Difficult, Inevitable, and Necessary
Church ministry is full of difficult conversations. Understanding that these conversations need to be had, and how people may respond, is key to a good resolution.
Henry Cloud, in his book Necessary Endings1, points out that difficult conversations - where someone is challenged about their beliefs, choices, or actions - are inevitable because so are endings in this life. As we age, sooner or later we have to face up to the changes that will bring.
Within a family, that may mean hard conversations about what support is needed, whether a move to a different setting is needed, and then the conversation we may have to have about end of life and going home to heaven.
In a work environment, the company will change. It may mean promotion for some but not for others, or even layoffs and redundancy. These are difficult conversations to have. Problems arise, and accusations may be made by insiders or external sources about all manner of things that need addressing.
Church isn’t immune. All leaders are ‘interim pastors’ and even a happy ‘succession’ will mean all kinds of changes and conversations needing to be had. Alas, often things aren’t that happy and ‘leavings’ can be some of the most problematic times, for members or leaders.
Some of these necessary endings can be conducted much better than they would otherwise be if we knew how to have difficult conversations. We need to grow in grace, in character, and in skill so that we have good difficult conversations.
Reactions to a challenge
Henry Cloud points out that though all of us sin, not all respond to a difficult conversation in the same way.2
It’s best to know the typical responses to sin being uncovered or human will being challenged. As Sartre tartly remarked: “Hell is other people” (i.e. Hell is when someone else challenges my self-autonomy, cutting across my will).
Wise (Proverbs 9:8-9)
First, he describes the person who responds to feedback well.
No one finds it easy to hear feedback when something negative is highlighted or even something good could be made better. But there is a category of ‘wise’ where someone responds well to it and wants to engage.
They may say that it wasn’t easy to hear that, but they also recognise it may not have been easy to say it either. They want to change and recognise that the Lord may be using you to help them become more like Christ. All well and good. And oh, that all difficult conversations were with wise people.
Foolish (Proverbs 9:8)
But there is another kind – he calls them ‘foolish’ - who though they listen, one senses that they are not listening to understand and change.
Cloud describes some of the tactics employed by a foolish person: they may deny the problem; they may deflect criticism onto something or someone else; they may distract into a different topic; they may (vehemently) defend by going on the attack (at you). There are several other tactics that can be employed, often several at once.
I have often asked audiences what is the next word that we speak after the word ‘sorry’? It’s always the word ‘but’! Then follows either a series of excuses or a counterattack along the lines of ‘but you….’. That is the fool at work in all of us.
The fool does listen to something, however: consequences. Once you have identified that the person is responding in this way, the difficult conversation may have to turn to consequences if change is not seen. Consequences such as ‘We want a timesheet filled in’; ‘We will have to initiate a disciplinary procedure’; ‘We will have to terminate your employment’; ‘You/we will have to leave’ kinds of consequences.
Few of us like being that straight. If you are a (reasonably) wise person, it is usual to think that others are reasonable too. To realise that some people, Christians amongst them, just don’t tick like that is a salutary awakening.
If you are not in leadership, you will be able to avoid such people. But leaders will have to confront lest the foolish person brings havoc in their wake. And to confront will mean having to bring consequences to the fore.
Not only is that hard, but especially so today when it feels like a particularly direct power play and the person can (so easily) express their victimhood. It goes against the grain of a normally ‘nice’ leader to be like this, so it might just not happen.
But Christ didn’t place you into leadership to just be nice. You are appointed to provide and protect the flock, and that from the foolish person as well as the downright evil.
‘Evil’ (Titus 3:10,11)
The third category of reaction he describes is the one where there is a definite sense of wrong/evil/destruction. He, somewhat colourfully, says these are the people you confront with “guns, lawyers and money”! Whatever you might make of that phrase, he is trying to point out that such evil can’t be dilly-dallied with.
There are roaring lions, angels of light, and harm doers, such as Alexander the metalworker (2 Timothy 4:14-15) whom Satan uses to stop or ruin the Lord’s work. Some such wear the uniform of ‘Christian’ but they may be falsely masquerading (1 Timothy 6:3-6). Sometimes they may be real believers but are so gripped by sin as to backslide and be the vehicle of wrong, not right (Matthew 16:25).
Perhaps Paul had all this in mind when he counselled Titus to “warn a divisive person once, then twice”, but once they had ‘shown their spots’ he said, “having nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Titus 3:10-11)
Such conversations are difficult, but they have to be had.
Called to have difficult conversations
The final reason we will explore for why such conversations must be had is that that is what our calling entails.
Elders are like ‘dads’ to the family of God. Not ‘Father’, but nevertheless caring, loving, guiding, instructing, providing, and so forth like a dad would. You can see this in the lives of leaders in action in the Bible. Paul describes himself using this kind of mum/dad language as he reassures the young church at Thessalonica that he really loves and cares for them (see 1 Thessalonians 2:7-12).
Here are just three examples of that in practice.
Notice how direct the conversations were. They are in different cultural settings from each other, and from us, but they underscore that the most humble, loving leaders needed to have difficult conversations.
- Moses (Exodus 16:1-8; 17:1-4; 18:13-27; Exodus 32; Numbers 12, 14, 16; Deuteronomy 31-34). It’s amazing how Moses survived the enormous stress he was under for decade after decade. Time after time he had to lovingly confront even his own nearest and dearest, and even when people let him, and especially the Lord, down so much.
- Paul (Acts 20:17-38). This is an astonishing conversation all round. Not only does Paul set a really high bar for what authentic ministry looks like (and feels like – see v19), but he doesn’t beat around the bush as he directly challenges these leaders (Acts 20:28-31). That must have been quite something. Yet what is amazing is the response of Acts 20:36-38 – more tears. But they weren’t tears of relief that he was, at last, leaving them after such a scorching, but because they loved him dearly and knew his difficult words were for their utmost good and came from a heart of sincere love and humility.
- Titus (Titus 1:10-16). As Paul explains to Titus why elders must be appointed (Titus 1:5), it becomes clear quite quickly that their role isn’t just to give themselves to ‘the positive’ but they have to deal with ‘the negative’ and that is so that damage might be limited and true health return to the families of God on Crete (Titus 1:10-15). The tone is urgent, serious, and demanding. The situation demands action and conviction; it isn’t a ‘consider it in your own time’ pleasantry.
I for one would love some help here. Many good things have been written about power, and its abuse. I hope to have learnt from them. But few have addressed the problems associated with these kinds of difficulties.
One leader in a little booklet most helpfully discussed what you do with ‘Mr and Mrs Dragon’. But many others don’t face up to the reality that when Christians sin, dealing with that sin will feel quite a difficult for anyone sensitive to the charge of ‘power abuse’. And some shrill voices will cry that at the least provocation.
This is part two of three in a series on difficult conversations. Also see Why Difficult Conversations Are Getting More Difficult (part 1) and How to Have Difficult Conversations (part 3)
This article was originally given as a seminar to senior and lay leaders at Word Alive, 2022.
1 Dr Henry Cloud, Necessary Endings (Harper Collins 2011)
2 Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend, How to have that Difficult Conversation You’ve Been Avoiding (Zondervan, 2005)