Writing Difficult Pastoral Letters
Ding. You take your eyes off the game on the TV for a second to glance at your phone. As you see the name or subject line of the email, you get that all too familiar sinking feeling in your stomach. You know the note will not be praising your latest sermon or an affirmation of your leadership.
Sure enough, a church member is upset, offended, or hurt by someone or something in the church. As you read the note, you are processing and formulating a response at the same time. Now what? How do you respond?
Over the last couple of decades, I have responded to plenty of emotional, critical, and sometimes unfair pieces of communication. While I still have plenty of room to grow, I have picked up some habits along the way that seem to help. Here are five suggestions that may help you respond well to difficult emails or texts.
1. Consider if meeting in person is better than a written response.
There are pros and cons to having a conversation over email or text.
Pros for written communication:
- You can always edit your content before hitting send. When talking in person, you can’t take back something once it is said.
- You can have fellow leaders weigh in on your proposed response.
- You have a written record of what was said. Often people remember a conversation how they wanted it to go and not actually how it happened. It may not be that they are intentionally lying, but people tend to interpret words in the conversation according to their motive: memory serves motive.
- Some people prefer written communication because they have a hard time discussing challenging topics in person.
Cons against written communication:
- Tone is hard to capture in writing, especially when the subject matter is tense or emotionally charged. To keep the tone light, we often overcompensate for tone but end up not communicating clearly. Or the opposite is true – we come across much harsher than we intend.
- You can’t control the timing of the communication. You have no idea when the person will open your note. If they have a hard day at work and read your email, their mind is not in the right frame to digest what you wrote. However, if you are meeting in person or talking on the phone, you can read their emotional state and adjust your communication accordingly.
- Perhaps the most significant reason against written communication is the lack of body language. You can communicate care with your facial expressions, posture, and real-time response to their words when meeting in person. Each of those is impossible with written communication.
2. If you decide that a written response is best, start with affirmation.
Don’t praise insincerely, but you should at least share your gratitude that they came to you with the problem. Affirmation may help set the tone for the rest of the letter, even if you disagree with most of what they wrote.
If you want an excellent example of writing a difficult pastoral letter, read Paul’s letter to Philemon. He affirms as much as he can about Philemon and then moves to the main topic at hand. It is a masterful example of how to deal with difficulty in writing.
3. Be as clear and concise as possible.
People do not like reading long letters, and the longer you make the note, the more opportunity there is for misunderstanding. Keep your written response as brief as possible while covering what needs to be covered. And never send a note when you are angry or upset; I’ve never seen that work out well for me.
How do you know if the letter is too long? Do you deal with every point that they raised in their note to you? I let my relationship with the person and what I perceive to be true of them determine the length and detail of my letters. For example, the more teachable the person is, the more specific my conversation can be with them. On the other hand, if they have a track record of not listening to other’s opinions and being wise in their own eyes, I limit my return email to a general response.
Also, avoid getting caught in the weeds of their email. Do your best to identify the root issues and respond to those rather than answering every example or illustration in their note. Graciously labeling what you perceive to be the underlying issue can save a lot of time and energy. For example, after reading their four examples of why they think you are a dictator in the church, you might respond with, “It appears to me that you perceive that I dismiss your opinions and fail to value your input. Is that true or did I misunderstand your point?”
4. Avoid tribal warfare.
In his book, Negotiating the Nonnegotiable, Daniel Shapiro says, “The greatest barrier to conflict resolution is what I call the Tribes Effect, a divisive mindset that casts you and the other side as inevitable adversaries.”In other words, avoid making the response, “me vs. you.”
When responding, use “us” and “we” as much as possible. You can use plural pronouns to mean you and the person who sent the note or to represent the leadership team. For example, you could write, “I believe you and I have the same goal here. We want to see God honored in our church. Perhaps we just disagree on how weshould accomplish that goal. I’m thankful that we share the same mission and think that with enough conversation, we can agree on how we accomplish that mission.”
Or to use the plural pronoun for the leadership team, “I shared your note with the rest of the Leadership team because we want to evaluate what you have to say carefully. We are grateful that you took the time to write us,and we are praying about the concerns you mentioned. We would like to continue this conversation with you. Our initial thought is that we agree in some areas and disagree in others, but we are grateful God has given people with different perspectives to our church to make us better.”
But what about the solo pastor with no leadership team? Lean on church history for the plural “we.” So you might write, “We are trying to be consistent with how our church has historically responded to situations like this.” Or “While it may seem unusual for me to advocate ___________, the great reformers like Luther and Calvin took similar positions.” Alternatively, you might point them to a church confession or creed.
In each case, using the plural “we” moves the conversation away from them vs. you. You will reach the common ground faster if you stay away from the conversations framed as “me vs. you.”
5. End with hope and offer an in-person meeting.
Do your best never to end the letter on a negative note. Even if the situation looks bleak, end the message with an expression of your prayer for God’s Spirit to bring unity or your confidence that the gospel is more potent than any conflict. Again, Paul’s letter to Philemon is instructive on how to end with hope.
You could close with something like, “Every church has disagreements and misunderstandings. The good news is that Jesus is the head of this church, and if he could bring unity to the 12 disciples (a Zealot and a Tax Collector on the same team!), I am confident he can and will bring unity to our situation.”
Then end with an offer to speak in person or on the phone. Doing so communicates that you are not going to hide behind a keyboard. I will often end with, “If you wish to keep the conversation going over email, that’s fine, but I am more than willing to meet in person to discuss this over lunch or coffee. I’ll even buy! Just let me know what you prefer.”
Writing pastoral letters is hard. We must prayerfully consider all that we write before we hit send. My prayer is that the next time you get that notification on your phone of a difficult letter, my suggestions would help you write more productive and intentional letters. No matter how carefully you craft a response letter, there is no guarantee that people will respond positively. But at least you can have a clear conscience that you are doing your best to intentionally and faithfully shepherd the flock committed to your care.
 Daniel Shapiro, Negoziating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts., expanded edition. (New York: Penguin Books, 2017), xvii.
Note: This article was first published in Today's Pastor Spring 2022 ed.