In a comment to an earlier post, Dell Kimberly asked,
One of our deacons has not come on board. He and his wife are upset with the change of direction. They continue to work just below the surface. They question the authority and effectiveness of the elders. Their complaints and questions are never presented in public. It is always done just below the surface. Actually it must be very similar to the murmuring that Moses must have experienced. How do we deal with this without taking away from the growth and energies of the church?
That’s a tough one. Solutions will vary, depending on why they are unhappy. There comes a point where the church has to move forward despite a few holdouts. You love them, listen to them, try to teach them, treat them with respect, and do not yield to their demands.
My view is that you never empower complainers. It’s bad for the church. Leadership has to come from the most mature, not those with childish attitudes. Don’t go backwards! Therefore, the solution isn’t to stop progress.
It helps to try to understand why they are acting as they do.
In my experience, many murmurers complain as a way of reclaiming lost power. When the church was smaller, they could veto decisions they didn’t like. Now that it’s bigger, no one even asks their opinion. And so they try to regain power through backbiting and gossip.
Or sometimes they have a genuine doctrinal disagreement.
Or they may just be the sort how have trouble with change even though intellectually they know it’s okay.
Or they may find the change embarrassing to their friends and families who attend more conservative churches (quite a common problem, in my experience).
And they are often unaware of their true motivations. They are just unhappy and see murmuring as their only way of dealing with it. Of course, the fact that they are so unhappy means they care deeply about these things, and that’s often the very fact you need to fix the problem.
Elders can often resolve the problem through conversation. Just by getting the complainers to articulate their concerns, they might be encouraged to see their error.
Many will have persuaded themselves that they speak for a silent majority. Everyone feels as they do! And so it helps if you can say, “For every complaint we’ve received, we’ve received 10 compliments” or the like. Sometimes a churchwide survey proves to the malcontents they are in the distinct minority. As this is a deacon, it may be possible to address the issues at a deacon meeting, counting on the other deacons to support the changes, proving to him he’s in the minority. (But, then again, his wife won’t be there, so it may work at all!)
The murmuring is sometimes a cry for attention: “I’m being hurt by these decisions and need someone to pay attention to me.” While they should never be empowered, the fact that the elders care enough to listen, even if they won’t change their minds, is sometimes enough.
Sometimes, it’s sheer selfishness. Normally, it goes better to point the complainers toward higher motives rather than seeking to cow them with threats or scripture. For example, there have been times — at the height of the worship wars — we had to say “Get over it” — but our minister was wise enough to couch it in terms of mutual love: we are here to encourage others because we love them. It’s not about what we get out of worship but what we help others receive.
I know of cases in other churches where complainers had to be gently but firmly confronted with their sin. I mean, how can this man be a leader in the church and undercut the elders? He really needs to get on board or resign as a deacon. He can’t be held up to the congregation as a leader while behaving in this way.
And there may come a time when you have to encourage them to leave. It’s always a last resort, but many a church was launched into growth by the departure of a few negative families. As we like to remind ourselves, when they transfer to another church, they aren’t leaving Jesus, just this congregation.
And, of course, there may come a time when you have to confront them with the numerous commands about not complaining —
(James 5:9) Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
(Heb 13:17 ESV) Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
In short, I don’t know a magic formula. But they need to feel loved, respected, and cherished as members of the church — all while the elders are pressing them to stop undermining God’s work in the church and not yielding to their demands.