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How to Respond to Complaints at Church

January 1, 2014

Over the years congregations have employed various methods to handle complaints from congregants. Many congregations direct complainants to a Ministerial Relations Committee, a Committee on Ministry, or, if a complaint involves a staff member, to speak to that person directly. 

The Rev. Dr. Daniel O’Connell, senior minister at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, believes he has a better way. After serving congregations in Connecticut and Missouri for fourteen years, he was called by First UU four years ago. One of the first things he did upon arrival was to set up a “grievance procedure.” The timing was key, he noted. “It’s important to do this before you have complaints. Otherwise it looks like you’re being resistant to criticism.” 

He’d seen congregations handle complaints many ways, but none seemed satisfactory to him. One thing he felt certain of was that every congregation needed a formal system to handle complaints. “The reality is that there will be complaints. Unless there’s a well thought out procedure for handling them, those conversations will take place in the parking lot and in other ways that are poisonous.”

So in cooperation with leaders at First UU, which has more than 500 members on three campuses, O’Connell created a “Healthy Communications Team.” Here’s how it works: Each Sunday, members of the team make themselves available to congregants at a clearly identified table. When there is a complaint, or simply an observation, or even a compliment, it gets written into a book. 

Once a month all the comments are sent to O’Connell (under Policy Governance he is the chief executive) and to the board of trustees. O’Connell said he usually responds in person or by email to commenters. If enough people raise the same issue then sometimes a change is made, he said.

“The system serves us well. People feel heard. They know I’m going to read their comments. The emphasis is on clear, straightforward communication that avoids anonymity.” He said most people are willing to sign their comments. If they are not, their comments do not get forwarded.  “If a person just wants to vent but doesn’t want their name to be passed along we’ll not do anything with it.”

People are also encouraged to speak directly with a staff member if their concern is with that person. If they are reluctant to do that, a team member offers to go with them. If they decline these options their issue still gets heard if they will sign their complaint.

This procedure also keeps people from bringing complaints to the minister on Sundays. “People should not be approaching the minister with complaints on Sunday morning, but that’s when they’re at church.”

O’Connell said about 95 percent of complaints at First UU have to do with people—about music, décor, religious education curricula, and theology. Four percent have to do with performance of staff members—a perceived failure to perform some essential function. The other one percent has to do with church policies.

 “The Healthy Communications Team approach requires more trust than the average model,” he noted. “You have to trust that the HCT is going to do what it says it will do.” 

There was some resistance in the congregation to adopting a policy of no anonymous complaints, O’Connell added. “Some of our members who are in the humanities, including education, are comfortable with anonymous feedback. But because classes turn over every year, teachers and administrators rarely get complaints from the same person more than once. Churches are different in that regard in that there are long-term relationships.”

Another reason for no anonymity is that it’s important to know, he said, whether a concern is coming from a longtime lay leader or a first-time visitor. Yet another reason is that a certain percent of complaints come from people who have “religious wounds,” said O’Connell. “They object to a hymn or a reference to God, or they grew up in a faith that shamed them. They may want the church to quit doing something because it causes them pain, but the other side of that is they too have a responsibility. Rather than holding on to this wound they can choose to work on their spiritual life. The minister can help them do that, but not if they’re anonymous.”

Congregations that have no established complaint procedure except to require that people who have complaints with a staff member must speak to that staff member directly have a "faulty system," O’Connell believes. "People will still complain, just not to you.”

“One percent of people will complain directly. I love those people. And if you don’t have a complaint system everyone else will go to the president, other board members, the ministerial relations committee, or the committee on ministry. This can cause these leaders to feel isolated or to become disenchanted with the minister themselves. Either that or they will side with the minister. It can be a painful experience if you’re a leader and all you hear is complaints about the minister. Our Healthy Congregations Team does not feel isolated; it feels like a part of the congregation.”

Having the HCT and a companion Grievance Procedure in place has helped several times at Houston. When an assistant minister resigned suddenly this fall O’Connell had to hire another one on very short notice. But when he did, people complained that he should have involved at least a small group of leaders in that decision. 

“I argued that at that time of year there weren’t many ministers I could choose, and that I had the authority to hire that minister. And I did. But on reflection I also acknowledged that, yes, I should have convened that small group because I would have had some lay leaders invested in the decision as well. So we came up with a policy change around the hiring of key staff members.” 

Three or four choir members complained when O’Connell made a decision to change the configuration of the choir area on the chancel to accommodate cameras that record Sunday services. “They thought I should have communicated with them in advance. So I talked with them. They proposed another configuration and after some thought we’re going to do what they suggested. I missed the boat in not talking to them earlier. The HCT helped resolve that issue.” 

The HCT also serves as a suggestion box. “One Sunday we had a medical emergency and people suggested we get a defibrillator. So now we have one.” 

He added, “The HCT has given us a new level of transparency. The emphasis is on clear, straightforward communications and that benefits everyone.”

More from O’Connell on this topic is on the First UU blog, “How We Do Church Now.“ See his entries titled "How to Complain at Church" and "Rewarding Pulpit Committees—by Sending Them to Hell."

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Tuesday, January 14, 2014.

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