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16 Jun '14

Candid discourse among church leaders

Posted by T.J. Addington
It has been my observation after working with hundreds of churches over the years that candid conversation among church leaders is often sorely lacking. Observations that one might make outside the church boardroom are not made inside the boardroom for fear of hurting feelings, being seen as lacking grace or violating the "nice" culture that churches often live in. The practical result is that there are often many elephants that go unaddressed often to the detriment of people on staff or within the congregation.

Often, when I am called to help a congregation, I will do extensive interviews of staff and congregants. I will then have a very candid conversation with the board. What is intriguing to me is that most of what I share with them they already know, in whole or in part. Or, they suspected that I might find certain issues. Yet, those same issues have often never been discussed by the board. Rather, good and competent people have danced around them or chosen to ignore them.

Let me say that there are times when leaders do know something is amiss and bring in a consultant to help identify the issues from a dispassionate perspective and get help in navigating those issues. That is a healthy practice and indicates that leaders are willing to address issues but need the perspective that an outsider can bring.

I suspect there are several reasons for known issues not being addressed. First, there is the "church nice" culture that often mitigates against honest candid conversation. Second, senior pastors can be notoriously defensive and prickly about anything they perceive to be criticism (I can say that as I have been a senior pastor). 

Often leaders are timid in bringing up issues for fear of hurting the senior pastor's feelings. Question: What does that say about the EQ of your senior leader and of leaders who are afraid of his reaction? We are all grown ups here! Third, Christian leaders tend to gloss over the realities of what is under the hood and assume that God is at work and all is well. It is often a form of denial that allows them to avoid what they perceive might be an unpleasant conversation. 

All this adds up to a complicit silence on issues that really do need to be discussed and which left unaddressed long enough creates a crisis that forces the issues to the surface. Had they been addressed earlier, however, a crisis may well have been diverted.

I am a firm believer in gracious relationships between church leaders and between leaders and staff. But that does not preclude candid, honest and even robust dialogue where any issue should be open for conversation with the exception of hidden agendas and personal attacks. Honest dialogue is a sign of relational health while the inability to be candid is a sign of relational dysfunction. And remember that what is modeled by leadership is what is practiced in the congregation as a whole.

Here are some key questions for church leaders:

  • Are there elephants in the room that we know about and if so lets name them. Once named, they are no longer elephants but issues we can discuss.
  • Do we have the freedom and ethos where we can have candid and honest discussion on any issue that concerns our ministry? If not why not?
  • When we don't address issues candidly how does that negatively impact our congregation?
  • Do we as a board need to have a candid discussion on this issue?