How to Have Difficult Conversations
When a difficult conversation is needed, how can we go about them to reach a resolution, whilst avoiding an abuse of power?
In my previous articles, I’ve explained why difficult conversations - where someone is challenged about their beliefs, choices, or actions -seem to be getting more difficult and why they can’t be avoided. So, when such a conversation is needed, how can we go about them?
Let’s start with a most helpful emphasis in Marcus Honeysett’s book1. He argues that good, servant leadership will be transparent about the formal authority structure in the organisation they serve. They will follow the processes that the organisation or church has mutually agreed on without short-circuiting them with anything underhand or ‘cloak and dagger’.
Here are three structures we use in our church. I put them out for an example, not as a blueprint. However, I think there is merit in the way they were constructed (before my time) to try to reflect the various checks, balances, and inputs from the various biblical passages on leadership and membership in the New Testament.
1. Members’ meetings
Here’s what our formal guidelines of church practice set out, so that everyone knows what the structure and process of decision-making is:
‘The meetings also give the elders and deacons the opportunity to share their ideas and plans. Open discussion and personal communication with leaders on all aspects of church life are welcomed. In following the teaching of the Bible and through discussion of how it applies to us, the church together seeks to discern the ‘mind of Christ’ for the church.
At members’ meetings sometimes formal decisions are made and ratified. Important issues that affect the life of the whole church…are brought to the whole church. Unanimous consent is sought on these issues.
The authority invested in elders is an authority which is to be consistent with the Bible’s teaching, and so consent is obtained by a fair use of Biblical arguments. Church members have the right to dissent from the actions of the eldership if they show sufficient scriptural ground for doing so.’
For example, we once appointed deacon who wasn’t married. A small number of members felt that wasn’t biblical as they were convinced that the requirements of 1 Timothy 3 required a person to be married with children. The elders listened to the viewpoint, and then responded with a reasonable argument from scripture that what the apostle was describing was a description of a typical person, not an exhaustive or exclusive list of what must be present.
The proof of that assertion was that Paul himself was single when he wrote, as far as we can tell (1 Corinthians 7). Though a married person with children can demonstrate important qualities required for office bearing, it is not impossible for a single person to do that. If such a person were later to marry and that then not exhibit the qualities required, then a review of that person’s continuing in office may be required.
The folks weren’t persuaded. So, their conscientious position was registered, but the rest of the whole church thought it right to continue. And we did that with mutual respect for one other’s biblical positions, but without being paralysed either. Now in all of this there is an asymmetry of power between elders and members, and elders need to be especially careful and wise as they use this power. It is not an easy tension to keep, but it is true to what we regard as our biblical, nuanced constitution. The structure serves us well.
2. Disagreeing and parting well
Sometimes things don’t work out quite as neatly. Here is an example from the Bible of a (very) difficult moment. Note it wasn’t about ‘right/wrong’; Paul didn’t accuse Barnabas of sin. It’s just that of the two ways forward, they couldn’t come to agreement. So, there was a parting.
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord (Acts 15: 36-40).
The Reformers and Puritans knew that this might be a difficulty, as not everything is tidily stowed away or tied down in the New Testament. They said this:
‘There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word...’ (Westminster Confession of Faith)
The light of nature and Christian prudence may end up meaning different things to different people, and sometimes that can’t all be reconciled.
We have tried to encapsulate situations like this in our formal processes. This is how we phrase it:
‘We recognise that differences on issues may arise within the family of God. This may lead to a parting of ways, but this should be done in a spirit of ‘family love’.
If members find that serious differences arise between themselves and the beliefs and practices of the church and if, after consultation with the leadership, it proves difficult for them to continue in membership, they shall be encouraged to join another Bible-believing church.’
Our transparent structure allows for ‘ways-out’ without necessarily demeaning anyone’s point of view. It’s just an honest way forward, which also recognises that differences will arise between believers, but that each family of God can still function.
The structure has helped the leaders to have difficult conversations within proper formal boundaries which are spelt out.
3. Challenging sin in the church
The next clearly spelt out process is to deal with open sin in the life of the church. First, the procedure for dealing with office-bearer wrongdoing:
‘If there are concerns about the teaching or behaviour of any elder or deacon these should be presented in a Biblical manner to the person concerned; that is by being brought by two or three witnesses. If the complaints are found to be substantiated, then disciplinary action should be taken, and the church’s opinion sought as to the desirability of the person continuing in their role.’
Second is a process of dealing with sin in the life of members:
‘We believe that membership of this church should be a joy coupled with a genuine sense of responsibility. If a member holds to a doctrine which is regarded as heretical or repeatedly and persistently lives in a way that brings dishonour to the name of Christ, it is the duty of the eldership to seek to restore this person to holiness and wholeness.
This process of restoration is always painful and difficult and sometimes appears to fail. The eldership will endeavour to help the erring member to see the magnitude of their sin and their need to turn away from it by the power of the gospel of Christ. If such measures lovingly and yet firmly applied do not result in meaningful change, it will be necessary to apply further measures of Biblical church discipline. Initially this will mean a member will be suspended from the privileges of membership and subsequently will be removed from membership if there is no change in the situation.
The elders promise to approach such matters prayerfully, humbly and with genuine concern to fully restore the errant and to protect the interests of the church family and God’s glory.’
Having structures and processes doesn’t solve the problem in and of itself, but it certainly helps to overcome the concern that decisions are being made arbitrarily, or simply to protect those already in power.
Let’s now move on to actually having the conversation.
Of course, humility is the key, and a good dose of self-awareness and confession are crucial (Matthew 7:1-5). Praying for the other person, and especially that God would bless them, may help take away the myriad of false motives that can invade our hearts - justifying ourselves, winning the argument, extracting an apology, revenge, and so forth.
Henry Cloud2 suggests that you should clearly think through and write down the main things you want to say, and make sure you keep on track - no matter how much someone wants to get off that agenda. “Yes, I know the economy is doing badly, and bills are going up, but I want us to come back to the issue of …” type of thing.
You can’t control the outcome of the conversation. Rarely have I been able to predict how a difficult conversation may go – that’s why they are difficult! But I can, before God, be responsible for my own preparation, reactions, and words. The outcome is with him.
Understand their responses
I mentioned previously some of the ‘tactics’ people use to avoid facing the issue you are trying to bring them to face up to (denial, deflection, defence, dismissal etc). They will question your motives, your attitudes, your words, your right to speak to them in all kinds of ways so as to avoid the issue.
Gently but firmly keep bringing them back to the point at stake (2 Timothy 2:24-26 – key verses in all of this). Be prepared for the various ways that people can be cleverly distracting. Even when you try your best, adults can make very poor decisions and live with negative consequences. It’s a tough thing to come to terms with but part of our respecting people as responsible individuals is letting that happen.
Cloud suggests that using the ‘boundary concept’ is useful. This concept is not to constantly counteract what the other person is saying but affirm your own perceptions, and especially feelings.
When you do ‘A’, I feel ‘B’.
So, for example, you help legitimise what you are stating by describing the effect the person is having on you when they act or speak in a certain way. You don’t have to question their motives, you just describe your own reactions. You don’t have to legitimise, justify, or rationalise all that you feel, you are just saying “this is what I feel when you…”
Your response is authentic; it is how you feel due to their words or behaviour. And those feelings are not something you want to continue.
Saying what you want, accepting what might happen, clarifying consequences
He urges the person initiating the conversation to be crystal clear about what you want from the conversation and from the person.
“Don’t beat around the bush but keep to the point” is his advice.
He suggests that if the person doesn’t want to listen to the effect they are having, then you move on to spell out the consequences of them not responding in a way that is helpful to you.
In his book he looks at lots of scenarios – courting and married couples, parents, employment situations, and so forth. But the concepts he uses are equally useful in a church situation.
In a church conflict setting, one useful practice may be the use of ‘the agreed statement’. Rather than both parties relaying their take on things to anyone who wants to listen, the idea is that both parties write down their ‘version’, then pass it to the other party. Both edit what they want to be said until they can come to a common denominator, and then promise to keep to that script to whoever they talk to.
The agreed styatement may be as minimalist as “We agreed that parting company was the best way forward”, or it might be much more fulsome. But the point is that such a statement is not imposed by one party on the other. It is not a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) designed to protect the powerful against the other. Both parties edit down to what they feel they can both honestly say.
Then it becomes a matter of Christian integrity to stick to the agreed statement. It means that both parties can trust that an honourable way forward has been found and no one is ‘telling another story’ behind each other’s backs. That alternative only leads to just further misery, bitterness, and sadness.
I have only just been able to touch on this hugely significant matter. You will have many more insights than I and could articulate them better.
So, why don’t you get in touch and share yours so that we can together establish a much better ‘working practice’ than the church hassles and hurts that many experience and are marred by, sometimes for the whole of their lives.
This is part three of three in a series on difficult conversations.
Also see Why Difficult Conversations Are Getting More Difficult (part 1) and Difficult, Inevitable, and Necessary (part 2)
This article was originally given as a seminar to senior and lay leaders at Word Alive, 2022.
1 Marcus Honeysett, Powerful Leaders (IVP, 2022)
2 Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend, How to have that Difficult Conversation You’ve Been Avoiding (Zondervan, 2003)