the complaints people say. I bet it fits on the chart.