I thought about beginning this blog with a scenario where a person might be led to write an anonymous letter complaining about their church but to be honest I just couldn’t figure out what the motivations might be. Regardless of that, it is a topic that we do need to discuss from time to time. Anonymous letters are part and parcel of a life in ministry. I don’t know anyone in ministry who hasn’t sometime received anonymous advice or an anonymous letter. So how do we deal with them?
All throughout my life I have heard from people in all walks of life – Pastors, District Ministers, Seminary Presidents, and even missionaries – what I should do if I receive an anonymous letter. The answers are all surprisingly unanimous: “Throw all anonymous letters in the garbage and forget about them!” This is very easy to say but very hard to do. There is something that keeps drawing us back to the words on the page over and over again to the point where we are carried off in despair or self-pity.
I was pondering this advice the past week and began to wonder why anonymous letters do not work in the church. Here is my list (not sure I’ll get to 10 so I can’t really call it a Top-10 List):
1. The Church is Community. I know the people I worship and minister with personally. I may see them everyday or even every week. We attend worship services, cell groups, seminars, and classes together. We interact. We play. We love. We share. We know each other. There is that mutual give and take that goes with any good relationship.
Enter the “Anonymous Letter.” All of a sudden that relationship is broken. There is no more trust. Instead there is shame. Someone is too ashamed of the situation to make himself/herself known. Someone is too ashamed of what they are saying that they don’t want to take ownership of their words. Someone doesn’t care about community enough to keep it intact and loving.
2. The Bible tells us to confront in a personal way. Of course, in many cases your culture will determine how you confront or approach someone, but it is still in a personal way. In Galatians, Paul tells us, “Brothers, if someone is caught in sin you who are spiritual need to restore him gently …” The term brothers (or sisters) denotes relationship that leads to restoration. I approach my brother or sister (in a culturally relevant way) and work with him/her to improve. We work through our struggles together.
Enter the “Anonymous Letter.” Now all of a sudden there is no personality to the relationship. “Who is the one who is correcting me? Who knows because it’s anonymous. I guess if no one cares about me enough to help me move through my struggles then I don’t need to change.”
3. Legitimate Questions Deserve Answers (Perhaps even illegitimate questions do as well). If you want an answer for a question you ask, it is vital that the person answering knows who is asking. How can I answer you unless I know who you are? What if I give the answer to someone who isn’t asking. I have wasted my time and you still don’t have your answer! Not all questions need to be answered in a public forum.
Anonymous letters don’t allow us to give the answers to those who are asking them. The writer assumes everyone has the same question and therefore needs to know the answer and so their should be a public declaration of the answer. A public declaration of the answer could even lead to embarrassment for the writer (see #4 below).
4. Anonymous letter writers don’t necessarily have enough info to ask the questions. Their questions may arise because of misinformation, incomplete information, or erroneous information. There may be significant misunderstanding on the part of the writer to the facts of the matter. Just because a letter is anonymous doesn’t mean that it is based upon fact.
The best option is to follow the biblical pattern for resolving conflict and asking questions – namely, the two parties need to communicate in an open and honest way with each other. Not only will this allow the right issues to be addressed but will also foster true community and unity.