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Coaching Your Church Toward Holy Complaint

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1).

It was my first meeting as a rookie elder. During the coffee break an older gentleman pulled me aside for a mentoring moment. He said, “Remember that we serve as watchmen on the walls of Zion. It’s our calling to protect the people of God.”

After that break, I watched as he obstructed every single creative idea and proposal that came on the table. When the meeting was done, it was the pastor’s turn to nab me: “Remember, you weren’t appointed to sit and watch; as you’ve noticed, this table needs your voice.”

In one evening I was mentored in two diametrically opposed ways of serving as an elder. In the 30 years since then, I’ve heard and seen countless pastors and other church leaders discouraged and exhausted by complaining obstructionists in their midst.

And I’ve learned that one of our callings as leaders is to coach our churches to practice the spiritual discipline of holy complaint.

Complaint as a Spiritual Discipline

The spiritual discipline of holy complaint 1) recognizes what is truly essential in being the bride of Christ that serves as salt and light in the broken world that he loves, and 2) recognizes that it is a sin to be distracted by matters that are not truly essential.

Acts 6 quoted above embodies a holy complaint. The church understood itself as a place where no one was in need (Acts 2: 45), but now linguistic prejudice was creating need. What a horrible sin! The verses that follow describe how the church leaders took radical action in response to this holy complaint.

Flourishing congregations typically embody strong grass-roots energy, but that kind of energy can also allow the unhealthy assumption that “anyone who has a complaint about anything has the right to express it and be taken seriously” to take root. This assumption does not recognize that complaining is actually a spiritual discipline that requires extensive prayer and consultation intertwined with holy fear and trembling to be exercised in a godly manner.

Practicing Holy Complaint

Here are some helpful ways I’ve seen church councils/boards proactively provide coaching for this spiritual discipline:

  1. Every issue that is brought to the council/board is ranked on a scale of 0-10 in terms of how essential the matter is for the mission of the church. The issue is then processed according to its ranking: higher ones go to council, mid-level ones to an appropriate committee, low level ones receive a phone call.

  1. Every year when new council members join the team, the group spends some time reflecting on its calling, which includes (a) keeping our mission front and center, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” (b) celebrating the wonderful truth of our heritage which reminds us that we are the church “Reformed and always reforming,” and thus we are shepherds of wise change, and (c) being coached as the “processors” of holy complaints who will not be bogged down by unholy complaints.

  1. Holy complaint is celebrated as one of the Spirit’s gifts to the church, “iron sharpening iron” (Prov. 27:17) that makes the entire community stronger as a witness to the grace of our Lord Jesus.

  1. Because the congregation is familiar with holy complaint as a spiritual discipline, it also is grateful that its leaders have adopted protocols like these:

  • anonymous complaints will not be dealt with, unless there is a significantly sensitive pastoral matter that justifies the anonymity.

  • it is not appropriate for someone to say or write, “and there are many others who think the way I do,” unless these people have given permission for their names to be divulged.

  • if someone complains to one staff member about another staff member, they will be redirected to the staff member in question (unless the issue involves harassment or a similarly sensitive matter).

  • in cases where the council discerns that a member is consistently obstructionist in an ungodly manner, that person will receive a pastoral visit so that the spiritual roots of this obstructionism can be ministered to.

How is your congregation being coached in the discipline of holy complaint? What have you learned that might be added to this short list?

Syd Hielema, Team Leader for Faith Formation Ministries for the Christian Reformed Church

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