“I’d like to share some concerns with you.” “Would you mind if we sat down and talked?” “Can I speak with you about something that happened (or something that you said the other day)?”
We’ve all said or heard these various phrases and all their forms, and while we understand the perception of these words when we say them, we especially don’t like to hear them. They seem to bring up within us that a difficult conversation lies ahead. When we think about what might be said or what the conversation might entail, we get anxious and envision all kinds of various avenues the conversation may go. Notice that these italicized words are not rooted in reality. It is important for us to realize that we cannot imagine exactly how the conversation will go, and we also can’t put a characteristic onto someone based on a conversation we have with them in our heads.
Ever done that? Have you ever misunderstood someone simply because you imagined what they might say or do during a conversation to discuss an issue? When thinking about difficult conversations within the church body, we are better to start with the understanding of a certain kind of character we ought to have as Christians. An understanding of the following four suggestions can be helpful:
1. Know your role.
Understanding your position can help you navigate how to say what you feel you need to say. It is of utmost importance to realize your personal sense of humility and love in any position you hold within the church. It doesn’t matter what “authority” or “right” you believe entitles you to have a certain conversation. What matters is that Jesus Christ has privileged you to be an ambassador for His kingdom along with others. Part of that passion is a love for and humility toward others who feel a similar task and calling in their lives. Come to a mutual understanding of what the mission is, and how you — within your local church — will live that mission out in a particular way together.
2. Have the proper perspective.
What type of conversation are you having? What conversation is the other person expecting? What is your relationship to the other person?
Frame the conversation well a day or two beforehand with the person with whom you will be talking. What kind of issue are you dealing with? Personal? Job-related? Peer relationships? Ask plenty of questions to make sure you understand where the other person stands on a given issue or idea when the conversation happens, and try not to enter the conversation with assumptions based on conversations from inside your head.
3. End well.
Plan for a success in the relationship. It can be helpful to write down what you want to talk about and what you hope to accomplish by the end of the conversation. Do not enter a conversation planning to be right or to get your way. Plan for mutual understanding. I would say this holds true even if you have had many conversations with a particular individual. Depending on circumstance, and your position in the church, it may be time for a conversation about transitioning from one position to another or from this church to another. If you find that you didn’t accomplish what you hoped, it is time for another conversation.
4. Follow through.
Send a follow-up email or phone call reviewing the discussion and end result in your own words. If you or the other person didn’t feel clear on certain things, offer to meet again. What is of particular importance with any follow-up is to pray with the person. If you are both content and on point with how the conversation went, pray together in thanks over coffee shortly before church. If there is any issue left that you feel at an impasse, pray together for a few minutes and have an understanding that it is simply prayer for guidance and understanding, and you can debrief another time.
With difficult conversations, our starting point is Ephesians 4:1–3 with the particular focus being on these character traits: humility and gentleness, patience, bearing with, and being eager for unity. These attitudes and dispositions will lead us well into any kind of discussion because the discussion will be rooted in the understanding of hope for a right relationship with God and with others. These attitudes will root your mind in the kingdom, rather than in an attitude of trying to move things forward in the church.
1. Is your difficult conversation one of a perceived sin, or one of exhortation and encouragement?
2. How have conversations that you have been involved in gone wrong, where otherwise they may have otherwise turned out more positive given a better attitude?
David Pritchard is a Free Methodist elder in the Genesis Conference, an adjunct professor and admissions recruiter at Davis College, and Faith & Fitness Magazine’s college editor.1