Hard conversations are unavoidable, even for the sweetest, most kind-hearted church leaders. And occasionally we must be the ones to initiate those conversations. Whether with a difficult colleague, a territorial committee chair or an underperforming staff member — the ability to successfully initiate and navigate hard conversations is an indispensible skill for every church leader. There is no easy way to do it — but some ways are better than others. Below are some guidelines for pursuing the better ways.
When church leaders have to initiate a hard conversation:
- Pray. Nothing is more crucial to a constructive, hard conversation than careful preparation. No part of preparation is more important than prayer. Pray for your conversation partner. Pray for wisdom and grace. Pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit. To be a church leader is to be a spiritual leader — be sure to be led by the Spirit.
- Pick the right time and place. Probably not right after worship in the nartex. Probably not right before the meeting that you will sit in together. The appropriate setting will allow you to communicate clearly and will give the other person freedom to respond.
- Communicate the issue directly and clearly. This is something to practice. Walk the narrow path between soft-pedaling and bludgeoning. If you are addressing someone’s aggressive behavior at meetings, be sure he or she knows what behaviors are problematic. Work to avoid accusatory language. Framing yourselves as partners working on a common challenge will maximize your chances of success.
- Allow the person to respond. It’s only fair. Listen quietly while they have their say, and be prepared for them to be defensive. Remember, you had the opportunity to prepare for this conversation — they didn’t. Making sure that they feel heard is essential to moving forward together.
- Identify appropriate follow-up. What are you asking the person to do or stop doing? What issue or behavior is being addressed and what needs to happen? Do we need to have another conversation? Does something have to happen immediately? Be sure that at the end of the conversation everyone understands what happens next.
- Say, “Thank you.” And, again, mean it. It really stinks to have a hard conversation with a church leader and people who endure it gracefully deserve our gratitude. Even those who endure it less gracefully. Saying “thank you” acknowledges the difficulty of the other person’s position and smoothes the way for future relationship.
It’s not as easy as talking about the beautiful fall foliage, but there isn’t enough small talk in the world to equal the relationship-building power of one big conversation. We owe it to our congregations and our God to be faithful in talking about big things as well as small ones.
Scott Hauser is Pastor and Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church in Clarion, PA.