You don’t have to been part of a church for long to know that there is an abundance of things to complain about. Some complaints are extremely serious, such as accusations of abuse or heresy. This article doesn’t address these, but rather more general, garden-variety frustrations. For example, feeling you are not being heard on issues you care about, the ministry you are involved in not being supported or poor handling of differing opinions concerning church strategies. Being stuck in these situations really wears people down. Bitterness and resentments run deep. And it’s personal. In fact, in my experience, when it boils down to it, most complaints are just a result of poor conflict management and relationship frustrations, most of which ends up directed at the leadership.

It’s true that I am a pastor’s wife, but I have no hidden intention to write this article in defence of why people should be nicer about their churches (or their pastors!). Or why people should just endure poor treatment under the guise of it being for the gospel. This is just an honest attempt to a start a conversation about what change might look like. I don’t want people to stop complaining, I just want them to do it in a more effective way that will be able to bring about positive change.

But before I get to five steps for complaining well, I want to take a moment to reflect on what congregational relationships should look like from the book of Colossians. Recently we preached through Colossians at church and it made me contemplate what it means for Christians to do life together.

Colossians 1 is based around a glorious description of Christ as supreme in all creative and redemptive work (Col 1:15-23). It’s a message worth protecting and suffering for (Col 2) and it’s a message that changes us. Col 3:1-3 says that we have been raised with Christ and are to set our minds on this reality. That means living out the new renewed self, not the old sinful one (Col 3:9-10).

What does this new ‘seated-in-heaven-with-Christ’ life look like? Paul paints a picture using two vice lists and a virtue lists. These lists describe character or a picture of ingrained habits in the way we interact with people. The first vice list has to do with (mainly) wrong uses of sex (Col 3:5) and the second with wrong uses of speech, which is what I am interested in for this topic (Col 3:9-10). These include anger, malice, slander or lying. Words are powerful. Remember that. Destructive talk has no place in those who are changed by Christ.

Rather, Col 3:12-14 says, in the same way we’d put on new clothes, we need to put on compassion, kindness, patience, acceptance of one another and the climax that holds it all together; love. Love is the overcoat over all the other layers of our new clothes.

All dressed up in these rather lovely clothes, we are then to be people who encourage one another in the word (Col 3:16). This includes teaching and being thankful for one another, but also admonishing one another. Admonishing means giving the difficult rebuke about what is not in line with God’s word. This is kind of what Christian complaints should be. Complaints and admonishment overlap, but are also vastly different. Complaining is such a consumer term (like calling up a complaint hotline or something), it is based around your rights and really doesn’t fit well with church being a family rather than a corporation. In contrast, admonishing is helping others stop doing things that are not in line with God’s word. This is a better way to think about the content your ‘complaints’ should contain in church.

So with that in mind, here are my five steps to complaining well.

  1. Make sure you’re wearing your overcoat of love.

Complaints are not to help you blow off steam or feel vindicated, but to bring about better things in the people you love. This is no easy task when you’re hurting, but important all the same.

Love means putting things in a way that people can actually hear them. It’s human nature to react to (real or perceived) attacks by putting up defenses. No matter how legitimate your complaint is, if you give someone a cranky spray that is not embedded in a genuine context of love, it simply won’t be heard. Rather, the defenses go up and ears close and the conversation is over.

Practically that means wisdom such as using the old feedback sandwich approach (two positives to a negative). I actually reckon people probably need an even higher ratio than that, but at least say more positives than negatives. Having lots of love in the love jar will help people hear what needs to change.

  1. Be slow to disagree with leaders

Leaders bear the brunt of most complaints. And therefore, when you complain to a leader its good to remember they see a lot of things behind the scenes that you may not. Also, leaders have (hopefully) spent many hours studying false and dangerous doctrines they can secretly edge their way into churches doing imaginable damage. They protect you from these by sometimes making unpopular choices. With this in mind, I think its wise to be slow to disagree with leaders and to always ask them to explain why something has been done in a certain way before deciding that you don’t like it.

However, if your leaders can’t sell their vision or why they choose to do things as they have, then it’s not a good sign. Transparency and bringing people along with them is important. And I have heard more than once a pastor blame making a stand for the gospel on what is probably just inadequate communication and training. If pastors keep you in the dark and control congregations in abusive way, it needs to be named for what it is.

  1. Complain to the source

It’s been said many times. I only put it in because of how much it doesn’t happen. Slander might make you feel vindicated but it doesn’t help anyone (yourself included), so go straight to the person responsible for the area concerned. And on the other end of things, if you receive a complaint, keep things contained. Abusing confidentiality and defaming the person as ‘difficult’ can lead to toxic environments, which are dangerous for everyone.

  1. We’re all part of the solution

Colossians guards us against a consumer view of church. We all go to church to teach and encourage one another in the word (Col 3:16). So for every complaint we need a solution. It helpful to offer specific ideas about what you think might be a constructive way out of a problem and also who could help see these plans come to fruition.

  1. Have your eyes fixed on the Messiah

If Colossians teaches us anything, it is that Jesus died for us when we were hostile to him and alienated from him to make us holy and faultless (1:21-22). Don’t forget you need grace, and so do others. If relationships are underpinned by unconditional acceptance of each other (Col 3:13) based on Christ’s acceptance and love of us, they work better. People change this way. Really change.

So yes, please complain. That is, in the sense that we are lovingly keeping each other accountable to living out God’s word as a community. But let’s work together on complaining well.