12 February 2013

How to shut down gossip and its nasty kin

by Dan Phillips

 For lack of wood the fire goes out, 
and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.

 As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, 
so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.

The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; 
they go down into the inner parts of the body.

Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel 
are fervent lips with an evil heart.

(Proverbs 26:20-23)

Gossip kills churches. If you're reading this blog at all, odds are I don't want your church to be killed! So here's what you do.


First, understand what gossip is. Gossip is spreading harmful information in an ungodly manner — without love, and thus to no positive end. Its bastard stepchildren are the triplets: Strife, Dissension, Division. Once again, my focus is the life of the local church.

Second, do any or all of the following steps, as needed. Some of them help identify whether you're actually hearing gossip or not. All of them will stop it dead. But none will work... unless used.

  1. Ask, "Why are you telling me this?" Often, that in itself is such a focusing question that it can bring an end to the whole unpleasant chapter. It has the added benefit that it can help a person whose intentions are as good as his/her judgment is bad.
  2. Ask, "What's the difference between what you're telling me and gossip?" See above; same effect, same potential benefits.
  3. Ask, "How is your telling me that thought, that complaint, that information going to help you and me love God and our brothers better, and knit us closer together as a church in Christ's love?" Isn't that the goal we should share, every one of us? Won't it take the working of each individual member (Eph. 4:16)? Isn't the watch-out for harmful influences an every-member ministry (Heb. 3:12-13; 10:24; 13:12-15)?
  4. Ask, "Now that you've told me about that, what are you going to do about it?" While the previous two are subjective, this is not. If neither of the previous two questions succeeded in identifying gossip/whispering/sowing-dissension for what they are, the answer to this question will do so. Tip: if the answer is "Pray," a good response might be "Then why didn't you do that and leave it there in the first place?"
  5. Say, "Now that you've told me about that, you've morally obligated me to make sure you talk to ____ about it. How long do you think you need, so I can know when this becomes a sin that I will need to confront in you?" The least that this will accomplish is that you'll fall of the list of gossips'/whisperers' favorite venting-spots. The most is that you may head off a church split, division, harmed souls, sidelined Gospel ministry, and waylaid discipleship. Isn't that worth it?
You're welcome!

Dan Phillips's signature


41 comments:

Chris Brannen said...

How often have I sat and listened while someone told me things I felt like were gossip and knew not how to snuff it without coming off as rude.

I'm going to try some of your techniques.

Gossip is a scourge in the life of a Church.

Dan, should I just use the questions you asked when I inevitably get the professional gossip who phrases it, "I have a prayer concern I want to speak to you about Pastor..." As a young Music Leader I find that disarms me sometimes.

DJP said...

Good question, Chris, and I can only respond as one who neither is the repository of wisdom nor plays one on TV: what if you were to say, "Before you tell me, let me ask you this: were you this person, would you want people talking to each other about you, and spreading these thoughts about you, without ever talking to you?"

Might that help?

Jon Swerens said...

This is SO WELL SAID, Dan. Thanks!

Chris Brannen said...

I think it might. Thanks Dan.

Chris H said...

2 thoughts on gossip:
1) If you're ever not sure if what you want to share is gossip, perhaps asking whether you'd say it to the subject's face is a good way to discern. If you wouldn't, chances are, it is;
2) Gossip doesn't just kill churches, but any group. I work with students and they love gossip. One thing I've done and counselled them to do in their own lives is this: when I hear something that is gossip, I simply say the word, "gossip," and move on. No other comment from me, no more time needed. It's remarkable how naming it as such can remove from people the desire to indulge.

I really appreciated your techniques, DJP. Thanks for sharing them.

Robert said...

Good post. In the end, it all comes down to how highly we esteem grace. If we really appreciate the grace God shows to us, then it is easier for us to show grace to others. I've found that when I concentrate on identifying God's grace at work in the lives of other people and talking about that, I don't have to ask myself these types of questions as often.

DJP said...

One-star hater is, predictably, pro-gossip and dissension, and pro-church-destruction.

Nash Equilibrium said...

Usually in a Christian format it's presented as "pray for so-and-so, I hear he was seen with another man's wife" so I'm glad you addressed this angle.

rfb said...

As I have instructed my wife and adult children, "social networking" is nothing more than the old-fashioned part line. I am of the rotary dial, one phone (and one car),my dad was THE head of the household, party-line childhood.

My parents eschewed the party-line premise as a "bunch of nosey busy-bodies that we Will Not emulate".

What ever happened to the mind your own business, stay at home, eat at home, do not go from house to house ethic?

When walls are lowered, they eventually are breached.

Pastor Jack said...

Thank you very, very much for this post.

I have preached a sermon on this several times in the past entitled "Two or Three Witnesses. I begins with the following:

Excellent speech becometh not a fool: much less do lying lips a prince.
Proverbs 17:7

Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt,
that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.
Colossians 4:6

"Would it not be a great degradation of your [pastoral] office if you were to keep an army of spies in your pay to collect information as to all that your people said of you?
And yet it amounts to this if you allow certain busybodies to bring you all the gossip of the place.
Drive the creatures away. Abhor those mischief-making, tattling handmaidens to strife.
Those who will fetch will carry, and no doubt the gossips go from your house and report every observation which falls from your lips, with plenty of garnishing of their own.
Remember that, as the receiver is as bad as the thief, so the hearer of scandal is a sharer in the guilt of it.
If there were no listening ears there would be no talebearing tongues.
While you are a buyer of ill wares the demand will create the supply, and the factories of falsehoood will be working full time.
No one wishes to become a creator of lies, and yet he who hears slanders with pleasure and believes them with readiness will hatch many a brood into active life."

- Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, pg. 328.

There has not been enough preaching and teaching on the responsibility of the “hearer”, as in, we are responsible for what we hear. When we are hearing tales concerning which we are neither part of the solution nor the problem we need to rebuke the tale teller. When the tale teller has not gone to the object of the tale, nor heeded Scriptural admonitions about how to handle offenses, they need to be rebuked from Scripture. Then the hearer needs to fully discharge their responsibility as a hearer by ensuring that this counsel has been followed. This may involve going to leadership to advise them about what is being spread, it may involve going to the object of the tales, but what the hearer may not do is nothing. Once that speech goes into our ears we are responsible for what we do with it. If everyone heeded this counsel tale bearers, gossips, backbiters, slanderers and scandal mongers would bite their tongues before they would open their venomous mouths in our churches.

John T. "Jack" Jeffery
Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
Greentown, PA

Carl C. said...

Thank you so much for this. Our church went through a very rough patch a few years ago, and it only worsened with gossip. Since then I've had a tough time even knowing how to define gossip, especially from a Biblical standpoint. Even did searches for articles, and the majority was all individual, subjective opinion. I came to the conclusion it starts with me, to not even be a passive partaker (if there is such a thing) in conversations that don't edify, even under the auspices of 'trying to help someone'.

Your definition and questions are MOST helpful.

rfb said...

I think that there is more than sufficient ammunition to declare the practice for what it is.

"...going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies..."

"...quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder..."

"They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice...They are gossips..."

"...reverent in behavior, not slanderers...self-controlled, pure, working at home..."

And what should be done about it:

"Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you."

Kerry James Allen said...

And what of the damage done to children who grow up having been served "roast preacher" every Sunday for lunch? We do well as parents to discuss issues and people when needed behind closed doors and away from "the little pitchers that have big ears."

"If there were no listening ears there would be no talebearing tongues." CHS

jmb said...

These are good guidelines. But sometimes people in authority label as "gossip" any talk of their misdeeds, or the misdeeds of other leaders in their church, and refuse to meet with their accusers. If the transgressions are severe enough, and frequent enough, and are not dealt with in the church, then silence, not gossip, is the church's downfall.

My point is merely that the other side of the coin is that the charge of gossip can and has been used to bypass the admonition to "tell it to the church," sometimes with disastrous results.

trogdor said...

If you want to tell me about something bad someone else did, I had better be one of the two or three witnesses you plan on taking with you for round two of the appeal for repentance. Otherwise we can start round one, with you, right now.

Jules LaPierre said...

I was going to tell all my friends to read this post, but I didn't want to gossip ;-)

trogdor said...

If I may reference another blog, this post seems like it could be applicable here as well. To wit:

(1) The circle of confession should equal the circle of the offense. And from this side, the circle of people who know about the offense should be as small as necessary - those who are directly affected, and if escalation is necessary per Mat 18, those who are directly involved in confrontation at each step. If the sin does not directly affect him, and he isn't (yet) involved in confronting it, he almost certainly doesn't need to know yet.

(2) It should acknowledge the wrongness of a specific act. If you do need to divulge information, keep it to the specific sin which needs to be confronted. He committed Sin X and did not repent through direct confrontation - this does not give you license to complain about every other issue he has (or you think he has, or slanderously attribute to him). If you're addressing a sin, address that sin.

Steve Hills said...

I remember several times having to deal with church members who believed it was gossip only if it were untrue. I would have to say to them, "No, that is slander," and define gossip for them. There is, unfortunately, so much false teaching designed to make gossip socially acceptable in the church.

Marie said...

It think we are labelled "gossips" often by those who want their sin ignored. Also, by those who want to pretend there are no problems, and by those who want to avoid coming alongside and helping you deal with things.

I think a definition of gossip is helpful. It is a sin, and should be avoided.

But every time I talk about another person I am not gossiping.

We are to bear one another's burdens. We can hardly do so if all we ever talk about is the weather.

If I came to you and said, my son hurt my feelings this morning, I don't know what to do when he wakes up angry, should I confront, ignore, pray quietly, pray aloud, is this a go-to-the-elder situation? and you responded "gossip!" and turned heel, I would no longer be able to share any burden or trial with you.

It is easy to quip "gossip" at someone and walk away, rather than deal with the situation at hand.

Certainly it is sometimes just gossip, and needs to be refused in one manner or another. But to discuss my problem, my reaction to a problem, or an issue that is not a secret and I'd like to suss out, is not gossip in my opinion. Nor is the share of happy or neutral info, like "Mary's due date got changed to Feb. 1" or "Harold got accepted at LSU, but has decided go to Texas A&M!" This is news, not slanderous, not scandalous, and is perfectly fine to share. "Did you hear the Browns got a new Toyota? They finally got tired of it breaking down during Jim's commute."

Not gossip.

Yet I have heard this type of conversation labelled so. It is hurtful, and discourages me from conversing naturally with my fellow church members.

A pastor I had even used to routinely refer to our denominational magazine as a "gossip rag." It contained news of the church, ministers added or demitted, works opened or closed, missionary challenges and victories, needs, etc. I don't consider this gossip, not even the revealing of the issues behind church court cases or their conclusions. Evil doers should not be able to hide behind a total wall of silence.

DJP said...

So what do you think of the definition given in the post, Marie?

rfb said...

"Evil doers" should be only be dealt with according to the Biblical standard.

The first step in that standard is covering a multitude of other's sin in our own love.

Another part of the paradigm is following the chain of command. Real "evil doers" need to plugged into the "system" by the officers that God has appointed, not by a lone ranger, unsupervised and unaccountable process.

The attributes God desires are often the ones we think are stifling:

forbearance, kindness, sober, grave, temperate, submissive, reverent in behavior, not slanderers, self-controlled, pure, working at home"

Against such things there is no law.

Tom Chantry said...

Quick Observation on Why This Matters:

You may have never thought about it, but if there is a spirit of gossip in the church, your pastor is probably among the last to know - and so are the elders if your church has them. (Assuming, that is, that they are not themselves gossips, which also happens and is an even worse problem.)

Everyone sort of understands that gossip is bad, and if your pastor preaches things like what Dan wrote here, folks will be more cautious in discussion with him. (That's a problem that's big in the pastorate, by the way. How do you know the people when they act differently around the pastor?)

As a result, while your pastor may preach well against gossip, he won't be able to hit it head on very often. It's one of those church problems which, by its very nature, every Christian needs to be ready to address. If the church membership addresses gossip in this way, it will be cut off before the pastor ever knows anything about it. If the membership doesn't address gossip, then by the time the pastor realizes what's going on you may have a very unhealthy church.

yeoberry said...

Isn't this the site that falsely attacked an evangelical pastor on charges of "pornographic divination"? So, you want to know how to shut down gossip?
Require those making charges to use their terms honestly and accurately, including Phil Johnson.

DJP said...

Nope, wrong site.

Marie said...

"Gossip is spreading harmful information in an ungodly manner — without love, and thus to no positive end. Its bastard stepchildren are the triplets: Strife, Dissension, Division. Once again, my focus is the life of the local church."

A useful definition, but, could twisted by those who may want to bully by enforcing silence in the face of problems. That's what I am speaking against. Not your definition per se.

Example: Whenever I try to help in the church kitchen, Mrs. Click finds fault with me. She criticizes my cooking, my wiping, my washing, my serving style. After objecting, trying over, etc., over the months I learn to work the tea service and stay out of the kitchen. I discover a new member crying in the bathroom one day. Her dessert has been mashed up and served with ice cream after being deemed insufficient. She is told she should not serve the coffee from a tray, here, let me just do it. And she is scolded for giving a child a cookie before grace is said.

I tell Mary not to feel bad, that Mrs. Click is known for treating us like that, that I have told Mrs. Click these things and have seen little improvement, that the elders have seen her in action and done nothing, and that we have learned to work around her. I tell her she's not alone and that she can serve treats in my Sunday School class, and to feel free to give her kid a cookie if she wants to. I share with her a few other incidents over the years to illustrate that we are all subject to kitchen abuse, and remind her that it is a glory for a man to overlook an offense.

Some may say that the things I said violated the definition you gave and other rules propagated to others. For example, I am talking behind Mrs. Click's back. I am acknowledging that her behavior is ugly. I might even joke about her tone of voice when reprimanding. I have mentioned that the elders don't seem to be too bothered about it. This could be deemed "harmful information," or I could be deemed as having "an unloving manner." I'd beg to differ, but, this is what I'm talking about.

Every time we talk about someone else, share a burden, counsel, or talk about a stress or a problem, we aren't gossiping.

And sometimes I can't just say it to someone's face. Maybe Dave Jones seems to rest his eyes where they shouldn't rest. Would I make jokes about him at the ladies' tea? No. But I might ask Mrs. Smith, have you noticed this, or am I crazy? What should I do? Send an anonymous note? Tell him? Tell his wife? Just ignore it? There, I have said something unkind about someone without him knowing. Many would define that as gossiping. Again, I don't thinks so.

Susan said...

Well, Blogger ate up my earlier comment, so here it is again paraphrased (and perhaps with addendum...we shall see).

I was a regular recipient of my old church's prayer list, even though I no longer attended the church. One day I found out from the list that an church intern I knew was stepping down from his position for a while, so I asked one of my friends what was going on. She wouldn't tell me, and later I was told that she had mentioned my question to one of her family members, and he thought I was gossiping. This hurt me, because 1) I thought my question was reasonable because it was related to something given to be prayed for; 2) my intention was not to gossip; and 3) it was something I would have directly asked the intern myself, had I the chance to see him. Thankfully, I later had the opportunity to have lunch with a bunch of friends (which included all three people I had previously mentioned), so I was able to ask the question openly and receive an answer.

I especially like Trogdor's second comment in the meta, but when he says "directly affected", I wonder: Would you consider a congregation directly affected if a seminary student financially supported by the congregation sinned against his own body while at school and refused church discipline? In this case, would you consider people in the congregation gossips if they talked about this situation amongst themselves?

Susan said...

(Oh, and to clarify, the example in the last paragraph of my previous comment has nothing to do with the intern in the preceding paragraph.)

Jennifer said...

Where do heresy hunter blogs fit into this? When do you cross line in your attempt to expose those with whom you disagree? Does Pyro come close at times to fulfilling your definition of gossip (I am not including you in the heresy hunter camp but wanted to hear how you process this)? How do websites deal with "talking about" rather than "talking to" those that are blogged about? Do you have a guideline you follow here on Pyro?

Tom Chantry said...

Here's a wild idea: It is impossible to "gossip" about the public statements of public figures.

Think about it. If Senator Sticky-Fingers once said in a speech that corporate profits ought to be taxed at 100%, and if Talkshow-Host Grumble-Grouse talks about him and calls him a Marxist, is that gossip? Not hardly.

Similarly, if Pastor Puerile-Obsession preaches a sermon on the graphic sex movies the Holy Spirit played in his head, Blogger Truth-Over-Tone can talk about him all he wants - even call him a weird pervert - without gossiping.

Because open assessments of the public teaching of public teachers just cannot fit any rational definition of "gossip." Whatever the Heresy Hunters are doing, and whether it's profitable or not, they aren't gossiping when they evaluate public statements.

HSAT, what does any of this have to do with Dan's post? The post is written in the context of the church, where - sadly - all of us have at one point or another heard true gossip. Dan's point was "How to Protect Your Church." He suggested a practical way to snuff it out. Talk about that.

Jennifer said...

Thanks Tom for your thoughts.

Lets bring this into the church then: a member in your church disagrees with your sermons so rather than talk about you around the dinner table, or in the foyer, or speak to you after the service - he writes a blog about it. Is that fair game? Would that also mean that Betty BusyBody is ok to phone around to anyone in the church who will listen and roast the pastor as much as she wants because he is a public figure?

Every pastor is a public speaker making public statements so a pastor can never call out any speaking against him as gossip?

BTW, I think Dan's entry here was GREAT and should be a part of every church's membership class! So if my question has derailed this thread then I will wait for an entry more appropriate :) I just think that in the Church there is a wide spread acceptance of biting and devouring each other and things like Twitter and blogs somewhat lead the charge.

DJP said...

Marie, sincerely (no snark), you seem like a clever-minded lady. Can you think of ways to handle either of those situations without talking about the "villains" in your examples?

Tom Chantry said...

Jennifer,

If a church member has a problem with the teaching of the church, there is an obligation to deal with it within the constraints of membership. In other words, we are accountable to our own elders. If a member has a problem with what is preached in the church, he/she has an obligation to direct inquiries first through the church - either to the pastor or to another elder. But the issue is not gossip. What was preached is already in the public domain; it can be criticized appropriately or inappropriately, but not gossiped about.

semijohn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
benguillot said...

Thank you for those very insithtful and edifying thoughts about one of the greatest plague among christians. I talked here (http://benguillot.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/le-commerage-est-contraire-a-la-grace-de-dieu/) about how gossiping is so in opposition to God's grace and I shared why very briefly. The questions you suggest are a very good way to discern the intention or the motivation of those "talks about others", sometimes, even from church leaders, unfortunately. Let's search our heart and make sure we always seek to edify God's people when we talk about people.
In Christ's love!

semijohn said...

As to Marie's examples, the first one I would think it is better handled; not sure how to avoid mentioning the person. The second one should be ignored until/unless the "seems" becomes "clearly is". Until it is the latter, there is always the possibility that you might be wrong.

Jeff Dovalovsky said...

Marie,

For the first example you gave, the answer to DJP's questions 1&2 is that you hope and trust that the answer to question 3 is that the person you're talking to will help you to answer question 4 and possibly provide accountability as in question 5.

Yes, the questions presented are a means to derail others who are gossiping: but they can also be used to seek godly advice and prayer without gossiping.

Also, remember that "Why are you telling me this?" also applies to the identities of the people involved: someone may have a good reason for seeking advice, yet still gossip by needlessly identifying the other person(s).

Marie said...

DJP, (thank you for your kind words)

I could simply not talk about them at all, of course.

I could comfort church member in the bathroom, tell her I am sorry she is hurt, ask if I can help - but not share that Mrs. Click has treated many of us the same way, and that she's not alone. I think it is more comforting to know that you are not being singled out for abuse. But, maybe I am wrong and it will become apparent over time.

As for Mr. Jones' eyes, I could go to the session. But it would be really embarrassing, for me and him, particularly if I am wrong.

I think about Matthew 18: first go to the person. Sometimes, though, it seems rather impossible to go to the person. Maybe if they are really scary. Or maybe if it is very embarrassing. I'm supposed to go privately to Mr. Jones and basically accuse him of sexual malfeasance? Pretty rough. I'd like to be confirmed in my observation before I do that.

Following with Matthew 18, then you are supposed to go with one or two witnesses. That would involve telling others the Mr. Jones needs to keep his eyes forward. The telling is, sometimes, called gossip, and I don't think that it is.

My main purpose in commenting on this thread is to warn that I have seen strict admonitions about "not gossiping" used to cover serious sin in the family and in the church. The offender counts on others' discretion as a cover.

I have also seen people really discouraged from friendly fellowship and news sharing and gathering by having their non-biting, non-derogatory conversations called "gossip."

So I do encourage people to consider carefully if it's really gossip or if they are being wrongly intimidated.

Jeff Jackson said...

This is gold. "gossip will kill a church". Yes. It will also shut down a ministry in no time flat. I was just forced to resign my pastorate after only 90 days due to malicious gossip which spread like gangrene through 3 bitter women in my "former" congregation. Sadly, many people not connected to the problem were hurt and maligned in the process of getting rid of me. It was like gas to fire once they began to make their phone calls and visits. By the time I found out it was too late. My private appeals (go to your brother) were useless, and even my appeals from the pulpit only served to fan the flames of already flaming tongues. The root seemed to be bitter jealously and selfish ambition (James 3:13 ff.) but the means was gossip. God is faithful and my family is doing well as we pray and seek the Lord for our next step in ministry. Deal with this issue with humility and grace dear brothers, but deal with it head on and with great sober-mindedness.

featherblade said...

@ Marie -

In the case of Mr. "Wandering-Eye" Jones, the person you should talk to is Mr Jones himself.
If you are uncomfortable (as I am) with speaking privately with another woman's husband, then talk to Mrs. Jones, and ask her to speak to her husband about the custody of his eyes.
If he is unmarried and his parents are in the congregation, then they are the ones you should approach.
If neither of there are the case, then the leader of his men's group would be the next best person.

The point is to talk to someone who has some degree of authority over or responsibility for Mr. Jones.

In all of these cases, the difficulty can be couched in terms of social awareness on the part of Mr. Jones, rather than sexual malfeasance.

Talking with the completely unrelated Mrs. Smith either is, or skirts the edge of, gossip.

Steve Scott said...

Of course, Dan's list would also apply to elders and other church leaders when discussing their congregants' lives to each other or to elders of other churches.

I've witnessed some pretty good damage come from leaders who thought they were slightly exempt from such a list.

jesaja662 said...

Precious thoughts!! Thank you.