“Small talk” is a vital part of every congregation’s life. We greet one another after worship, commenting on sports and gardens and weather. We race to ask one another how the school year (or the summer or Christmas break) is going. Pleasantries are part of the regular rhythm of church life. There is something reassuring about the banal steadiness of mundane conversation.
But life in the church also involves conversations that are anything but small.
Publicly and privately we talk about big things. People care deeply about their churches: the buildings, the worship and the ministry. And when we disagree, we have conversations that are both big and hard. As church leaders, we don’t have to go looking for conversations like that; they have a way of finding us.
“My mother has been in the rehab unit for two weeks and no one from the church has so much as called her.”
“Where do you get off starting something like that without a congregational vote?”
“I need you to know how hurt I was by your sermon on Sunday — you’re supposed to teach us about Jesus, not hit us over the head with your political agenda.”
When conversations like this find us, there is almost always the opportunity for things to go badly. Ministries have failed and churches have split over conversations like these. But “big conversations” can also become anchor points for relationships. People who have learned to trust each other with big things can do big things together. This is a hard thing to do well, but great churches and great church leaders are constantly working to get better at having big conversations. Below is an abbreviated playbook of things I have learned from the best church leaders I know about how to be on the “receiving” end of a hard conversation.
- Don’t interrupt. This one seems obvious, but many of us have experienced firsthand the powerful urge to object in defense of ourselves. Listen carefully until the other person is done speaking your patience will go a long way toward making the other person feel heard.
- Watch your body language. Be especially aware of facial expressions. Scowling or smirking when you disagree with people puts them on the defensive and can escalate their anger. Remember that you are trying to listen carefully to understand the problem. This is particularly difficult (and important) when you have been caught by surprise. Make eye contact, look thoughtful and avoid nodding when you disagree.
- Understand the problem before you respond. Restate the person’s complaint or objection to be sure that you understand the issue they areAsk for confirmation. So you feel like I was strong-arming the session by quoting Jesus’ words about the poor. Is that accurate? It doesn’t matter how much you disagree with their position, comprehension must precede response.
- Notice what you are feeling and try to identify why. What is going on inside you? Are you feeling angry? Vulnerable? Guilty? If you feel defensive, is it because the person is correct or because they are so off base? Acknowledging your own emotions will keep you from being caught unaware. If you know yourself to be sensitive or territorial about a certain subject, you are less likely to be overtaken by your emotions.
- Respond softly. Speak at no more than a moderate volume. Even forceful words can be received constructively when they are offered rather than hurled. Words such as, Walt, I hear what you are saying, but I couldn’t disagree more, sound much different when they are spoken softly and with a concerned expression than when they are shouted in anger. Controlling the tone and volume of your voice will help the other person to hear you.
- Say, “Thank you.” And mean it. These might be the eight most powerful letters in the English language and no words have more power to affirm, sustain and heal relationships. Remember that other people don’t enjoy hard conversations either and bringing difficult things to you (especially if you are in a position of leadership or authority) isn’t easy. Most people don’t initiate hard conversations unless they think something is really important.
All these things can be helpful when someone confronts you with a “big conversation.”
Click for the the next post that addresses the dreaded situation where church leaders themselves must initiate a hard conversation.
Scott Hauser is Pastor and Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church in Clarion, PA.