The truth of plain white envelopes


It was tucked among the rest of the bills and flyers — a plain white envelope addressed to The  U M Reporter. There was no return address or an indication of where it originated beyond the postmark. I opened it carefully and found a single sheet of paper filled with typed words. Earlier this year we had published a story about a UM pastor who was moving to a position at a general agency. The writer of the letter apparently didn’t feel that was a good thing, for the letter outlined various complaints and concerns about this minister in their practice of ministry in the church  at which they were currently serving. However, like the envelope, the letter had no signature and no identifying information that might allow for a followup conversation. It was an anonymous venting of frustrations about the state of their church, filled with hurt and pain, but with an unwillingness to take responsibility for their accusations.

This isn’t the first letter of this type I’ve received. The circumstances change, but it’s not unusual for someone to write anonymously to complain of various things. It happens every day on the this site in the comments section with people who offer critique but are unwilling to attach their real identity to their complaints. For some reason people think it is perfectly acceptable, and maybe even desirable to offer biting and harsh critique without providing the means to be held accountable for their opinions.

These letters are not unique to UMR, in fact I would imagine that many of you who are serving in church leadership have received them in the past. Sometimes they come to the SPRC/PPRC or sometimes they come directly to the pastor, but without doubt they share some perceived failing on the part of the leader. The letter I received this week outlined many of the concerns I’ve seen over the years — the church was spending too much money, people are leaving the church, the pastor isn’t responsive to the needs of the congregation — the complaints are endless and predictable. More often than not they reflect concerns that the church is changing, that it isn’t the way it used to be, and the pastor must be the reason we are struggling.

These concerns aren’t unjustified, in fact many of them probably may have some germ of truth. However, the unwillingness of these letter writers to take responsibility for their accusations means that we never truly address the concerns because we can’t enter into the needed conversation required for true discernment. There may be reasons for the budget struggles. People may indeed be leaving the church. But until leaders can talk openly and honestly with one another about these struggles, working cooperatively to get to the core issues at hand, there is rarely much chance of resolution. Instead, we call each other names and throw bottles, which makes me wonder if we really WANT a solution, or if we’d rather just have something to complain about.

It seems to me the healthy, adult, Christian means of addressing conflict and concern is not to send anonymous letters, but to call up the one who is or has offended us for a conversation about our concerns. In fact, I think Jesus made a similar suggestion to his disciples as reflected in Matthew 18. Jesus knew that true reconciliation requires engagement.

The truth is that plain white envelopes rarely contain love and grace. No, more often than not they contain fear — the fear of being exposed, the fear of being challenged, and the fear of being held responsible for our beliefs.

The other truth is that they rarely accomplish anything significant, for in failing to attach a person to the complaint, in leads to the recipient disregarding the complaint entirely. After all, how can I know what to believe when I don’t really know anything about where it comes from?

And so, the plain white envelope ends up again mixed in with the flyers and handbills — in the recycling bin.

Well then it isn’t a total waste of the paper.

Jay Voorhees, Former Executive Editor

The Rev. Jay Voorhees is the Executive Editor of The United Methodist Reporter and the Chief Creative Officer for CircuitWriter Media LLC which operates this site and Jay is an ordained elder in the Tennessee Annual Conference. Jay has written on life and the practice of faith in The United Methodist Church at Only Wonder Understands since 2003.

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13 Comments on "The truth of plain white envelopes"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Myron Simmons
There are two types of clergy: Those who have received the white envelope and those who will. We know that and live with it – It has nothing to do with being United Methodist and has everything to do with manipulation and perhaps lack of faith in the processes available to the unknown writer. (This lack of faith may be well founded!). The white envelope I cannot discard is the one where the Superintendent meets with and honors people who choose to go around the SPRC. The SPRC is the on-site group assigned to deal with their concerns, when people… Read more »
I understand where the letter writer is coming from having been there myself. I think the problem with being willing to held accountable lies with the fact that the church or person the letter is addressed to is too harsh with the person without being open minded to other opinions besides their own. The church can be a very closed minded with people who do not listen to what others are saying because they are too busy trying to achieve their own personal goals and agendas. Often the complaints are very valid and from long time members who has seen… Read more »
Josh Newberry

Thanks for this great article! I think all of we who are in leadership in the church have received one of those “plain white envelopes” at one time or another. This is well-written and a good thing to share.

TJ Williams

In a system that is filled with distrust and has a past of vindictive appointment making, can you really blame them for not signing their names?

They know that if they speak the truth openly their ministry and their family’s well-being may be at risk. Perhaps they should “speak truth to power” with their real names, but until the UMC is willing to have a conversation about the rampant mistrust in our denomination I don’t imagine more people including return addresses.

A.J. Thomas

I always had to chuckle when I received anonymous letters and copies of my own sermons with the writer’s highlights, editorial comments and arguments – consistently penned in the distinctly recognizable handwriting of one member of the church.

Bill Krill
I reject the notion that people who do not sign their names are refusing to take responsibility, or that there is just a ‘germ of truth’ in the accusations about the clergy. This is a gross misunderstanding of human nature and the current culture in the UMC church. It may seem strange, but folks become fearful of speaking up to challenge unrighteous leaders. Why? because we are taught all of our lives that we need to respect ‘the pastor’, and the vast majority of pastors (UMC and otherwise) carry the narcissistic air that they in fact are all knowing and… Read more »
Joey Reed
Thanks, Jay, for this editorial. I agree that anonymous note-writers have accepted only as much responsibility for their words as there is a means to respond to them. As there is no return address, the only responses available are generalized. But what if the merits of their argument were unstated? What if the argument offered is poorly worded? Lobbing ineffective communication is a weak means of effecting change or retaining the status quo. The anonymous respondent has effectively refused to listen to explanation or apology, and that is not of Christ. It is only in conversation that we reveal ourselves… Read more »
Betzy Elifrits Warren
Betzy Elifrits Warren
Bill, The lack of respect I’ve received from people of all ages in different congregations makes me question your statement that people are taught to respect pastors. As a pastor, I have very little control over most of the functioning of my church, despite anyone’s perception that I may “run” the place. I know a significant number of pastors who do actually know they are not all-knowing, and also many who have been the ones to suffer more than their church members, when a church member has a problem with them. We get moved. The church continues, as it was,… Read more »
Neki Soriano

The plain white envelopes may be a sad reality but it is the reality. And it is not only happening in churches in North America but in the entire UMC connection. Culture and human nature may be a factor, but what does it imply about the kind of congregations or the church polity or even the practices and beliefs of the church? Why do the plain white envelopes exist even in the Philippines?

Amy Johnson
That may have been true many years ago, but it has not been my experience in the current environment. Pastors are often not well respected, and often not because of any actions of their own. I think communication must be open and inviting from both sides. Placing blame or being anonymous does not help the situation. In fact, many pastors are “fixers” who want to know how they are doing so they can improve. There is a reason clergy participate in continuing education opportunities at a high rate; we want to do our best to help our congregations make disciples.… Read more »
pastor al johnson
Shalom, I was the recipient of such a letter this year, thankfully the PPRC did just as you . Furthermore, it was a minor concern and felt to be unfounded. I share because of your statement, ” a UM Pastor who was moving a position in a general agency”. I know of one such individual that exactly fits that description, in fact, I learned about from UMR. I emailed and congratulated them. Know, my thoughts are slightly tainted and I think that is unfair to the Pastor. I humbly suggest you remove that statement. Your thoughts stand on their merits… Read more »
Robin Moore
I’ve received some anonymous letters in my years of ministry, mostly complaining to me about me, and how I was not meeting that person (or the church’s) needs. I guess I understand when someone doesn’t want to deal directly with what might amount to conflict, but this way never accomplishes anything positive. If I don’t know who’s doing the complaining, I can’t put the complaint in context. Maybe their complaint has a seed of legitimacy — but very often there are other issues at work in the complainer’s life that I might help address if I know the source of… Read more »
Betzy Elifrits Warren
Betzy Elifrits Warren

I once received an anonymous postcard, with fairly large handwriting in black ink, that suggested that I was drunk during the church service and was a disgrace to the church. I’m sure no one at the post office read it and it remained just between me and the writer, in that small town…

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