How to Rebuke with Compassion

You'll probably need to use these tips sooner than you'd like.

A majority of pastors are "feelers," meaning that the feelings, the dignity, and the approval of people tend to rank high in their decision-making process.

Since I am by nature a "feeler," having to rebuke someone has always been difficult for me. I would rather be rebuked than to rebuke. Why? I struggle with the confidence that my judgment of a person's actions or attitudes is the correct one because I tend to see many sides to every story. I fear the possible loss of a relationship. I do not like to wound people.

I've found the following principles of rebuke are helpful:

  1. Make sure there is no way your rebuke can be misunderstood.
  2. Never rebuke someone when your anger is hot.
  3. Don't rebuke in writing or by phone—only face to face (and, if necessary, with a witness).
  4. Don't destroy the other's dignity.
  5. Make sure you have the whole story.
  6. Make sure to clarify your own motives and purposes.
  7. Make sure to identify the implications of their behavior.
  8. Always provide an opportunity for the person to acknowledge wrong and gain a new start.

A single man in our congregation was behaving inappropriately toward women. He badgered some women with unwanted phone calls. His conversations were reportedly marked with sexual suggestiveness. The situation required rebuke and, if that was not effective, discipline. I asked this man to meet with me.

"I have been made aware," I said, "that a number of women in our congregation are offended—some quite angered—by things you have been doing. Let me be specific. You have raised inappropriate sexual subjects in conversation. There have been women who have reported that you have phoned them in a manner that they consider harassment. I'll be glad to give specific examples if you feel you need them."

The man cautiously admitted that there was substantial truth to the reports. Then I went on.

"I want you to hear me very carefully so there is no misunderstanding between us. I have thought about this for several days. I have asked God to give me wisdom, and I want to speak in Christian love and respect to you. But I want you to know that I am one who has a responsibility for the spiritual leadership of this congregation. Your behavior has been unacceptable according to Scripture and according to the covenantal life of this church. People have been hurt, and you have lost credibility in their eyes.

"Christian men do not, as they say, 'hit on' women. They treat them with respect and honor. And if you do not understand how this is done, I will be happy to team you up with a man who can provide instruction for you.

"If there is one more instance of inappropriate behavior of this kind, I will immediately bring your name before the board of elders and ask them to put you under discipline. Have I made myself clear?"

The man assured me that he understood. I concluded our meeting with prayer, acknowledging God's presence in the conversation.

Later he took me up on my offer to connect him with a mature man who could provide guidance that he clearly had not received from other sources. I never got another adverse report about him again.

Gordon MacDonald is editor-at-large of Leadership Journal and chair of World Relief.

Excerpted from our sister publication Leadership Journal, copyright 2002 by the author or Christianity Today International. For more articles like this, see

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