If you want to avoid hate mail, simply avoid any public leadership role. Yes, pastors receive their “fair share” of hate mail, but so also do politicians, business owners, teachers, and many others.

That said, there are seasons when pastors receive more hate mail than normal, and now is probably one of them, when churches and pastors are taking courageous yet unpopular stands on numerous moral issues. So what should we do when the haters start hating?

Let’s first recognize the difference between hate mail and appropriate criticism. Hate mail is motivated by hate, a desire to harm and hurt. It is usually insensitive in tone and content, and intends to discourage, damage, dishearten, and demoralize.Appropriate criticism is motivated by love, by a desire to help and grow a person. It is expressed with kindness, wisdom, and balance. Unless we have a particularly thin skin, or have developed a martyr complex, it’s usually quite easy to distinguish hate mail from constructive criticism.

Anonymous Hate Mail

Second, let’s distinguish anonymous from signed hate mail. My practice used to be that if there was no identifying name on the envelope or letter, that I would trash it once I had read enough to recognize it as hate mail (usually the first couple of sentences was enough to identify the characteristic abusive and threatening language).

I still recommend reading no further than necessary to discern the hostile nature of the communication; there’s no point in letting the author achieve his or her aim of upsetting or frightening you at no cost to themselves. However, instead of trashing them, I now suggest giving any such letters to an experienced Christian in your congregation, probably to an elder, and ask him to read them and keep them secure.

The advantage of this approach is that someone who is not the target of the hate can read the letters more objectively to see if there is any personal safety issue involved, and also to find out if one person is doing this repeatedly. If there are threats to personal safety, or if the letters are repeatedly coming from the same unidentified author, it may eventually be necessary to put them in the hands of the police.

Signed Hate Mail

But let’s leave anonymous communications and look now at how to deal with hate mail where the authors identify themselves but you do not know them personally. If you can find out a bit more about them, that should help you decide if it’s worth replying in a constructive way. Sometimes I have attempted to start a constructive dialogue—usually without success.

Most of the time, I decide that I just have too much important work to do than to give any time to modern-day Sanballats (Neh. 6:3). Usually I follow Hezekiah’s model of prayerfully placing the letter or e-mail before the Lord and ask for guidance as to whether or how to reply (2 Kings 19:14-16). I also ask the Lord to help me not to be intimidated or distracted and that the language and threats would not linger with me to disturb my peace.

‘Friendly Fire’

The most difficult of all is signed hate mail from someone you know in your congregation. That’s not something you can ignore or dismiss. You will probably want to ask an elder or trusted Christian friend to read the letter with you in a more dispassionate and objective way and to give counsel about how to reply in a way that will maximize the hope of peacemaking.

Unless the letters are coming regularly from one source, I’m not for reporting them to the church leadership, as people can often fire off a letter in a bad temper and come to regret it later. There’s no point in damaging a person’s reputation or relationships with everyone else due to one foolish mistake.

When deciding how to respond, ask the following questions:

  • Is it true? Is it even slightly true? Try to find a grain of truth in it if you can and acknowledge that in any reply.
  • Is it proportionate? Is the writer blowing a small matter into a huge issue? Is this making a mountain out of a molehill?
  • Is it specific? Is it addressing one issue or is it shooting buckshot at everything?
  • Is it a godly Christian? If it is a mature and faithful Christian, then you will pay much more attention to it than to someone who is not a Christian, or who is an immature or unstable Christian.
  • Is there something else behind the criticism? Could there be stress or trouble at home or at work that’s making someone lash out?

There’s often debate over the next step—how to communicate your response. Should you write a letter, e-mail, phone, or visit the person? I usually write briefly back noting receipt of the letter, and expressing a desire to meet soon to discuss its contents. I then let that sit for a couple of days before making contact by phone to arrange a meeting. I don’t recommend turning up on the person’s doorstep unannounced, nor do I recommend a phone call or e-mail as a first response. If the person’s emotions are still on the boil, then beware the potential for catastrophic confrontation. A letter, ideally handwritten, communicates that you are taking the criticism seriously but also allows feelings time to moderate.

Love Your Enemies

Pray for your haters, ask God to help you love them, and take every opportunity to do them good. Don’t avoid them and don’t take sneaky swipes at them from the pulpit. One of the wonders of the gospel is that God can make the worst of enemies the best of friends. View this as a massive opportunity to display the power of the gospel.

And even if the person remains hostile, we still have opportunity to enter into the sufferings of Christ (John 15:18-25) and to demonstrate the love of Christ (1 Peter 2:20-23). Let your haters drive you to the Lover.

This article first appeared at The Gospel Coalition.