My first preaching ministry was a complete joy. The people were kind and loving, and I wept the day I had to leave, but I was getting married, and I needed to make a change. Then I went into my next ministry, expecting the same warmth and kindness. This was the first time I had personally experienced the downside of ministry. The people were mean and critical. Having completed college, I lasted all of nine months before I decided to leave.
The third place I served in ministry was in Northern Indiana. It was a little country Church located four miles outside of town. It had a rich history and had been walking through a difficult season when I arrived. I was young and dumb and didn’t know anything about ministry, so I tried everything. Surprisingly some things began to work. The number of people attending worship began to multiply. We had guests, and there was a level of excitement with every Sunday. It was a time of genuine spiritual growth. New people attending for the first time, baptisms happened regularly, and we not only met the budget, but there was enough money left to renovate the building.
At this point, something happened that I had never experienced before. People started complaining. I mean they started showing up at board meetings, stopping by my office, staying after Church, and leaving wonderful anonymous notes filled with complaints. There were a few topics that I heard repeatedly. They didn’t like the new music; they thought I should wear a suit; they didn’t like the changes and a long list of why the Church was fine before I arrived.
One couple, in particular, seemed to hate me. Their names were Pete and Betty Pearl. They were always angry, and every silver lining had a cloud behind it. They gained the trust of an elder and his wife, along with one of the oldest couples in the congregation. Suddenly every Sunday morning was an opportunity to attack me and complain about something. I began to dread Sunday mornings and spent most of my time dealing with these three families.
It was during this time I talked with my new friend Jeff. He had started attending on my first Sunday and loved the Church. I led him to the Lord and was watching him grow in faith. One afternoon I broke down. The weight of the ministry was killing me. I told him about the complaints and how I did not know if I could last much longer. Then he said words that changed my perspective. He said, “You know, there are people in this world who are not happy unless they are unhappy.” Next, he detailed stories of angry family members, co-workers, and classmates.
He was right; some people seek attention through negative means. Their complaints were not about me directly; they were the result of them wanting more attention. When the Church was small, they were a big fish in a small pond. The received all the pastor’s attention, and now they were not, and they resorted to a negative plea for someone to notice them.
I have since discovered this to be a regular practice for many people. Those who can’t hear well, often sit in the last row and then complain about the volume. People who have physical issues will set in the worst seats in the building and then complain about the facilities. Issues that could be avoided now become the source of complaints.
Since those days, I have tried to listen carefully to any criticism. Is this really an issue that needs to be addressed, or is it a person who thinks they need more attention?
Here is the clincher: If I give people special attention after their complaint, they quickly become conditioned to complain more so that their name always part of the discussion. I know this because once I stopped listening to complaints, the number of them dropped dramatically.
I am not a psychologist and cannot thoroughly explain all the dynamics of these situations. I am convinced they are real. Possibly today you needed to hear this bit of wisdom I have gained, and it will help you deal with people. The other possibility is that you need to stop complaining and seek attention in constructive rather than destructive ways.