Chronic Complainers, Part 1 – Creating a Win-Win

Old LadyChronic complainers aren’t a huge issue in a big church. Very few congregation members will know them, and even the pastor may only be aware of them by email (but so many emails!).

In a Small Church their voice is loud. They know everyone – and everyone knows them.

The challenge for Small Church pastors is to resist the temptation to be drawn into a battle with them. That just makes complainers dig in harder – and start recruiting.

Instead of trying to land on the high side of a win-lose battle, let’s take a cue from Romans 12:18. I’ve found that when we ask for God’s help and act with grace and wisdom, many people we thought were our enemies actually want to be our supporters.

It’s possible to turn many of these situations into a win-win. I’ll share what’s worked for me. Your mileage may vary. Some assembly required. Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.

Today we’ll look at what to DO for a win-win. In Part 2 we’ll see what NOT to do when a win-win may not be possible.


1. Find out if the complaint is valid

Not all complainers are chronic. Sometimes they’re right.

For example, I was warned not to become the pastor of my current church because it was filled with chronic complainers. One person called them “pastor killers”.

The evidence was strong. They’d had several pastors in the decade before I arrived, and some had been removed by the church leadership.

So I looked a little deeper. I asked church leaders and denominational officials for their versions of the story. As it turned out, the church’s issues with prior pastors were valid. Church leaders had been forced to make some very tough decisions and they’d made them prayerfully and correctly.

I’m still their pastor 20 years later.

Score: win-win.


2. Understand who they are

There are two types of chronic complainers: Saboteurs and Perfectionists.

Saboteurs are out to hurt you. They hide in the shadows. Sometimes they’ll recruit a gullible friend to be their voice, so you  think you’re dealing with the complainer, but you’re just talking to the saboteur’s puppet.

You deal with a saboteur in one way only – root them out and confront their sin. There’s no win-win with a saboteur outside of their repentance. And even after repentance, sleep with one eye open.

But Perfectionists are not out to hurt you. And they don’t hide behind anyone. According to Mark Gungor, “Their way of saying ‘I love you’, is ‘let me tell you what’s wrong with you’… This is their version of love. If they didn’t care they’d just let you burst into flames… they just want to get it right.”

Perfectionists are giving you their version of love when they tell you what’s wrong. As pastors, it’s our job to know people well enough to tell the difference between saboteurs and perfectionists.

Give saboteurs the boot. Give perfectionists a chance to help you.

Score: win-win.


3. Check your own attitude

Are you sure the complaining church member is the guilty party, not the stubborn pastor? Could it be both?

If you’re a dreamer and visionary, you may need someone to apply the brakes occasionally.

Perfectionists love applying the brakes. If you listen carefully, they might just keep you from driving off a cliff. They have no idea where to drive the car afterwards, but that’s OK, because that’s your job.

The person you think is a chronic complainer might be your best friend if you can let go of a little pride and let them do what they do well.

Score: win-win.


4. Lead the parade

Sometimes the first step in avoiding a battle with a chronic complainer is to disarm them.

Several years ago we were upgrading our church facility. Every Sunday, one church member would walk in, inspect the work and bring me a list of what was wrong – usually 2 minutes before the service started.

So I decided to turn the tables. I took note of every petty detail that wasn’t up to spec. As soon as the complainer walked in the door, I rushed over with the list, then spent 5 minutes walking them through the problems saying “can you believe this didn’t get done right?!” and “I don’t know how they missed that!”

I was met with stunned silence.

After two Sundays of this, I didn’t need to do it again. And I never heard another complaint. Perfectionists don’t need to be in charge. They just want to be sure the mistakes are being caught.

After the renovation was complete, this person was occasionally heard to grumble that this new, young pastor “may not be so bad after all.”

Score: win-win.


5. Admit your mistakes

It’s hard to admit mistakes to a complainer because we’re convinced that will just add fuel to the fire. The opposite is almost always the case.

Sometimes the “chronic” part of the complaining is just them persisting until they know you see the problem. Once you do, many stop complaining and start helping out.

Score: win-win.


6. Thank them

When they’re right, they’re right.

If someone puts the brakes on your bad idea (admit it, you’ve had your share of stinkers), they deserve to be thanked. And don’t worry. Thanking them won’t make them complain more. Thankful leaders don’t get more complaints, they get fewer.

Final score: 6 – 6. Everyone wins.


So what do you think? Do you have any ideas for getting a win-win with chronic complainers that have worked for you?

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(Smile photo by Alan Cleaver • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

For more great teaching from Mark Gungor, go to

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