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How To Deal With Online Church Trolls

I’ve consulted with hundreds of churches over the years, and sadly, there’s one common enemy some of the most effective churches in America share – online trolls.  In these cases, at least one disgruntled ex-church member has decided to launch a Facebook page, Twitter feed, and in some cases a blog with the express purpose of criticizing the church. There are many reasons: some were offended by the pastor, others don’t like the church’s teaching, a few feel they were taken advantage of, and still others are convinced they’ve uncovered secret wrongdoing within church leadership.

There’s no question that some pastors and churches do dumb things, a handful do the wrong things, and a few do illegal things. But the question is – whether it’s true or not, is a social media platform or a blog the place to air the dirty laundry?

B.F. – Before Facebook, gossip was a similar option, but thankfully, most just left the particular church. In my case, over the years, there have been plenty of churches and pastors I disagreed with, but I didn’t gossip or launch a Twitter campaign to complain, I made a decision to either pursue it with church leadership or just move on.

But maybe “moving on” is the problem for these critics. They just can’t let go of the hurt or being offended. From being on the inside of many of these situations and having read the critical posts, I can say the vast majority aren’t acting out of a Biblical perspective, they’re simply acting out. Because they feel they were wronged, they’re lashing out at the church or the pastor. But in the same way I advise against online campaigns against Hollywood, the gay community, or anyone else, I would say the same thing to people who launch online campaigns against churches:  They make little to no impact, and do nothing for the cause of Christ.

Besides – think for a minute: Someone who feels wronged by a local church or pastor, and invests the incredible amount of time it takes to create a blog and fill it with criticism, or do the same with a social media platform – and keep it going for months or years – probably has much bigger problems in their life.

So – if you’re a pastor or leader in a church who’s undergoing this kind of online criticism, here’s my suggestions:

1. Before you react, consider the source.  There’s a difference between the occasional online critic and a troll. Most pastors know these people because in many cases, they’re ex-church members. So you may see a post – or even criticism – from a church member who has a innocent question that you can easily answer, which solves the problem. So know the difference.

2. If it’s a troll, ignore it.  I tracked one online troll who had positioned himself as a theology cop and had been ripping into a local pastor for months. He only had 5 Twitter followers (probably his family), so he had little to no impact.

3. Don’t help him by responding.  Remember – when you respond on a social media platform, you’re sharing the troll with all your followers. So don’t help promote him or her by responding.

4. If it gets highly offensive, ask your attorney for advice.  There are cases where online criticism can evolve into defamation, and there are legal remedies. A good attorney will help know if and when to pull that trigger.

5. Finally, stop reading it.  I know some pastors who dwell so much on the criticism it derails their concentration. Eventually they become depressed and lose focus. Stop obsessing over the 3% who are critics, and start feeding the 97% who aren’t. Particularly with social media platforms, trolls are easy to block.

Today we live in a culture of victimization. For some people, they’ve essentially discovered their identity in being a victim, so they’re willing to invest a great deal in expressing their victimhood. So stop reading the criticism, and start leading the congregation.  The dog may bark, but the train keeps on rolling. Church doctrine, theology, and moral living are critically important, but never forget there are legitimate ways of correction within a church.

Becoming an online troll isn’t one.

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27 Comments

  1. Point 5 above is key – use your resources on the positive – the 97%. We’ve learned that the hard way. I look back at situations where we expended too many resources on non-productive issues. If only we had moved those resources to the areas where our company grows, we’d be that much further ahead.

    Pastors: Be sure you have a plan to deal with negativity – for our clients we have a written “action plan” that can be executed if needed. What do you do if a Fake ‘Your Name Here’ appears? What happens if a negative post goes viral on a Saturday night? Make no mistake, you need a plan. Just recognize what you can and cannot do in this era of social media.

    1. I really appreciate the idea of having a contingency plan. Are there any in the public domain to be studied as a starting point for developing our own?

      1. Hi Cynthia – I’m not sure that there’s any ‘public domain’ plans. We’ve learned through trial – we handle Joel Osteen’s global social media 🙂 As we’re faced with different situations (and we’ve seen them all), we update and maintain our plan. Would be glad to connect with you. Message me – brian (at) mediaconnectpartners.com -:)

  2. Love this for a few reasons: 1) as a leader of any organization (but especially the church), it’s important to allocate your time towards things that aren’t destructive. 2) I’ve found it’s equally as cowardly to continue a heated/personal/sensitive conversation online that should be dealt with in person or left alone completely. This is what Christians refer to as discernment … Practice it.

    Changing the way you run your organization and lead your people because of ONE person (who likely wasn’t a good fit for the culture to begin with) is irresponsible. Your job is to lead people into a healthier relationship with themselves and others … Choose to lead by example on this one.

    1. It’s so easy to focus on the negative, so your reminder is perfect. Thanks for the note to concentrate on the MANY who want to grow instead of the ONE complainer.

  3. I’m a Social Marketing manager at FrontGate media, a Christian ad agency. A couple things come to mind. Every Sunday I drive into church and there is a guy with a sign that says “church counseling tore my family apart” or “Pastor X took my family from me, don’t trust his counsel”. Still the counseling services at the church service 700 people a week. God will bless what God will bless despite your critics. Be still and know that he is God.

    On to Social media. Social media has given people that ability and a platform to say things they wouldn’t dare say in person. It gives them a place to feel heard without the responsibility to consider another person before speaking. This powerful thing that connects us also divides us. But we can say that of many things right? We all filter into church each week, shake a few hands when the pastor tells us to, but when that last song is done we dash off to our busy lives forgetting that God has called us to fellowship not attend a show. Social media is entertainment and it allows people to be the star of their own life.

    I agree with all that Phil has said except #3. I would also add another point.

    Phil is right to not engage on the public platform but I think God calls us all to reconcile when possible. It’s our responsibility to do everything possible to show Jesus’ love. Even if it’s in parting words. I would send a personal email (you can do this through the page they set up) inviting the offender to coffee to hear them out, to validate their feelings and to let them know that while you are not happy with their actions you would never retaliate. Kind words can often diffuse a situation. Don’t get into an email war. If they are not willing to meet, end the conversation with forgiveness and kindness and never respond again. Perhaps the story of Jesus forgiving the very people that crucified Him would suffice.

    I would only add that you can report a page on Facebook or Twitter. You can also get some of your closest friends and confidants to do the same under the premise of slander or offensive language. It may not work due to free speech but it’s worth a try.

    1. I think we agree on #3 more than you think Katie…. 🙂
      As I mentioned in #1, know the source. If it’s possible to re-connect, do so, but I don’t recommend doing it on a public platform as you said. However, they become “trolls” because they have already been counseled, or talked to privately, and reconciliation has failed – but they continue the public criticism. In that case, there is no requirement for the pastor or leader to continue responding.
      So I think we’re actually on the same page. Your example of people complaining as you drive to church is perfect. You do great work at FrontGate, so thanks for taking the time to respond!

      1. I don’t love reducing someone to the name “troll” but I understand the need to define the type of person we are referring to. Yes just ignore if you can’t reconcile. Reading hateful social commentary is disturbing. It’s hard because you can go back and see it and worry that others are forming an opinion based on the slander. Handling it the same way you would a gossiper is the way to go.

        Well thought out article, Phil.

  4. Great insight, Phil! There is no doubt that this can be a difficult challenge to
    navigate. I would also add that if it is a member or someone with a concern or
    a misdirected accusation, reach out to them offline in a personal manner –
    invite them to discuss over lunch or coffee. Remember that it takes two people
    to fight, so be restrained and thoughtful and respond from a place of love. Not
    all instances can be resolved or halted quickly, but you will be judged widely
    by your response so act in kindness!

    I definitely understand the concerns of ignoring, blocking or “muting” as well.
    It can certainly be more hurtful than helpful. By blocking someone, it can
    often add fuel to the fire and end up being a larger problem than what you
    started with. Anonymity on social media makes people much bolder than they are
    in their real lives. With that said, I wouldn’t start there but it can be
    considered.

    And, as you mentioned legal assistance can, and probably should be used if the
    attacks are especially unfounded and slanderous. Offline. Taking emotions out of
    your response can be extremely difficult when it feels like a personal attack
    but it is necessary to be able to move on and show the love we have been tasked
    to show as Jesus followers!

  5. Thanks for sharing your insight, Phil! I’ve been working as a social media professional for about two years, and in that short amount of time, I’ve run into this issue too many times to count! I think your last point is perhaps the most important. I’ve seen leaders absolutely debilitated by online criticism, but I’ve also seen it handled creatively and calmly. I worked with a church who received an absolute torrent of online criticism after getting involved in a community political event. People were writing terrible reviews of the church, which Facebook doesn’t allow you to block or hide. They responded by asking church members to combat the negative reviews by simply writing their own positive reviews, without mentioning the negative ones. Hundreds of members did so, and soon the negative voices were drowned out by all the positive ones. Obviously, this situation was an extreme case of online conflict, but I think it exemplifies what Phil’s saying here: focus on your congregation, and respond to negativity with candour, kindness, and creativity.

    1. You’ve brought up a good issue. There will be millions of reasons church members and ex-members will criticize a pastor or ministry leader. So knowing that, you can brace yourself for the inevitable. No church, ministry, or nonprofit is perfect, so knowing it will come, and knowing not to focus on it is a big part of the battle. Great insight Mallory. Thanks!

  6. This problem is why I can no longer read any of the comments on Religion News Service articles – there are three or four rabid atheists who comment at length on every single article. If the article is in any way negative toward religion, it’s essentially, “See – this should be proof for all you morons who believe these fantasies that religion is a load of garbage.” If it’s in any way positive toward religion, it’s essentially, “It doesn’t matter – this is all garbage anyway and you people are utterly stupid for believing any of it.”

    There is no use arguing with them or even responding to them, since any response brings scorn and derision (and enough other people are responding to them). I’ve just stopped going there because it’s so abusive and negative. It’s sad when people become so obsessed on any topic that reasonable debate, difference, or disagreement is lost and the only purpose is to be belligerent and insulting. Social media certainly has allowed troubled people to have their say on every topic…

    1. Very true Ron, and sadly there’s plenty of Christians who troll Christian sites doing the same thing. Theology cops, doctrine “experts,” and more are ready to nail anyone posting anything outside what they approve these days. A sad situation for sure.

  7. I think you nailed down this subject pretty thoughtfully and thoroughly. Great advice on all accounts. This post should be published in a larger platform where more believers can read it. A house that devours its own will not stand in the coming times ahead, which is where we believers should be focused. The online church trolls will always be with us, unfortunately.

  8. Three concepts I’ve learned from prominent church leaders concerning haters:

    What is not important is what other people say about us. What is important is what we say about ourselves. (I think the concept can be extended to churches as well as individuals.)

    When church leaders receive hateful criticism they take that as assurance that they are on track for God’s purpose for their lives. (When we receive opposition that is actually a great sign we are doing something good for the kingdom of God.)

    It’s God’s mission we’re on, so let Him deal with the problems we can’t solve.

    If we honestly search the criticism and find no value then moving on without addressing it is the most expedient thing we can do. Haters will hate and we can’t stop that. Don’t allow yourself be distracted. Consider the problem as an opportunity to build your faith. Focus on the mission and help those you have been called to help.

    1. While there are pastors and leaders out there making some mistakes or teaching error, I agree with you. Online haters aren’t helping solve the problem and aren’t a healthy way to correct the issues. Great points Neil.

      1. It sure is liberating when we learn to let God deal with the problems we can’t seem to solve ourselves rather then getting all caught up in others razzmatazz. LOL

  9. Oh man Phil, the thing is too is that regardless who the party is, they are busy sowing seeds. Unfortunately those seeds will give them a harvest and that is a scary thought. I agree with your post. Thanks for sharing. Ive come accross my share of trolls as well.

  10. I have some theological problems with this article…

    Just kidding (in case anyone thought otherwise). Completely agreed Phil. 🙂

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