Pastor Owen* was in trouble, but he didn’t know it yet.
Over the last four months, Audrey, the church’s personable young secretary, had collected complaints about Owen that had found their way into the church office. Instead of taking them directly to Owen, Audrey had passed on these complaints to other people within the church. By the time Owen found out what was being said about him, the damage was already done. Five families, including Audrey’s, were now in the process of leaving the church.
It hurts to be gossiped about. No one enjoys being the subject of a whispering campaign. Because church leaders are out in front, their lives can be closely scrutinized. In short, they make obvious targets. No leader is immune, no matter how godly.
Pastors minister out of the strength of their reputations, and their livelihoods often rest upon that reputation (1 Timothy 5:17-25). Nonvocational church leaders, on the other hand, are volunteers, and it’s tempting to give up when others spread rumors about them: “I didn’t sign up for this!”
Often, the worst part is that leaders are unaware when gossip is spreading. Something might “feel wrong” at church, but it’s hard to put a finger on it. Once Pastor Owen knew who the chief gossip was, it gave him a much clearer path to resolution. But for months, he was under attack and didn’t realize it.
It may be part of the job, but there’s nothing fun about being a church leader who is gossiped about, whether the gossip is simply careless or strongly malicious. Here is some counsel, if you’ve found yourself in that unenviable position:
Complain to your Lord
When life hurts because people are sinning against us, the Psalms provide the best model for our response. David and company knew how it felt to be attacked on all sides, including by slander. Take Psalms such as 35, 37, 41, 55, 59, 69 and 140 and shape your prayers around them.
Notice how the psalmists hold nothing back: They express their pain at being pursued, attacked and betrayed, and they also ask for relief and justice. They complain to God, in the best sense of the word. At the same time, they trust God; they put their situation in His hands. The psalmists know that while they can’t do anything about the whispers of their enemies, they know Someone who can.
Don’t strike back
You might be tempted to hurt those who are hurting you, but don’t sink to their level. Don’t gossip about the gossipers. Don’t whisper about the whisperers. Jesus didn’t. “When they hurled their insults at him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
And don’t use the pulpit to bully your bullies, even surreptitiously. Take the high road.
Live it down
If the circulating stories are not true, then make sure they don’t become true. Peter tells us to keep “a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:16). Do not live their story about you. Live it down.
Pastor Owen knew that people were getting a skewed version of the stories about him, and he believed that the most important thing for him to do was to steadily hold his current course. He might have done more to defend himself if it had seemed prudent, but he was convinced that perseverance over time would best reveal the truth.
Learn from it
We can profit from just about any criticism, even the ugly, behind-the-back kind. Just because our enemies are in the wrong does not mean that there isn’t something we can glean from the whispers.
Church leaders often miss this blessing-in-disguise. All we can see is, “They are going about it all wrong!” But sometimes we need to listen to the message, even if the medium is off-kilter. Because of who we are in Christ, we have nothing to lose.
Pastor Owen says, “I would never have asked for it to come that way, but I did walk away from my ‘gossip storm’ with new insights into my weaknesses and areas where I need to improve in my leadership.”
Love your enemies
Loving your enemies looks different in different situations. When the gossip is merely careless, it’s probably best to overlook it (Proverbs 19:11). Loving confrontation is often called for, however, when the gossip is malicious, slanderous and divisive (Matthew 18:15, 2 Corinthians 12:20).
In all cases, church leaders are called to love their enemies to show their resemblance to their Heavenly Father (Luke 6:35). The world is watching (John 13:34-35).
Pastor Owen decided that in his situation, Christ-like love meant confronting Audrey, and in God’s goodness, she agreed to meet with him. Owen carefully laid out his concerns about Audrey’s behavior and explained the consequences that he was witnessing.
And, guess what? God softened Audrey’s heart to see and own where she was in the wrong. The two were fully reconciled, and in time, three of the five disillusioned families returned. God turned around a potentially pastorate-ending situation and left a stronger ministry in its place.
Not all gossip stories will have such a happy ending this side of eternity. In fact, there will probably be more sober endings even when leaders try hard to handle things in a God-honoring way. Gossip storms are like tornadoes, leaving destruction in their paths.
But our God is faithful and will bring good out of every bad thing. Our job is simply to trust Him and keep on loving those we are called to lead, even when they are hurting us with their whispers.
* All names have been changed to protect reputations and relationships.
A previous version of this article was published at EFCA Now and is used here with permission.