How to Complain At Church


or: transforming a MRC or CoM to
a Healthy Communication Team

Do you have a good “complaint” system at your church? Every church can benefit from a complaint system that is:

  1. easily understood
  2. widely accepted
  3. endorsed by the leadership
  4. available any time church is “in session.”

This is particularly helpful in a multi-site situation when not everyone “knows” everyone else– including who the leaders are, what there portfolios are, or which campus they happen to be at.

And of course– If you don’t have an intentional grievance procedure, then people will usually use the default method.

What is the default method? To complain to a lay leader, hopefully the board president.

Note, that I have never seen a job description for a board member, officer, or anyone else specifically include: “listen to complaints from anyone who happens to be around.”

Assuming the church has a minister, and that to the extent people think the minister is responsible for everything, that the board president is likely hearing negative things about the minister– and rarely positive things– since most people will use face to face when it comes to positive communications.

This means the board president is likely to get a skewed view of what others think of the minister. This makes a certain amount of sense: if you hear more complaints than compliments, what is a logical conclusion?

Worst of all, the default complaint system in a church frequently have the following components–

  1. triangulation (venting about a 3rd person)
  2. pass through communication (to get a message to someone, you tell someone else)
  3. anonymous feedback (deal with the problem I’m telling you about, but don’t mention my name: I want to vent, not solve my problem)

These three problems prevent forward progress and increase anxiety and dissatisfaction for everyone involved. If this is a perennial problem, why hasn’t it been solved?

People have come up with a lot of ways to avoid conflict and dealing with complaints, and they mostly– don’t seem to work. Perhaps we frequently prefer subtlety, tact, and the desire to spare people’s feelings. So, over the years, folks have come up with various euphemisms, strategies, and committees to deal with complaints– although these groups rarely make that explicit.

For congregations that have a minister, an old name for this kind of group was: Ministerial Relations Committee (MRC). This group would be the official group you could complain to about the minister. But it was also the group that would advocate for the minister’s compensation: big mistake. People on the MRC would try and remain ‘impartial’ but were frequently seen as either “in collusion” with the minister, or worse– antagonistic to them. There were little tricks to try and change that mindset– the minister would select twice as many nominees as needed, the board would pick from that group, 3 year revolving terms, and so on– but this did not change the basic dynamic.

A new euphemism came up in place of the MRC, it was called “Committee on Ministry” (or CoM) and it’s purpose was to look at the overall ministry of the church and then the minister’s place within that overall ministry. Alas, this didn’t seem to change many people’s minds, since just changing the name and widening the scope didn’t do much about the inherent problems with the complaint system.

When I came to Houston in 2010, I decided I wanted a different procedure to be used: a new method. It was, in fact, the very first team of leaders I assembled, because it’s that important. I read & questioned & queried colleagues & read some more. I took ideas formulated and written about by others and came up with two things:

  1. Healthy Communication Team concept
  2. Grievance_Procedure

Like many colleagues, I have been greatly influenced by the idea of making church more simple, accessible, and easily understood. If you’ve been a UU for any length of time, you know this is an inherent challenge of our religion.

The Healthy Communication Team (HCT) is available after most regularly scheduled church services. There is at least one person there, with a book and a pen. There’s a sign on the table, so it’s easy to spot. If someone has a comment– about anything– they write it down in the book, along with their name. The key item here is– no anonymous feedback.

The folks on the HCT follow the process on the Grievance Flow Chart. This chart is printed in the church “Information Guide” (our main print publication) and is available at the HCT table. Board members, most lay leaders, know that if someone has a complaint (or more rarely) a compliment, and the “messenger” isn’t sure what to do with it, then they are guided to the HCT table.

The HCT does two main things: triage the grievance, and provide guidance to the aggrieved. They are basically the same process.

Triage: A grievance generally falls into 1 of 3 categories:

  1. Preference
  2. Performance
  3. Policy

In a non-scientific sampling, I’d say that

  • 95% or greater grievances have to do with preference.
  • 4% have to do with performance, and
  • 1% has to do with policy.

Preference is about personal preference: music, wall color, the use of pew ropes, publications, religious education curricula, and of course sermons. Because we operate by policy governance, and because most decisions of consequence are clearly delineated via our governance documents, most of the time, individual preference is acknowledged, and occasionally changes or adjustments are made. Most of the time, the preference is simply acknowledged.

Performance would be things like: not returning email in a timely manner, failing to perform some essential function of a job, that kind of thing.

Policy has to do with violation of board governance policy– failure to comply with government regulations or failing to report something essential to the board, that kind of thing.

Every month, the HCT sends a summary of whatever was written in the book over the preceding weeks to the senior minister and to the board of trustees. There is rarely conversation about these things at the board level, usually the senior minister reports the status to the executive team. The senior minister usually responds in person or via email to the aggrieved. Often, that is the end of the matter. Occasionally, given enough people with the same preference, a change is made to the governance policies to avoid future incidents.

The system serves us well. People feel heard. The emphasis is on clear, straightforward communications that avoids anonymity and encourages direct communication.

What’s your default grievance policy? Can all you lay leaders tell you what it is off the top of their heads?

Daniel O’Connell is the senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, TX. One Church in Three Locations: Copperfield, Museum District, Stafford




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