Acceptable Christian Gossip?

I’m preaching on James 3:1-12 this Sunday about taming our tongues and so have been thinking about unhelpful speech like gossip.

I’m wondering what are the ‘acceptable’ forms of gossip that lurks frequently in Christian and church circles that you’ve noticed.

The classic example is gossip under the guise of ‘sharing prayer points’.

More recently, I’ve been on the receiving end of a quite a bit of gossip, much of which takes place as ‘Someone I know told me that people have been concerned about what you’ve been teaching or preaching.’ Obviously they’re so concerned that they’ve talked about me but not to me. From what I know, that happens to nearly every Christian leader at some point.

Or another example: I get an email from a church leader because another church leader who no longer goes to my church had chatted with a youth group parent from my church who has concerns about a recent youth camp that his child only attended a few hours of. And of course neither the parent or the ex-church leader talked to me or any of the youth leaders about it directly.

What do you think? What are the ‘acceptable’ forms of Christian gossip that you think happens in our churches? I’d love to read your comments (but no names please or this post becomes self-defeating).

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About Pete

I am a child of God, a husband, a father of four children, a pastor, and a church planter. I live in Sydney Australia and live to see Jesus made famous in this city and be the only God people worship.

Posted on July 2, 2009, in Church and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. I’m not sure that gossip, no matter the context, is acceptable at all.

    Its going behind the scenes and mouthing off about someone (regardless of how soft the comment may seem).

    Why not approach the person in question in the first place?

    Too shy? Rely on God.
    Too fearful of the person in question? Fear God more. (And then the question becomes, why is this person a fearful person, what has this person done in the past to cause such fear)

    Or is the person just one of those people who wants to spread bad thoughts about the person for the sake of doing so.

    • pastorpeterko

      HI Benson, thanks for the comment. I agree that no gossip should be ‘acceptable’, even in Christian circles (I meant it in an ironic way in that it happens all the time and doesn’t get picked up as ‘gossip’).

      So much would be avoided if, as you say, we just talk to the person in question rather than talk about them.

      Thanks again!

  2. *no name* lol

    I don’t trust any youth leaders/pastors/mts workers initially… and I have to be really really clear that I don’t want anything repeated or it’ll be spread around. That’s probably one downside of the whole “acceptable gossip” culture that goes on in churches. It happens with everything!

    I think the most appalling example was that one *leader of a type I won’t specify* who basically told me that one of my friends Bob (name changed), who I viewed was really close to me, was no longer a christian. For Bob, it would’ve been a massive decision, but he/she hadn’t told me yet. Then the leader decided to let me know about “this person in your year” (gave me their actual name) who hadn’t been a christian, and I was massively cut because I realised Bob hadn’t told me about it. The leader didn’t even realise that I knew that person!

    And the leader hadn’t even heard it from the person themselves, the leader had heard it from another leader, who Bob had told in confidence!

    None of them saw anything wrong with it, but personally to me, it just reinforced my unease with sharing anything with these people.

    Maybe people find that “gossiping” about what pastors/leaders/kids say or do is acceptable because they view the church as an institution like a school/university or maybe a business like a restaurant.

    I haven’t seen any (asian) parent shirk from talking about teachers or bad waiters behind their backs. Nor do I think teachers think its gossiping when they talk about how they can improve their teaching methods (so leaders think they can discuss too?)

    Anyway hope this helps.

    • pastorpeterko

      Hi ‘no name’ (even though I know who you are! haha), thanks for your very helpful comments.

      I agree that part of the reason there is ‘acceptable’ gossip in Xn circles is that there is ‘acceptable’ gossip outside of Xn circles that Xns don’t hesitate to participate in. How many of us criticise our teachers and lecturers or bosses or parents or siblings like everyone else? Not surprising therefore that it penetrates even the church…

      Thanks for sharing.

  3. I think there are some scenarios where things should be shared amongst trustworthy leaders abt the people they are sheparding over. Sharing sometimes helps us serve people better.

    Maybe it’s one of those things where you need to prove yourself trustworthy in order for people to feel like they can confide in you. Or if leaders feel they need to divulge information, maybe talk to the person first before sharing with a third party. I’m sure the person would really appreciate your honesty & integrity.

    I guess only God knows the intentions of our hearts.

  4. Ooo, good topic Pete!

    I think there’s also the “sharing of bad stuff about person x” with other leaders – because they need to know for making decisions about church, right?

    I think what’s behind this one is that there are two realities:
    * the Christian reality – of being called to have godly speech
    * the organisational reality – needing to make informed decisions

    Which of these realities should lead the way? I suspect for some, it is the second…

    • pastorpeterko

      Thanks Jess and Andrew for your comments. I think it’s unavoidable that Christian leaders have to talk ‘about’ people in their role of shepherding the flock and knowing the sheep and making decisions.

      So I guess working out how to do that in a way that doesn’t break confidentiality, doesn’t cause negative perceptions on the part of other leaders that don’t know them as well, and doesn’t become ‘slander’ is the key.

      My thoughts are that if leaders are ‘concerned’ enough about someone to talk about them and let it weigh in their decisions, then they must also talk to that person in person, whether to gently rebuke or to be transparent.

      What shouldn’t happen is the ‘concern’ only extends to talking about the person but never talking to the person. What do you think?

      • I see what you’re asking Pete, but it’s worth considering the potential flip-side/opposite to the threat of gossip.

        If we always, or even usually, pass on our concerns we can end up in cultish legalism. Or, if it’s the leader who is giving too frequent and strong feedback, we can end with forced top-down conformity.

        Of course, we need always to be read to have the conversation with the person concerned if necessary. That’s not the same as always having the chat.

  5. What would you define as gossip?

    I remember Al Stewart giving a talk at KYLC once and said it was something like in waterpolo where you place your hand on the other teams head and push them down into the water and as they go down, you go up. Person goes down, You go up, person goes down, you go up.

    I really don’t have an answer for this btw. I’m guilty of gossip all the time to so I’m coming as a sinner who continually needs the grace of God in the pursuit of holiness.

    But what I would say is that in Christian circles. The more we get closer to other brothers and sisters, the easier it becomes to gossip. Even just the hinted words that this person has done this or that and we tend to reason that as long as we are helping that brother or sister grow in their relationship with God, that then it will be alright to discuss what that person did, said or acted.

    Overall, I think most Christian’s are wary of gossiping and they think they know where they draw the line, but like any other sin in most occasions, we tend to feed it more and more until it becomes way out of hand.

    I mean one example that I know and personally confessing of is when I discussed about another leaders attitude to leading bible study but I didn’t talk the person in question (i did eventually) all with the reasoning that I’ll approach him later with my other brother and it’s for his growth. Personally I knew it was wrong but I let it go anyways…the idea of feeding it more and more when the original comment was “how do you think this leader is going?”

    Anyways, this is one area that I struggle with. It’ll be good to hear what you think about it… are you recording your talk?

    • I agree with you, Pete. If it’s that big an issue to talk about it, then the loving thing to do it to talk to the person too.

  6. *name withheld*

    Hey Pete,

    I had an absolutely extraordinary experience when a former fellow leader told me that someone from my old bible study group was in psychiatric hospital with really awful, awful delusions.

    I’d lost touch because this girl had cut ties with all Christians including changing all her contact details. There is no way I would have been able to know about her situation directly.

    Because this former other leader told me my old group member’s contact details I was able to make contact, have a really positive meet up, and begin praying for her. She’s in such desperate need of God, all I can do is commit her to Him.

    She asked who told me her details, knowing I couldn’t know them from her and quietly accepted when I told her how.

    Strictly, I can imagine being told these horribly personal things about a 3rd party is ‘gossip’ – yet I also see the hand of God in the extremely unusual chain of circumstances that enabled me to meet up with this girl who lives on the other side of the globe…

    I think I would have done the same, however, the less chinese whispers the better. If I hadn’t been the right person to see this friend, I would not have paid it forward and asked another to go in my stead, but suggested them and stayed out of it.

    God working *through*, or *despite* the good/bad actions of this person who told me?

    Speaking as myself now, if I end up in psych hospital with delusions, I’d like all the prayer I can get! Especially if I’ve isolated myself from all God’s people so they can’t even know… Catch 22.

  7. I know lots of churchies gossip about their pastors, and I think that can be really damaging to the church as a whole, especially when they don’t go and address the person in charge directly.

    I ended up leaving a church because I didn’t agree with some of the stuff being taught and so did many others, but it seemed the default response was to whinge and gossip to each other instead of talking to the guy doing the teaching.

    I talked to him and came to the decision that my family would leave, because I figured that if I couldn’t support him, I didn’t want to stay and undermine him either.

    It’s confronting to go talk to someone directly, but it is far better than letting it fester in the background.

  8. Hmm.. interesting topic Pete.

    Don’t we need to look at the underlying motivation of why people say things to determine whether its gossip or not? I think of the examples from the bible where Jesus condemns gossip & the people that are guilty of it gossip in order to make themselves seem better – whether its for popularity sake or so other people view them as better or just some other selfish reason. If this is the motivation for your talk then whether its in christian circles or not, its clearly sinful.

    However, I would argue that leaders talking about people that they are shepherding, where the motivation is clearly to help those people & pray for them, how is this gossip? Every Friday night after our youth group meetings, my leaders meet to debrief, share & pray. We always talk about the kids in our group – the encouraging things & the things that are of concern. We then suggest things to each other to help with those areas of concern & we pray. There is no selfish motivation in anything we say. Its all so that we can make sure our kids are growing as Christians & obeying God etc. Sometimes there are things that we know we need to bring up with the kids directly, but other times we might just do it in a group setting – e.g. the leader will bring up an area of concern with the entire group at the next week’s meeting. And there are times when we know we have to raise issues higher up – to their parents etc. But again, I would argue this isn’t gossip as there are no selfish, self-promoting motivations behind anything we do. We are then able to either improve the way we look after our kids or hone into particular areas of concern. Also, my leaders bring things up to me that I do not know of & so I can address is in one of many ways. There is no way I would have known these things otherwise as I either wasn’t present in the group or I was not around when the issue happened or I do not know about things outside of the group meetings etc.

    So, it comes down to how you define “gossip” I believe. Thoughts?

  9. Hey Pete

    Great topic.

    Yeh gossip is terrible. Whether its in a church context or not, when you see the effects that gossip can have on people, how it destroys their trust in people, their assuredness and intimacy with people, and sometimes even change the way they relate to everyone.
    I’ve seen people totally change and end up hiding inside their shell because they feel like they’ll just get betrayed if they get close to anyone, and all this because of a few “harmless” words or “acceptable” gossip.
    Let’s not kid ourselves, the effects of gossip are terrible.

    And yet, this continues to happen in our churches under a whole array of disguises. I do want to say however, that I truly believe it does happen less in christian contexts than non-xn environments and it’s great that there is evidence of the Spirit working in our lives to convict us of this particular area.

    I think the biggest reasons given for ‘acceptable’ gossip is “concern”, as other people have already commented on, and yeh I can definitely see how that will sometimes involve chatting about the ‘concernee’, with someone who is a suitable ‘concerner’ (some good examples above). I don’t doubt anyone’s good intentions, but sadly more often than not, i’m afraid we are way too loose with using this excuse and in most (if not all) circumstances, we should actually talk to the person in question first or get their permission. That’s how real concern should work itself out.

    Another reason that I’ve found often arises is, in particular with the examples you gave about other church leaders talking ABOUT you and not TO you, is that they just feel like they’re not in a position to talk to you. For example, it might be someone who knows you and your role as pastor of our church, but that you might not know. So friends might ask me about some things they’ve heard about a shift in our teaching at 5pm (out of good intentions i’m sure), and when I say they should maybe go to you if they have questions, they feel like that would be awkward or because you’ve already got heaps of emails to read and getting a random email from a stranger questioning them might not be appropriate.
    In these cases, I can only encourage them to ask you, but I usually also discuss with them my views on things, and purely MY views.

    I don’t think necessarily discussing a view is automatically a bad thing. When I “discuss my views”, i can do this both in a gossiping way, or in pure non-gossiping way, and usually you can tell the difference when you’re heading into gossip territory, its more whether we have the power to refrain.

    All in all, i think gossip is terrible. And yet I’m sure we’re all guilty of it, i know i have definitely gossiped before to the detriment of others, and being on the receiving end of it hurts heaps. But I think we all need to remember that even though gossip sometimes has a wider impact than maybe some other sins, that it’s not unforgivable. That God still convicts us of it, calls us to repent and forgives us.
    All of us as Christians need to pray that the Spirit will keep working in us to make us aware of it, to help us to stop and hold our tongue for His glory, and also for us to forgive if we’ve been on the receiving end.
    For those who don’t struggle with it as much, and are more aware of gossip, it’s something that needs rebuking in love and gentleness rather than finger-pointing otherwise it’d just be religious and external.

    • pastorpeterko

      Hi Brian, I totally appreciate your thoughts. Thanks for the big post!

      I guess I’d like to gently encourage people in your position to still encourage people who ask about CCC or 5pm or me to either come and talk to me or don’t talk about it at all. I’ll tell you why this is so. Even though you might offer your view and strictly your view, it doesn’t stop them from talking to the next person about your view, without taking the level of care that you’ve taken to express only your opinion. Soon what was ‘Brian’s view’ then becomes the view of an authoritative CCC-insider, and then Chinese whispers takes place. That’s how rumours get perpetuated. (If I told you some of the blatantly false rumours being spread about me, CCC, RICE… you’d be flabbergasted!)

      A friend of mine did the right thing I think. When someone mentioned their ‘concern’ to him about me, they immediately said, ‘I’m not saying anything at all or making any comments at all until I go and talk to Pete, and you ought to as well.’

  10. Hey Pete,
    I suspect that part of the problem with destructive power of gossip isn’t just that they’re inaccurate, but that they’re listened to and believed. Perhaps the things that you have heard being said of you are inaccurate, out of context, misrepresented, exaggerated, etc etc. By your own prescription, I assume that you’d be talking to those who are supposedly talking about you to clarify your concern about what they’ve said, right?

    If all else fails, I find comfort in Ecc 7:21,22.

  11. Okay but what is the right response when you told the recipient that offended you and the other leaders you trusted, your three witnesses as the bible says, and they chose not to deal with the offender and gossiped about you but refused to help settle matters now making you seem as rhe gossiper when you didn’t want gossip, you just wanted to clear matter that’s being ignored that shouldn’t be?

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