What Thom Rainer Teaches Pastors About Anonymous Complaints

What Thom Rainer Teaches Pastors About Anonymous Complaints May 23, 2019

Y’all, I can’t help it. Something about the sheer hypocrisy in Christianity fascinates me. After all, absolutely nothing speaks to this religion’s true failure like the visible behavior of its biggest names. In that vein, today I offer up a recent blog post from none other than Thom Rainer, one of the biggest names of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). He wrote about how pastors should handle anonymous complaints. And y’all, his post reveals one of the most serious disconnects in the minds of authoritarian Christian leaders–and maybe even gives us a hint about why their churches have been doing so poorly for so long.

(Tommy Tang.) Just slinkin’ through. Nothin’ to see here…

Apparently, This Is A Big Problem.

Wait.

Scratch that.

It’s too, well, imprecise.

Let’s try it again.

(Ahem.)

OF COURSE This Is A Big Problem.

Lately of Lifeway, the publishing arm of the SBC, Thom Rainer already looks ahead to his next hustle. (Ohhh, yeah. Trust me, that topic’s coming soon.) For now, though, he took some time out of his busy day to teach his target audience, SBC pastors, how to handle the anonymous letters they receive.

If you haven’t already guessed, these anonymous letter-writers do not tend to pen loving, joyous odes to their pastors. From the sound of Rainer’s column, these writers are in fact deeply unhappy with their pastors and/or churches. But instead of confronting their leaders directly, these aggrieved sheep write aggrieved letters and then, I suppose, slip them under their pastors’ office doors on the sly. Thus, the pastors have no idea who exactly wrote these letters.

And friends, that last part is The Big Problem Here for Thom Rainer.

So he finally felt it necessary to weigh in on the topic.

Above, I amended the subtitle header from “apparently” to “of course.” I did so for a good reason. At a guess, the structure of SBC churches is such that I’d be really surprised to run across many SBC pastors who have never once received such letters.

That guess appears to be confirmed in Rainer’s post, too. SBC leaders receive so many of these letters that they have systems in place for dealing with them.

Or rather, for not dealing with them.

Thom Rainer’s Advice Listicle.

In the blog post, Thom Rainer offers up 7 listicle points for dealing with anonymous letters. Now, we’re assuming here that these letters are almost all complaint-oriented. In the comments, someone mentions getting a compliment letter that way, but they and their responders all act like kindly letters are rare. (Oh, and remember: all quotes come straight from the source. I never use scare quotes without expressly telling you so.)

  1. Remember, “most all church leaders” get these letters.
    (Translation: We haven’t figured out how to completely shut down communications yet.)
  2. These letters reflect “unmet and/or unrealistic expectations.” Yep! Their “cowardly” writers “have weird ideas.”
    (Translation: Nothing these letter-writers say is valid.)
  3. Throw away these letters as quickly as possible–in fact, pastors’ secretaries should be trained to throw them away before their bosses can even see them.
    (Translation: SEEEEEERIOUSLY, nothing these letter-writers say is valid.)
  4. If somehow the pastor gets ahold of an anonymous letter, then the best course of action is to pray for himself to ask his imaginary friend to go handle whatever’s up that letter-writer’s butt.
    (Translation: The problem isn’t what’s in the letter; it’s that it got sent anonymously.)
  5. Like, if you want to, you can pray for the letter-writer. Sure, that person’s “cowardly,” but hey, ya know. Spare some pity for the poor wretch if you can.
    (Translation: Keep that power dynamic right where it is. Nobody prays like that for someone above them on the chain of command.)
  6. Don’t ever let on that the letter bugged you. If you do it jusssst right, your bravado will shut down future letter-writers.
    (Translation: No, it won’t. But it’ll make the writers aware of how inconsequential and despised they are–and that’s just as good.)
  7. Don’t dwell on the letter.
    (Translation: The powerless can’t change anything important anyway, so nobody cares what the hoi polloi think. When we want ’em to have an opinion, we’ll give them one. And oh wait, we totally already did. Why are we talking about this again?)

Every time I think I’ve seen the worst-of-the-worst from a Christian, one of ’em comes along, tells me to hold their Bible, and breaks out a backhoe. It’s like they have a mission statement to disappoint and hurt people.

FFS. Apparently, that’s exactly what’s going on here. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

Brief Aside: Could Thom Rainer Be Speaking to the Letter-Writers?

Often, when a Christian leader speaks this strongly to one audience, he’s also speaking under his breath to a whole other audience.

Ed Stetzer–also recently of LifeWay–did exactly that a couple of years ago. Remember? Dude wrote a post ostensibly addressing non-Christians. In it, he talked about how those folks’ Christian friends would soon be inviting them to Easter services, and why, and encouraging them to accept.

In reality, however, Stetzer sought the ears of his Christian readers. 

He was actually telling Christians, in effect, See? I’ve softened them up! You can invite them without worrying too much! They’ll be expecting those invitations now! He wanted to encourage them to invite non-Christians to those services. (See endnote for receipts.)

Since Thom Rainer’s blog targets church leaders, not laypeople, this situation could run either way.

He could be indirectly telling any readers tempted to send such letters to their pastors, Don’t bother. We’ll think way less of you, and it won’t do you any good anyway. Heck, we might not even SEE your message. If we see the post picked up in more laypeople-oriented Christian sites, of course, then we can all but confirm that subtext.

Until then, I come down on the side of “probably not.” No, he’s probably not talking much at all to the letter-writers.

I think he just doesn’t realize the mic is live and we can totally hear him.

Why Thom Rainer Hates Anonymous Complaints So Much.

Nothing reveals a completely dysfunctional relationship between leaders and followers quite like a load of anonymous complaint letters. Oh, sure, any group leaders can and do receive these–as I’ll show you in a moment here. But there are so many of these letters that a vast, geographically-diverse organization institutes procedures to nullify and negate these letters and to denigrate and insult their writers.

Y’all, that. IS. A. BAD. SIGN. A BAD. BAD SIGN. BAAAAAD. (Threat Level: You’re in a cult–call your dad.)

Here’s why.

Really authoritarian groups feature a wealth of both authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers. As the name might suggest, authoritarianism revolves around absolute power gained, protected, and grown. People arrange themselves, through infighting and power plays (some worthy of Littlefinger himself), into a sort of ladder-like hierarchy. Anybody above them holds absolute authority over them. They in turn wield absolute power over those below them. The general goal for each member is to climb as far up that ladder as they can, so as few people as possible can order them around–and so they can order around as many people as they can.

But authoritarian groups also tend to be wingnut groups: their version of reality is not the real one but a dim substitute. So their operating rules do not get them to whatever their stated goals might be. In Christianity’s case, the stated goals might be “connecting people to Jesus Christ,” “taking the shield of faith,” or “where the word of God becomes a way of life,” looking at those door-hanger things I got earlier this month.

However, the group’s dynamics quickly grow so dysfunctional that there is no way at all the group can progress toward those stated goals. They begin existing only to satisfy the power-hunger of the upper-level members.

Flies in the Vasoline, They Are.

Authoritarian leaders can pretend that all is well for a long time.

But a stream of anonymous complaint letters throws the entire facade into question.

For one thing, such a letter removes the leader’s retaliatory powers from the equation. The leader doesn’t even know, ideally at least, who sent the letter. He only knows that here’s a big complaint. Authoritarians like to dogpile people who complain in their groups, but an anonymous letter won’t let them focus on the sender like they prefer.

Secondly, the letter points to a dysfunction somewhere in the relationship. Its feedback loop has short-circuited somehow. Maybe that dysfunction only exists in that follower’s mind, but somewhere along the way the essential trust that a good leader wants to foster in followers has vanished in that person.

Now, Thom Rainer and his pals might call these letter-writers “cowardly,” but in reality they’re displaying self-preservation in action. Nobody makes an anonymous complaint without feeling a fear of reprisal from the recipient, whether the recipient deserves such distrust or not. If a group commonly receives these sorts of letters, that’s a big sign that–across the board–followers fear speaking their mind.

Thirdly, anonymous complaint letters cannot be responded to personally, only publicly–if at all, if Thom Rainer and his pals have their way. Whatever response Christian leaders make to their complaint letters, they don’t even know if the senders will hear them. Maybe they’ve already moved on from that church.

Either way, the chances are really good that many other people in the church share the letter-writer’s concerns–and fears.

Shooting the Unknown Messenger.

Remember what I said above about authoritarian leaders wanting absolute power over their followers?

Wayyy too many SBC leaders lust for absolute power. They don’t have it, of course. Largely, that power is an illusion, and they know that fact better than even I do.

But oh, they want it.

An anonymous letter blows that illusion out of the water. It speaks to the fact that the leader has not locked down his flock completely. Almost inevitably, it demands changes of the leader that he absolutely doesn’t want to make.

That is why Thom Rainer doesn’t even once consider the complaint letter’s validity. He repeatedly calls their senders “cowards.” (See endnote below about name-calling.) He tells his pastor-readers to “move on quickly” after receiving anonymous complaints–even suggesting they order their secretaries to destroy the letters so they don’t even see them. Unsurprisingly, an authoritarian leader sees no usefulness whatsoever in these complaints.

Man alive! Nothing says Christian love like the behavior of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ themselves.

One of Thom Rainer’s followers. (From archive.) Really, only one or two comments in the whole commbox were worth a fart in a mitten.

I’ve Seen This Before.

Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I helped run a large, sprawling roleplaying game online (a text-based MUD). We admins tried to maintain very open lines of communication between us and our players. However, every so often we received an anonymous complaint. We usually had no idea what player account might be associated with the letter. They were as anonymous as someone could get in an online venue.

And generally speaking, these letters were not what I’d call kind and considerate. In fact, they could get downright vitriolic. None of it was really necessary. I mean, we were all there to play a big Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game. None of us admins were mean people; we wanted to resolve problems and always felt deeply hurt when we realized we had made a bad call. When that happened, we tried to resolve the situation as best we could. Players had zero reason to suspect ill-will from us. But we got those letters all the same, maybe once every year or two while I was there.

Any leader will, eventually.

It’s the nature of leading people they don’t know, didn’t pick, or don’t interact with personally all the time. Eventually, they’ll gain a follower who is more of an authoritarian follower than most. Even if the leader isn’t particularly authoritarian, authoritarian followers have some glitches in their programming that make them treat their leaders as though they were authoritarian anyway.

If the leaders are authoritarian, of course, then the authoritarian followers making these complaints have covered their butts.

Again, it’s just a self-preservation measure, nothing more. It’s nothing personal.

How to Properly Deal With Anonymous Complaints.

Here is where we game admins differed from Thom Rainer and his pals:

We decided to take these letters on their own merits. Instead of punishing the senders or ignoring the letters entirely, we met together to figure out if a letter-writer had a valid point to make. If we decided that yes, the complaint had merit, we proceeded from there. 

We resolved not to worry about how the complaint came in or how it was worded. Instead, we dealt with the complaint on its face as best we could.

If the complaint really did come out of left field, then we could ignore it, of course, but often even simple vitriolic insults had a basis somewhere–perhaps an admin was getting a reputation of making bad calls with a certain in-game clan, or maybe an in-game conflict was getting out of hand. Maybe we really actually had a serious discussion in front of us regarding something about our game.

If we ignored those letters, we did so at the risk of our game’s integrity–and of our reputations as its admins.

Christian Leaders Should Be Thanking These Senders.

But they aren’t.

This guy sounds nice. (From archive.)

Thom Rainer notes, briefly, that the senders of anonymous complaints often harbor deep pain and anger regarding some unmet need–even if it’s not a reasonable expectation to have.

Instead of resolving that pain and anger, however, Thom Rainer just wants those complaints silenced. He advises pastors to pretend the letters never happened–or to find a non-petty-sounding way (AS IF) to subtly inform their senders that nothing will change as a result of the letter. He insults the letters’ senders constantly, denigrating them, impugning their integrity, and further slamming them in comments–and allowing the pastors commenting there to do the same.

If I were him and his pals, I’d be celebrating when a complaint like that came in. Instead, they’re doing the opposite. It must make congregations feel splendid to see their leaders acting like this.

Ultimately, Here’s Where It Is:

An anonymous complaint means that the sender hasn’t given up hope entirely and simply left. They’re trying. They simply fear being retaliated against or thought less of, just like a few of my game’s players did–rightly or wrongly. A good leader takes those fears seriously. The fact that the complaint came in anonymously means all the more that it requires gentle, diplomatic handling–and that the situation involved is all the more important to investigate and resolve.

Y’all, I mean jeez, my fellow admins and I knew that on our MUD, and we weren’t even divinely-anointed leaders serving a real live god of the whole universe.

The leaders of this god’s religion can’t manage to act even a little like they’re filled by a spirit of grace, love, and forgiveness. In fact, they react exactly as I’d expect if they were purely-earthly authoritarian leaders whose purely-earthly power was being threatened a bit by forces they couldn’t simply snuff out of existence. So I’m not surprised at all that now that membership is more optional, people are voting with their feet.

Hey, maybe SBC pastors’ whole attitude plays a little part in their denomination’s losses for the past what, 15 years now? Maybe? A little, perhaps? D’ya think?

NEXT UP: An ominously darker-than-usual and predatory turn for multi-level marketing schemes to take. We’ll be covering some new developments–and tracing one of the worst of ’em. See you soon!


Endnotes.

Regarding name-calling: We’ve seen this behavior before, most of us, haven’t we? Who here hasn’t had a Christian haughtily inform us that because we don’t use our real first and last names online, that our complaints have no merit at all? I mean seriously, what would knowing our names add to the equation? A target for a toxic Christian’s wrath in the real world? Haha, no thanks. I love seeing those Christians get hopping mad when we tell them to stick to the topic or go away. (Back to the post!)

Regarding Ed Stetzer admitting he was being deceptive: The receipts come to us from his July 20, 2018 post on Christianity Today, discussed in this R2D blog post. Here’s the money quote: “I was trying to explain why Christians keep inviting people to church and also trying to motivate Christians to invite their friends to church. I hoped that by seeing in CNN an article about why Christians keep inviting people to church, believers would think Oh, I should be doing that.” Alas, I don’t buy his “also trying” nonsense at all; non-Christians are very unlikely to read an Ed Stetzer post on a news site. Dude spoke directly to his tribe there, not to anybody else. I reckon it’s okay if it’s for Jesus, amirite? (Back to the post!)


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PS: I’ve gotten exactly one anonymous complaint note in my entire time writing this blog. In sorta-testy language, it concerned a potential use of ableist language in the blog’s early days. I thanked the person for sending it, spent time thinking about and investigating the accusation, decided the person was right, then spent a merry few hours fixing the older blog posts using that language, and haven’t used that phrasing again. Generally speaking, people seem pretty happy to offer their opinions to me without going anonymous.

Hmm, maybe I should create an online course for SBC leaders. What do y’all think? Captain Cassidy’s Fundagelical University, just $666/course?

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.
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