The Complaint

Houses of Worship are unique organizations in many ways. The House of Worship, regardless of faith, functions as a spiritual home for individuals to commune with their God, their traditions and their people. For many the House of Worship is an anchor in an ever-changing fluid world. A place of stability. A rock of peace and serenity. A haven from the tumultous currents of the outside world.

However, Houses of Worship also have a lot in common with every other mission-directed people-focused non-profit organization. In fact, Synagogues, Churches, Mosques and Temples have more in common with the rest of the non-profit world than most are ready still to admit. There are infrastructure issues, staffing issues, budget planning, fundraising, volunteer leadership cultivation and many other dimensions that link a religious institution with their secular non-profit cousins.

One of the most important areas any non-profit must come to terms with is “the complaint.” Anytime people are involved — stakeholders, participants, volunteers, etc. — there will be complaints. A complaint is one way frustrated individuals get across their grievance to people they hope can rectify it. Complaints, when understood and handled well, are excellent sources of information to improve and refine the work of the organization. The key though is to create guidelines and rules for properly interpreting complaints and developing successful filters because without these complaints also have the ability to excessively drain time, resources and patience from the organization and to create a negative environment, not just for the staff but for everyone.

Through my work in a variety of religious non-profit settings I have found the following tips very helpful in navigating the world of complaints:

  • De-escalate and Deflate: In order to fully understand the issue one often has to calmly walk the aggrieved person back from the cliff of hyper-inflation and emotional volatility. Offer some water to the person or a private place to sit and have the conversation. Name the emotions you are experiencing from them (e.g. “I can see this means a lot to you” or “This is obviously quite personal for you and I appreciate how much you are invested in this”).
  • Recognize exaggeration: Anytime a person begins with “I and many people” or “people are upset” recognize that more often than not this is a tactic to make a personal grievance or a grievance of a few seem more pronounced than it is. Sometimes there are many people with the same concern and that’s why it’s important to probe and determine if the “people” is the person standing in front of you alone or if there truly are others.
  • Ask, ask and ask: It seems like more times than not when people begin describing their complaint it begins with a general declaration that the entire organization is doomed or that the organization is deficient completely in a particular area. People tend to complain when something personal has happened to them. Try and determine what the root personal issue is and avoid the hype. Internal audits and organizational evaluations are crucial to long-term success but this is typically not the format or the place for it.
  • Location is important: The last five minutes of an adult education workshop. The middle of a large recception. Upset people don’t always choose the right venue to address their complaint. Do not hesitate to suggest moving the conversation somewhere more private or even, if that time is just not the right time, suggesting to make an appointment for a later date. Validate the person’s feelings and explain that because you respect what they have to say you want to give them your full attention in a focused and private meeting.
  • Resist making it personal: This can be the hardest thing to do. The complaint often is formulated in “you” statements and as someone who is deeply invested in the success of the organization, it is natural to take both compliments and complaints personally. This is one of the most dangerous things to do. You will end up in an emotional rollercoaster, riding the highs of the praise and the lows of the complaints everyday. Divest your emotions as much as possible from the situation at hand.
These tips have worked for me and I have found them useful. They are certainly not the end of the conversation and I’d be curious to hear what works for others in how to successfully implement structure for complaints so that the complaint can be addressed properly and the integrity of yourself and the organization can be maintained.


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