Pastors and church leaders often receive anonymous comments, mysteriously appearing in the church office, the offering plate, or the “comments” section of the Sunday communication card. A few years ago, I stopped reading them. They don’t even get passed onto me. As a church leader, I recommend that you do the same thing.
Here are three reasons you shouldn’t read anonymous comments and notes.
1. Who they are matters.
We can’t know who wrote an anonymous note. Are they a leader of the church? How involved are they? How new are they? Are they even a Christian? If they are new, their comments still matter, but they carry a different weight than the person who serves weekly, is a faithful giver, and is committed to the mission of the church. It matters if the person is a weekly complainer or if this is the first thing that has bothered them in five years. It matters if they agree with the mission of the church or not. Do they even know the mission and vision of the church? Without that information, we can’t know if they can speak helpfully into the matter they have an opinion about. Who they are matters.
2. Difficult issues need a dialogue.
Church issues are almost never simple. They need dialogue. If someone wants to give genuine, helpful feedback, follow up questions are necessary. Knowing the struggle the leaders went through in deciding how loud the volume should be would be helpful. Knowing why we cancelled a recent youth trip can’t be understood well without hearing the reasons.
I pastored for almost twenty-five years, and rarely was there a complaint that wasn’t carefully thought through by the church leaders. If someone wanted to give feedback and dialogue about why we made the decisions we made, we were always willing to do that. But complex issues can’t be understood through an anonymous note, and meaningful dialogue that can result in changes can’t happen. Good church leaders make decisions through the filters of the mission, vision, and values of the church. An anonymous note doesn’t allow you to dialogue about those driving issues. Difficult issues need a dialogue not an anonymous comment.
3. Anonymous notes have an unusual power to intimidate and manipulate leaders.
It is easy to overreact to a negative anonymous note. Depending on the type of personality and leadership gifts you have, it can cause you to back away from something you shouldn’t back away from. Or because you can’t find out who wrote it, it may tempt you to address something publicly that should be addressed privately.
We also have a tendency to wonder or think that a group is larger than it is. It truly may be a single opinion – one voice among hundreds or thousands. Pastors, don’t give this power it doesn’t deserve.
There is one very important caveat to this: pastors must be approachable. You need to be sure that if someone gives an anonymous note, it isn’t because they have a reason to fear your reaction. Just because someone has a differing opinion doesn’t make them a “hater.” If we want people to give non-anonymous feedback, we should not label them as “difficult” or “always opposed to things” when they do give feedback.
Here is a lesson I continue to learn: If you gain a reputation of never receiving feedback well, then people will stop giving it. This requires humility and patience. When people approach you about difficulties and problems, you need to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become frustrated (James 1). And most strong leaders struggle with all three of those. If you don’t respond to pushback and questions well, people will either keep their mouth shut or write anonymous notes.
Here is my advice for how to handle anonymous comments.
1. Have a trusted person on your church staff receive all anonymous notes.
This person should clearly carry the DNA of the church and staff. They should have a bit of a thicker skin with a pastoral heart. They should read the notes and decide if they should be thrown away or, rarely, passed on to the church leaders and dialogued about.
2. Tell your church that you don’t read or pass on anonymous notes.
Making this a publicly known fact takes away the power of anonymity and helps them consider if they are willing to meet face-to-face or at least sign their name to discuss and own their feedback.
Pastors, do not indiscriminately read anonymous feedback, comments, or complaints. They will hold you hostage from doing what you should do, capture too much of your attention, have a voice they shouldn’t have, or provide you frustration you don’t need. For your sanity, the unity of the church, and for the sake of speaking the truth in love, don’t read anonymous notes!