Five Different Ways Leaders Respond to Anonymous Critical Letters

Every leader will get one or more at some point in his or her leadership: the harsh, critical letter that is unsigned and unidentifiable. I recently asked via Twitter how leaders respond when they get the anonymous letter. The responses were fascinating.

First, it was evident that many leaders have received such letters. Second, most leaders and leadership groups view writers of these letters with a fairly negative view. They do not understand why they do not have the courage to criticize with clear identity, regardless of the consequences the writer may think he or she will face.

Overall we heard five common themes on how the leaders respond to anonymous letters. They are listed in order of frequency of response:

  1. They quickly dispose of the letters. By far the most common response was to get the letter out of sight as quickly as possible. Many leaders simply do not believe an anonymous critic warrants any attention.
  2. They never see them. A significant number of leaders have assistants who read their mail. They have been instructed to dispose of anonymous letters before the leader sees them. Some give the assistants the latitude to make exceptions if they deem the content really warrants it.
  3. They ask confidants if any of the criticisms have merit. Only about one-fourth of leaders responding take this path. Some say they will go to their spouses first for insight and perspective.
  4. They pray for the critic. Though the number was relatively small, some leaders did take this action. “The critic is obviously angry or hurting,” one leader responded. “The least I can do is to pray for that person.”
  5. They make the criticism public.  A relatively small number of leaders will actually send copies of the criticism to a larger body. They then ask the group for any perspective they can offer.

Have you ever received an anonymous critical letter? How have you responded to it? What is your perspective on these five different approaches? What would you do if the critical letter about you was sent to several other people, perhaps people who have authority over you?


  1. Mike says

    Actually, I have never received one directed at me and this is probably because I tell them up front that if I receive one I will read it from the pulpit. I guess that it worked because the former pastor use to get anonymous letters shoved under his office door.

    With that said, I did receive one that accused a church member of doing various wrong things in the church – which was totally out of character for this person. So what I did on the next Sunday morning service was to share that I received an anonymous letter about a church member and that I destroyed it. I told them that since this letter was about someone else that I would not read it or ever tell them who it was. Then I shared with them that this was a learning moment for all of us to see what God’s Word taught about how you properly handle concerns about other people (Matt.18), and why anonymous letters were unbiblical because they failed to obey how Jesus taught us to handle issues. What started out as something that was intended to be hurtful towards someone, was turned into a positive lesson about biblical Christian behavior for all of us – and we haven’t received any more letters since then. I also got a lot of favorable comments afterwards about this was handled.

  2. David Highfield says

    Anonymous, critical letters were being received at the church office even before I arrived as the new pastor. My policy was to trash them immediately.
    If the administrative assistant encountered one and asked me if I wanted to read it, I said “NO.”
    When I told the congregation that anonymous letters were unacceptable and would immediately be destroyed, the letters stopped.

  3. says

    First of all, thank you, Dr. Rainer, this blog never disappoints.

    As to the post, I’m surprised that no one said that they don’t read anonymous letters, because I know pastors who don’t read them, and I know I don’t either. If I get a hand written note, I immediately see if it is signed, and if its not, I destroy it. The main reason I do this is because I’m more sensitive than I care to admit, and an attack letter will ruin my day, whether I want it to or not. Also, I just don’t think someone should be able to attack me in this way, so I don’t let them.

  4. Jennifer says

    At our former church, there were some significant problems. As senior adult coordinator (volunteer position), on Sunday mornings, I went to various Sunday School classes comprised of seniors. Often, the church politics gossip mill would run before the class began. “Why don’t you share these concerns (and some were legitimate) with the staff?”, I’d ask. Members would squirm, but invariably those voicing the gripes didn’t have the courage to do so. (And not to single out seniors, some from other ages were heard to lament the way certain things were done as well. If I heard it, I’d ask them the same question, and get the same response.) Eventually, a committee was formed to guide the church in implementing a new mission statement, and a survey with vaguely-posed questions was distributed. After hearing more negative comments (and having some issues I myself wished to see addressed), I prayed over and carefully wrote a letter, commenting on questions from the form, and bringing up other things that bothered me and others. I typed and signed my name and mailed a copy to all members of the committee, in hopes that I’d be contacted to discuss my thoughts. Sad to say, none of the staff said anything to me about it, although a couple from the committee called me and thanked me for the well-written letter. In reality, I felt the lack of response inferred, “If we ignore her, maybe she’ll go away”. And after staying around and supporting the ministries for a few more months, that’s exactly what I did. My point is, yes, letters should be signed, but even if not, some tough-skinned individuals should read them as there might be notes that contain truths God wishes to share with the leadership team. Just some thoughts from the other side of the pulpit:)

  5. Jerry says

    Scripture tells us God laughs at the plans of the wicked. Cowardice is major wickedness and cowards are truly laughable. In over forty years of ministry I’ve only received a couple of these letters. I shared them with my staff, enjoyed a good laugh, prayed they would gain courage and compassion, and asked God to show us anything in them from which we could learn and improve.

    A friend always reads them from the pulpit. He has a quick wit and they usually had fun with them. The fun was lost when one threatened to kill he and his family. No physical harm occurred but the damage to the spirit of the church was immense.

    In speaking with pastors under attack, I encourage them to take David’s attitude as he left Jerusalem not wanting to do battle with his son Absolom. As he was pelted with insults and more he responded to a request to kill the insulter by saying, “Why? If what he is saying is true his death will not change the truth. And, if what he says is false, maybe The Lord will repay me with good some day for the evil I am receiving today.” It isn’t easy, however, it really heals and strengthens the heart and spirit.

  6. says

    Dr. Rainer. Excellent blog and comments. In 50+ years of ministry, I have received a few anonymous letters! Being the curious type, I always read them. If they were valid, I learned from them. If not, I ignored them. Not sure I was as spiritual as I should have been and prayed for them always! Reminds me of a story.

    D.L.Moody received an anonymous note in one of his crusades. It said, “Fool!” Moody told the congregation, “I have received many letters that were unsigned. This is the first I have received that is signed, but didn’t include the letter.”

    • Thom Rainer says

      Thanks so much Dr. Vines. I can’t wait for the release of your autobiography. We can all learn much from your wisdom and 50+ years of ministry.

      Blessings friend.

  7. Frank Emrich says

    I have been getting critical emails and texts for over a year and a half! And all of them are signed. It sickens me and I don’t think I can go on much longer. By the way I have been the pastor of this church for over 30 years. If I had some kind of retirement, I would quit and never go back to ministry.

    • says

      Praying for you Brother Frank. Keep up the good fight. Christ’s blessings to you.

      “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” (1 Cor 9:24 ESV)
      “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” (2 Tim 4:7–8 ESV)

  8. Matt Coiner says

    I’ve had this happen in both churches that I’ve pastored. Both were written to and targeted members of the church. When the letter was brought to me by the member who received it, I did four things immediately. First, I prayed with and apologizes to the person who received the letter. Second, I read the letter from the pulpit (neither had information that was sensitive) with the receiver’s permission. Third, I emphasizes that this was no longer allowed and taught a lesson on Matt. 18. Finally, I offered a public apology on behalf of the church to the person who received the letter and asked forgiveness on behalf of the church.
    In the case of the first letter, the member who received it was so hurt that she and her husband vowed to never return. They were not present the day that the issue was addressed. I typed out a letter of apology on the church letterhead and had everyone sign it durIng the church service and sent it to them. They did not return immediately, but over a year later, they were back.
    In both cases, the anonymous letters stopped.

  9. Hal says

    Although I’ve never gotten anonymous letters, I used to get occasional critical emails from a certain church member. She was critical of other staff members or policies or church life in general. She was very bold by email but never said anything in person. At first I would answer her, and she would volley back, and I would answer again. But she always got the last word. After a while I started answering simply by promising to pray for the situation she complained about (advised my staff to do the same thing). One week the staff and I got emails from her on two successive mornings, which we ignored. The third morning I alone received one of nuclear proportions. After taking a day to think and pray over the situation, I responded with a firm answer about this person’s pervasive unhappiness and critical spirit. I said I would be happy to talk with her either in person or on the phone, but I would not open any more of her emails. As I expected, she and her family left the church, but I felt very strongly that it was time for the cyber-harassment to stop. And it was time someone pointed out to her the inappropriateness of her conduct. (That’s neither the first nor last time I have been “fired” as someone’s pastor after confronting sin).

  10. says

    I have yet to receive the dreaded letter, but one of my pastoral staff has. We read it together, I spoke truth into the criticism, then we canned it. I wanted to turn into “momma bear” and tell the church this has no merit for us. But resisted the urge and that was the end of it.

  11. says

    brother Frank, I will pray for you today. What a disheartening place to minister and to know that God has called you there. What a great testimony to stay 30 years. i will be praying that God deals with those who are attacking you.
    We are in a time now when we receive not only letters but emails and comments on facebook, linkedin and twitter and others. I only received on letter in my 39 years in ministry and it was addressed to my board. I would have ignored it and dealt directly with the person involved since i knew the back story, but the board wanted to see it as truth. After a year we were called to a new ministry but not before God healed the congregation and prepared them for a new season of ministry.
    great post Thom and great responses.

  12. Guruprasad T S Rao says

    Revered Seniors of the Holy Church, it appears that the Holy Spirit sat by my side to fetch me this conversation thread, and the original, profound reflections by revered Dr. Rainer – for, I was about to let my fingers fly on the keyboard to let loose a ball of fire on the head of a highly esteemed leader of a fabled technology company – built on the founding principles of the Bible and every other spiritual source on the planet.

    Having been part of the technology industry – a far cry from the Holy Church, and an industry that increasingly seen by the general public to be instrument of Mammon, I probably come from the diametrically opposite end of the spectrum in terms of the pro’s and con’s of anonymous letters.

    To be straight and clear, if I were to write a non-anonymous letter to this senior leader (from another organization, not mine), I will stand on the street tomorrow morning – for, my own organization will not hesitate for a micro-second to throw me out for violating ‘protocol’ and ‘exceeding my brief’.

    Would I risk this, is the question! – I’m willing to more than risk it, by writing out the letter by identifying myself in full – catch is, my wife would consider it a suicidal move that would potentially have led to a job loss and consequent emptying of the dinner table at home.

    So, Catch 22? Or is it Hobson’s choice where I want to use the ‘nearest’ tool available at my disposal to vent my frustration – the computer keyboard?

    I will do the simple thing of going by the wisdom of the majority here – and desist the temptation to fire my cannon from behind walls – may be – just may be – a time and place and opportunity shall arise – when a man-to-man or a man-to-woman chat can be had within her ranks and hierarchy to set right the ills that I perceive in her organization today.

    Wishing everyone a great Sabbath day (at the risk of raising another storm on the weekday of observance 😉 ) and a holy Sunday.

    Thank You.

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