In fact, just about anybody hates to hear these three words. They are however especially frustrating to those in leadership in all kinds of areas—business, politics, the church.
These three words show disrespect—not just for the priest, but for other people. They wound. They mislead. They sow dissension in a community. Sometimes they are aimed at the priest himself, sometimes at his family, sometimes against another member of the parish.
Recently a colleague of my husband’s was talking with him about a member of his own parish who repeatedly comes to him with these words. My husband too has on occasion heard them.
The words are: “People are saying….”
The priest or other person who receives these words is condemned to shadow-boxing, as they try to figure out who it is that is saying what the messenger claims is being said; how many are saying it; how fast and how far it is spreading; whether it is true at all; and what exactly the receiver of the complaint can or should do about it. Sometimes, in fact, the receiver has to try to figure out what the complainer is even saying, as their complaints are really rather vague.
Usually the person who brings the complaint prefaced with “people are saying” is rather coy about who these ‘people’ are, giving the impression that they, the messenger, are merely the kind, concerned bearer of the complaint which is being whispered about by an unspecified (and likely growing) number of others who don’t want to speak directly to the priest or other target for fear of hurting feelings.
On one occasion my husband received a complaint from a member that “all the parents in the church” were upset at the way another parishioner was ‘looking at’ the children of the parish. This sounded like a serious issue, and not to be ignored. He managed to get a few names of other allegedly upset parents pried out of the reporting member, and went to speak to them. They were surprised and replied that no, they had no concerns about the person who had been named.
No doubt the reporting member was not consciously lying, but having conceived some kind of dislike for their target while not yet feeling sure they could make their case to the priest, they spoke to the other members for support. Because those other members listened sympathetically, this became in the reporting member’s mind ‘they are upset, just like me! Now that I know I’m not the only one, I will complain to the priest and he will have to listen and take the action I want—because people are saying these things!’ Whether this person did so deliberately or not, they evaded taking responsibility for their own complaint by claiming that ‘people are saying’ when in fact people were not doing so.
But what if the person bringing the complaint refuses to give the identity of the other alleged complainers? Is the priest, or other person reported to, responsible to respond and ‘fix’ whatever the supposed complainers don’t like? What if this is simply one faction in the parish — a faction no bigger than the reporting member’s own family, perhaps– attempting to manipulate the priest to get their way on some issue, such as “Father, people are saying they want (or don’t want) to have pews in our new building.” This example of course can be fended off regardless of who and how many complainers really care about the issue, as pews in the building (or what kind of music is used, or when services will be celebrated) are things that are actually in the priest’s purview, not the congregation’s. In theory, at least, as there is no guarantee that church politics will always or ever work exactly according to the official rules in any given parish or jurisdiction!
Nevertheless, the priest can welcome genuine input on such things, if that is really what is behind the complaint. But even if the presenting issue is something that the congregation might actually be empowered to take a vote on, it is often the case that ‘the issue is not the issue’. There are in any organization people who would like to run things—and even if they are not the official leaders, there are some who will attempt to assert some kind of influence or control. “People are saying” is one of the favorite tactics of these sorts of people.
In other cases, people may really want to deal with the issue they present, and there really may be others who feel the same. In this case the one who comes to report “people are saying” something about the priest, his family, or their fellow members may be afraid that the priest will be angry if he doesn’t agree with the reporter’s view, and that trouble will be caused in the parish, and they must allow the ‘people’ to remain anonymous so that there is no-one in particular to blame.
If the priest is drawn into siding with one faction or another, or if he takes on the part of referee between two individuals in the parish, it is quite possible that more harm than good will come out of the situation in the end. It is easy to get taken by surprise when people come with these kinds of reports.
But whether the intentions are good or not so good, when ‘people’ remain unnamed, the reporter needs to be sent away to tell the supposed complainers, “The priest will not accept anonymous complaints. If you want to discuss a matter with him, go directly to him. If you have a quarrel with another member, go to that person directly and don’t involve the priest or any other party unless you cannot solve the conflict on your own.”