In all situations, we need to remember that each and every congregant belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ. The way we speak about him or her should be reflective of the fact that they have been bought by the precious blood of Christ.
A young church planter in a small town was getting his hair cut by a woman he knew. “You’re not like the other pastor whose hair I cut,” she said. He asked what she meant. She quickly replied, “You don’t talk about your congregants negatively.” Apparently, there was a minister who would come in and vent all of his frustrations about different people in his congregation to this woman. Although most pastors are wise enough not to do this, all pastors have known the temptation to speak negatively–even in sophisticatedly subtle ways–about congregants. Instead, pastors must learn to model the sort of loving, discrete, confidential, and wise way of speaking about others–especially the congregants the Lord has committed into their care.
There are many settings in which it may or may not be right to speak about a congregant under your pastoral care. A minister must learn what these are early on in ministry, in order to save himself from the hardships that accompany serious mistakes this area. There is the pastor–congregant setting, the pastor–congregation setting, the pastor–to–pastor setting, the pastor-elder/deacon setting, the pastor–other–congregation setting, and the pastor–internet setting. As we learn to wisely navigate the dynamics of these settings, we will be better equipped to speak wisely and lovingly about congregants.
In the first place, a minister ought never speak negatively of a congregant to another congregant. To do this is to complain down the chain–of–command, so to speak. When I first started church planting, I made this mistake. When the pressure mounts, and you feel alone; when you are being attacked, and need someone in whom you can confide (and you do not have elders or deacons yet), it is all too easy to turn to someone in the congregation with whom you are close and speak negatively about another congregant. A close friend of mine in ministry warned me very early on to be careful not to do so. I found that to be a great help over the course of many years of pastoral ministry thereafter. Speaking negatively of one congregant to another creates a potential riff between congregants. No matter how pure your intentions may be, that is a burden that a congregant is not called by God to bear. We must protect our congregants from hearing us speak negatively about other congregants.
In the second place, a minister should never speak negatively about members of the congregation in front of the congregation. This seems self-evident. However, I have known of cases in which this has occurred. It is pastoral abuse of the highest order, for a minister to speak demeaningly (even if in a joking manner) about a members of the flock to the congregation. When I was a new Christian, I had a friend who attended a church in which the minister would call out particular members of the congregation in a joking manner. My friend left that church promptly, fearing that this man would soon call him out in front of the congregation. It is unfathomable that we would even have to note the impropriety of speaking ill of congregants in front of congregants. To be sure, the Apostle Paul called Euodia and Syntyche by name (Phil. 4:1). However, there was a well-known riff between these women that was destroying the peace of the congregation on the whole. Paul felt the need to personally addressed them, while speaking of the issue in the most discrete manner possible.