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Anonymous Letters

2015 May 27
by Mike

A popular Metroplex minister’s rant about an anonymous note he got has become infamous. One professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has pointed to it as a model of how to deal with such critics. The preacher leads into it with these words about the challenging life of a pastor:

“The Shepherd rarely gets to play in the middle of all the healthy sheep when they’re having a bar-b-que and playing a volleyball game. He’s on the fringes where the wolves and the sheep with rabies are. So a great deal of my week is spent walking through the tragedies, heartaches, and sins of other men and women.”

I’ve been to a lot of bar-b-ques and volleyball games as a minister, but I digress. The big problem is that he has to deal with “sniper shots from those who disagree.” Specifically, he mentions: “I got this real hateful little spiteful email this week.”

Then in a voice that builds to Driscollesque screaming (because screaming carries more pastoral authority), he says:

“We have not created a system here that hides from you. We’ll receive any bit of rebuke and any bit of critique. But you sign your name when you send stuff in, you immature, weak little cowards! You sign your name, you silly, pathetic little boy! You don’t take jabs behind an alias. Who does that? So in any realm we’re not above reproach. In any realm you can question, you can come in and have your questions an——Don’t take jabs at us behind some alias where you sit in the crowd and do nothing, you narcissistic zero! Sign your name!”
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I get it. Anonymous notes are frustrating. I remember as a young minister that I took a good bit of pride in refusing to read anything that wasn’t signed.

And then, one year, I decided to get well. I decided to deal with my anger.

A spiritual guide told me that my attitude toward anonymous notes was problematic. Those notes said less about the people sending them than they said about me. Why did people feel like they couldn’t sign their name? Why did they think I wasn’t approachable? How had I sent signals that it wasn’t safe to come to me (despite what I might have said)?

Oh, sure. It probably feels good to scream. And all the other angry young guys will high five and give an “attaboy.”

But I think the old schoolground taunt may be right: “What you say is what you are!”

In my own life, if there was an immature, weak little coward, it was me. I wasn’t brave enough to hold onto myself emotionally and spiritually to have respectful conversations with critics. If there was a silly, pathetic little boy, that was me, too. Too pathetic to grow up and handle conflict like an adult.

It’s more fun ministering after getting well. No ranting is necessary. No cheap shots. While I don’t welcome anonymous notes, I now read them carefully and prayerfully, looking for insight and wondering if I’m still sending signals that I’m not safe.

The truth, however, is that as I’ve learned to welcome criticism, the anonymous notes have pretty much stopped.

15 Responses leave one →
  1. May 27, 2015

    Good article. I’ve had a few (not many) anonymous letters. One was sent to me when I accepted a preaching position–the person asked me not to come. That was a bit disconcerting since it would have been someone I had only just met (if at all).

    I agree, our reaction says more about us than the one who sent the message.

    I guess in every criticism we need to seriously discover the truth in the criticism and thank this person (and God) for bringing it to our attention. The problem is such an attitude demands humility–and that is too often in short supply in my life.

    But there is also the troubling behavior of someone who does shoot from the shadows. Perhaps there is something about us that is unapproachable–but I don’t think that is always or even most often the case. Perhaps it isn’t us at all. Perhaps it is this person’s past experience with preachers and authority figures of any kind.

    Perhaps they have been deeply wounded.

    Because of this possibility I recommend the Jesus prayer for every anonymous letter received and for every anonymous writer: “Lord, have mercy.”

  2. May 27, 2015

    Umm, clarification: I received one when I accepted a preaching position about 18 years ago!

    I don’t I’ve received one since then…

  3. Trey permalink
    May 27, 2015

    So what exactly is the mature response to the cowardly letter? (Chandler’s is definitely not.) What does “handling conflict like an adult” look like in response to anonymous cheap shots?

  4. May 27, 2015

    I think my response would depend on what was in the anonymous letter. Something quasi-constructive from a timid soul? Or pure vitriol?

    Of course, you never know until, as you put it, you get “well enough” to read.

    And that is a point well-taken.

    Always a pleasure to read your musings.

  5. May 27, 2015

    I received several anonymous letters. They really hurt. And then I calmed down, gave myself a pep talk, cleared my head, and told my wife that I recognized her handwriting. That worked for about three weeks.

  6. Karen Angel permalink
    May 27, 2015

    I never thought of sending a note anonymously, because I knew everyone would know I sent it, anyway. I UNDERSTAND that working with Christians is not any better, and may be worse, than working with general public. In fact, one would be hard pressed to tell the difference between a non-Christian complaining and criticizing and a brother or sister in Christ. In fact, the brethren is brutal in their criticisms and just want things THEIR way–the right way, in their opinion. But I have gone through the frustration of elders that let me know they did not want to hear it if I just LOOKED like I might have something to say! It doesn’t matter what you are going to say, especially being a woman, they don’t even have the “courtesy” GUTS??? to listen to what I have to say. I’ve been in a bad position, in the middle of a fuss, and people on each side thought that we (my husband and I) were on the opposing side of the argument. We were in the middle and everyone was mad at us. No one cared to ASK us, and when I did try to voice MY opinion, I was discouraged, so the entire impression of both sides thinking we were on the opposing side persisted. So years later, although we had been neutral, when we left the congregation, we got the message that no one was sad to see us go, although no one ever asked us what we thought. The assumed. If I had been asked, I would have spoken up, but being female I wasn’t going to be asked officially, and officially, my husband was not invited to meetings where the issue was discussed. So maybe an anonymous note would have actually been beneficial to get through to some hard-headed shepherds who didn’t want to face up to an issue that eventually led to a church split. But then, if not that particular issue, it would have been something….I am sorry to say….

  7. Royce Ogle permalink
    May 27, 2015

    I agree with Chandler. People who hide their identity to take shots at people they don’t have the courage look in the eye are cowards.

    Very few preachers are as transparent, and few have the level of self imposed accountability as Matt Chandler.

  8. Anonymous permalink
    May 27, 2015

    Great post, Mike.

  9. May 27, 2015

    Trey, the correct response is to read it, evaluate to see if there is some truth to it, learn from it if there is, and move on.

    I still don’t like them. But I can learn from them. My focus isn’t on them; it’s rather on the signals I’m sending out that make people feel like I’m not safe.

  10. May 27, 2015

    Royce – This isn’t about him. His VERY public words are a backdrop. It’s about me. And I had a lot — a LOT — of accountability. But it wasn’t until I was ready to get well (i.e., quit justifying my anger) that I was open to the counsel I needed.

    I would no longer call someone who sends an anonymous letter: “a silly, pathetic little boy” or a “narcissistic zero.” I would ask two questions: (1) What truth is in this? and (2) Am I sending signals that make people afraid to come to me with this?

    Part of the trick is: I can’t fix that other person. I can only work on me. Maybe berating them (as you’re advocating) would bring them to their knees in prayer; perhaps it would drive them from the church. But my aimless attack would be as indefensible as their letter.

  11. David permalink
    May 27, 2015

    Wisdom and age seem to be related!

  12. EBL permalink
    May 28, 2015

    The comment about “self imposed accountability” makes me smile.

    Yes, yes, I was married to a young large-church pastor who had lots of accountability. Trust me, we all knew. He reminded us about it all the time. He insisted that they (this all-male, all-white, all-angry cast) were open.

    It was a group of similarly-aged men who obsessed on sex. They found 1001 ways to make sure everyone was “pure.”

    But unfortunately, no one asked the really hard questions: Does the fact that most of your stories have you as a hero indicate a problem with humility? Does the fact that you scream in your messages hint a wee bit that you struggle with anger? In your exhaustion at taking care of all the “sins of other men and women,” is it possible that an ocular beam is protruding? Does the fact that you preach often about the authority of the leadership mesh well with Christian-style leadership? Are you kind?

  13. June 4, 2015

    Mike:

    Your wise and humble reflections on listening to critics and facing our own issues (rather criticizing the critics) encourages my soul. While I deeply appreciate the podcast messages of our brother Matt C., I do pray that he will receive this criticism in a more mature way. Too often in the past I’ve been angry at legalists and became self-rightoeous — failing to examine my own heart. Lord Jesus, please use whatever criticism we receive from others as opportunities for You to mold our hearts and become more like You. For Your glory. Amen.

  14. Mark permalink
    June 7, 2015

    I too have received and read unsigned letters regarding personnel and then promptly disposed of them since most got carried away. However, I read them. I then put the word out to come in person or send a signed letter if you want it to be seriously considered.

    On other hand, I know of people who were berated for saying anything at all and the only way they can speak is through someone else or by not signing their name. I personally would be fearful of sending a signed letter or email from my private account. There is a still a question of confidentiality in most places.

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