Dealing with Anonymous Letters

Like many churches today, our church has a weekly check-in card where people can ask for information, inquire about events, list prayer requests, or offer comments and concerns. Overall, this is a great way for the congregation to communicate with leadership. Yet this communication tool also provides an opportunity for anonymous critical comments. 

Recently, my non-profit consulting organization, 95network, was working with a church where several people were upset about the music. One person pulled me aside and began to vent frustration about the style of music and its volume. This person felt her opinion had been dismissed and disrespected by the church’s leaders, but when I asked if she had been putting her name on her comment cards, she just stared at me blankly. So, I told her what I'm about to tell you—that anonymous comments should be immediately discarded. If people do not have enough confidence or conviction to put their names on their comments, then the leadership should not feel bound to take those comments seriously.

I still remember receiving my first critical letter when I was a young pastor, long before check-in cards were used. The letter expressed frustration about the lack of time and energy I was spending with our church’s children, saying that I appeared to be favoring the teenagers. There was some truth in this criticism, but also some unfairness. As a bi-vocational, part-time pastor who was going to seminary full-time, preaching 48 sermons a year, and teaching both a Sunday school class and a midweek Bible study, I only had so much to give. I longed to talk to the person who wrote the letter so that I could explain myself and ask if there was a win-win solution, but unfortunately, the letter was unsigned.

That anonymous letter caused a lot of wrestling in my heart. I tried to figure out who it was that felt this way, and I wondered if I should start approaching people or just do nothing. I stressed and lamented over that letter because I felt helpless in addressing the content or finding a solution. The bottom line is that I held onto it way too long, and I learned a valuable lesson—if people won’t sign their names to their comments, then I cannot give time or energy to them. Therefore, when I receive anonymous letters now, they are immediately thrown away. To explain my reasoning further…

1.    Anonymous letters are cowardly. As I said before, if people do not have enough confidence to put their names on comments, then leaders should not feel the need to take those comments seriously.

2.    Anonymous comments are NOT Christ-like. Jesus modeled a life of openness and transparency. He confronted people and issues directly and did not avoid conflict or disagreement. Furthermore, He emphasized the importance of walking in the light and proactively addressing people and situations. I see nothing in anonymous letters that reflects the Jesus of the New Testament.

3.    Anonymous letters foster a culture of distrust and disunity. 1 John 1:7 (NIV) says, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another...” This means walking with transparency and vulnerability fosters healthy fellowship. The opposite of walking in the light is walking in the darkness—in a way that is hidden, secretive, and potentially deceptive. This is not the path to a healthy church culture.

4.    Anonymous letters enable relational immaturity. And relational immaturity can seriously damage a congregation. When church leaders give anonymous comments the same weight as those with names attached, they are not encouraging positive change in members who are unwilling to embrace the way of Jesus and to learn how to relate to one another in the body of Christ. Instead, those leaders are enabling immaturity—and even sin—to remain in relational communication.

5.    Anonymous letters actually cripple communication. The purpose of comment cards is to foster communication, but anonymous critical comments can damage it. These kinds of comments can undermine a leader’s confidence or even make that leader distrustful or suspicious of the congregation. In addition, as I discovered with my first anonymous letter, these comments bring up possible problems but leave no opening for discussion to solve them through compromise or better communication.

Open and honest dialogue around difficult issues and conflict in the church should be taking place. Just like every church in the New Testament, our congregations will have problems, but the worst way to handle these problems is through anonymous comments. Therefore, I have instructed my church’s staff to immediately discard all critical, anonymous comment cards, letters, or emails, and I would encourage other leaders to embrace the same policy because anonymous comments have the potential to do more harm than good—for the senders as well as for the receivers.