the shape of leadership

Dealing With Anonymous Critics

Lessons from Jesus’ ministry

Don Ross on August 5, 2019

Do you have anonymous critics in the church you lead? They may send negative notes in the mail or write grievances on communication cards and drop them in the offering. Then they expect you to act on it somehow with either a public statement or some shift in policy.

I once received an unsigned note telling me I was preaching false doctrine. Another said the devil was using me. Still another anonymous person took offense with my sermon and demanded a public apology the next Sunday.

The problem is, acknowledging these comments publicly encourages more such notes. But ignoring them can lead to guilt over unresolved conflict. As a result, leaders can feel like their own congregants are holding them hostage.

Anonymous criticism often happens when a pastor steps out in faith to lead some evangelistic initiative. When ministers invade people’s comfort zones, criticism and resistance often follow. Rather than having personal conversations with leaders, some may resort to the guerilla tactic of sending unsigned notes. This is cowardly, destructive and hurtful.

I realized I don’t have to answer every question, deal with every situation or even respond at all.

After receiving anonymous criticism on a number of occasions, I began to search the Scriptures for answers on how to handle it. And I discovered that Jesus encountered a similar issue. In Matthew 21:23–27, religious leaders questioned Jesus’ authority. In response, He returned a question for a question, saying, “If you answer me, I will tell you… .” Of course, those trying to trap Jesus didn’t and couldn’t answer Him without also trapping themselves. So, Jesus refused to answer their question.

I couldn’t imagine Jesus feeling guilty for not answering their question, and this was liberating for me. I had always felt a tinge of guilt for not responding, even though I didn’t know to whom I could respond.

I realized I don’t have to answer every question, deal with every situation or even respond at all. So, I didn’t. I applied Jesus’ principle of non-response to my anonymous critics. I ignored them all. If Jesus could refuse to respond to people standing directly in front of Him, I could choose not to respond to people I couldn’t even identify. If people don’t have the courage to stand by their observations in a letter or note by telling me their names so I can respond, they don’t deserve a response.

I will sincerely receive and evaluate all genuine criticisms and observations. I want to have an open heart and humble posture to embrace legitimate feedback. But timid, weak people who take cheap, anonymous shots will no longer siphon off my time or energy.

As a result of what I saw in Jesus’ leadership example, I took two important steps:

First, I instructed my team members who sort the mail and communication cards to disregard all correspondence without names. Period. If I receive a personal letter in the mail, I open it, even if it doesn’t have a return address. But if there is no signature, I discard it without reading it. This has served me well.

Second, I shared this with the church. I explained from the platform that I want to hear from people — their opinions, criticism, praise reports and other communication — as long as they let me know who they are. I made it clear that I would disregard unsigned notes. I encouraged them to offer their name before offering an opinion.

Not only did this cut down on anonymous critics, but it also helped establish a more transparent church culture. People understood that we told the truth and expected them to do the same. No leader or church member ever said this position was wrong, and it helped me stay focused on the mission.

It’s a simple but effective rule: No input from the critic, no response. Just like Jesus.

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