“Pastor, we have a problem.”
As I turned around, I replied, “Yes?” to a church member.
Exasperated, the church member declared, “You’re spending too much time with non-church people. You’re out there with them. You are here to be with us.”
As I listened to the comment, I could not believe what I was hearing. We were a growing church adding new families, young people, retirees, and single mothers. I thought back to before I came to the church. At my interview, I asked the committee if the church wanted to grow. The response was “Yes.” And the committee nodded in approval. I learned later that this church member who was complaining was actively working against the church leadership with negative falsehoods, innuendos, and gossip.
My mind quickly went to Luke chapter 5: “Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’” (Luke 5:29-32 NIV)
So often, churches talk about growth or change, but few churches really understand what “growth” or “change” really look like.
Within churches and organizations, this situation plays out the same way: One person or a few people groaning, criticizing, and vocalizing ad hominem problems with others. Often, these behaviors come from a place of insecurity. These behaviors will sink a pastor, church leadership, church staff, or even an entire congregation. Members and leaders in a congregation know who these people are, but churches unknowingly enable this behavior.
There is that negative comment at a church dinner, a complaint that comes after a church meeting, or an overly critical email that is sent behind people’s backs. This person lets everyone know that they are unhappy with congregational decisions or have personal gripes with others without confronting the issue at hand. This type of underhanded behavior sinks churches and organizations, and there is a name for it: Recreational Complaint Syndrome.
Guy Burgess, Ph.D. and Heidi Burgess, Ph.D., Co-Directors of the Conflict Information Consortium, define Recreational Complaint Syndrome as: “The common practice of gossiping with one’s friends and allies about how one’s opponents are the source of all evil, while one’s own group, of course, is the source of all virtue. The ability of many radio talk shows to exploit this phenomenon underlies both their success and the highly inaccurate images of the world that they often give to their listeners.”
The issue here is that there are some within a congregation who believe pastors, staff, church leadership, and other church members are opponents who somehow work against them. Thus gossiping becomes a way, for congregants who portray an anxious presence, to release their anxiety or fears.
Sometimes this behavior not only occurs within a church but also church employees. I once worked on a church staff with a person who was very educated and talented, but who was undermining the entire organization. This staff member would never say anything publicly that would criticize anyone. The staff member had a very subtle way of letting everyone know of personal hang-ups. These hang-ups were affecting the staff and thus the performance of the organization.
How can churches discourage Recreational Complaint Syndrome?
It starts with those at the top. Leaders of organizations must set the tone of openness, accessibility, and honesty. Pastors and church leaders themselves must not be an anxious presence with reactive behaviors to challenging situations. Leaders must check in with one another and with church members and listen to their concerns. Also, teaching congregations and church leadership about the art of active listening, healthy communication within the church and acceptable ways of handling disagreements can guard against Recreational Complaint Syndrome. Asserting one’s self in a situation of gossip is also key: “I’m sorry, I appreciate your perspective, but I can’t engage in this conversation because I don’t have all the facts.”
There is nothing like being a pastor or being a church leader in a congregation that works well. There is a level of synergy that runs through the organization where people feel like they are succeeding in their goals. By recognizing and guarding against Recreational Complaint Syndrome, churches can function more fluidly together.
The Rev. Alan R. Rudnick is an American Baptist minister, author and Th.D. student at La Salle University, Philadelphia. He is a former member of the board of directors for American Baptist Home Mission Societies, Board of General Ministries and Mission Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship