It usually starts out like a murmur. Perhaps you hear rumors a particular parent isn’t happy with something you said or did. Maybe you see a post about it on social media. Or a parent who used to be warm and friendly, suddenly seems to be avoiding you. On rare occasions, a parent will actually come talk to you about their complaint.
What happens next is critical. Handled well, it can be a positive experience for the parent, you, the student and your ministry. Handled poorly…well we’ve all seen examples of those disasters.
So, what should you do if you suspect a parent is unhappy or posts something negative about you or your ministry? What if the criticism is undeserved or even totally misinformed? What if the person is spreading rumors or making it personal?
Every situation and every unhappy person is different. Taking the basic principles of the Bible and combining them with good customer service techniques, can help make the situation as positive as possible. Before you do anything though, pray about it. Keep praying until you feel the situation has resolved and your relationship with the parent is restored. Then:
- Contact the person and schedule a time to meet with them privately. The last thing anyone needs is someone yelling at you in front of students or visitors. Choose an environment that is as neutral as possible for this first encounter.
- Ask the person to share with you why they are upset/unhappy/angry. Then just listen. Seriously, don’t interrupt. Don’t explain. Don’t say anything unless they ask you a direct question and then make your answer as brief as possible. Then immediately ask them to tell you more. Let them talk until they literally have nothing else to say. Let the silence sit for a couple of minutes before you say anything, just in case they are catching their breath.
- Thank them for being honest with you. You don’t have to like what they are saying, but it’s much better to hear it from them than six months from now from an elder or ministry leader. The person who is upset is prepared for battle if they are really angry. Thanking them takes away that war-like atmosphere.
- If they are correct and you were in the wrong, give an immediate, proper apology. “I’m sorry you feel that way” or some other version of “sorry, not sorry” is not only ungodly, but it will make the person more upset, not less. In a proper apology, you admit what you did was wrong, explain what you will change so it won’t happen again, ask them to please forgive you and offer to make it “right” if at all possible. A proper apology does not contain excuses. It requires change – just like repentance does.
- If you don’t agree with what was shared or are unsure, ask for time to think and pray about it. Don’t just start talking to fill the silence. It’s very likely you will say something you may later regret. If you and the unhappy parent disagree that much, it doesn’t hurt to have a second or third godly opinion before you attempt to resolve the disagreement. I don’t mean get all of your besties together to back you up. I mean find someone godly, wise and more experienced to give you godly counsel on what to do next. All you need to say to the upset parent is that they have given you a lot to think and pray about and you would like to get back to them with a well thought through response. Give them a time frame for when they can expect your response and then honor it.
- If things don’t get better, follow the guidelines in the Bible. Take another godly person with you to help restore the relationship and resolve the disagreement. If things get too bad, you may want to take an elder with you.
- When things are resolved, do something to restore the relationship. Disagreements cause little fractures in relationships. You need the parents of your students to be on the same team with you. Doing something to repair the relationship will help restore that team spirit you need. It may just be sending a loving note, or doing something together you both enjoy. Depending on how tough it was to resolve, you may not feel like repairing anything, but you need to for the sake of your students (as well as you and the other person).
If you are in the middle of parent angst at you, this post probably seems overly simplistic or extremely difficult. It will work though in almost every case. Anger escalates usually because the person does not feel truly heard. They don’t believe the person with whom they are angry understands why they are upset. Sometimes, even if you can’t give them what you want, just giving them a sincere apology will make them feel better.
The one thing that almost never works is ignoring it. It won’t go away on its own. In fact, if you don’t address the situation, it will probably get worse. Other people will be recruited to be angry with you, too. While going through all of the steps above seems scary, in the long run, it will usually make things much better. It really is worth your time and effort.