Difficult Conversations 1

Why Difficult Conversations Are Getting More Difficult

Challenging someone about their beliefs, choices, or actions feels more and more problematic. What has caused this shift?

A number of high-profile failures in the lives of evangelical church leaders have recently come to light. A common thread running through these is the note of an overly controlling personality using a power dynamic imbalance to ensure that their will prevailed over those who they should have been serving.

The question has regularly been raised: “Is the evangelical church endemically riddled with problems of overly authoritative abuses of power?”

Meanwhile - ‘out there in the real world’ - a major cultural shift has been taking place. It seems that everywhere and everyone is now aware of the dangers of micro-aggressions and oppressing others through our words and bearing, of the presence of conscious, or more likely, unconscious power plays, of power dynamics where gender, ethnicity, class structures, and so forth inevitably lead to imbalances that need deconstructing and changing.

In this climate, to have what we may call a difficult conversation - where someone is challenged about their beliefs, choices, or actions - feels as if it is going to be majorly problematic.

Power and leadership

Furthermore, the church is confused about power. We rightly say that we are to be ‘servant leaders’ - as Patrick Lencioni astutely observes1, there should be no other kind of leaders in any context, let alone the church.

But what does leadership look like, even in a servant leader? How does power work in practice? What kind of authority does any leader have?

The Church has debated authority structures for millennia - specifically the Protestant church for the past 500 years. Are we any clearer than our forefathers?

Added to this is the new development of the (at times very heated) debate between ‘egalitarian’ and ‘complementarian’ Christians about the role of men and women in church leadership. One detects that amongst ‘complementarian’ church leaderships, there is still a great deal of difference about how the power and input of both genders feeds into church leadership.

My observation is that church leaders, in light of all of this, are generally very nervous about their role and in particular the new challenges associated with having difficult conversations. They are so sensitive to the charge of ‘abuse of power’ that many skip having them altogether.

Difficult conversations now seem immeasurably more difficult.

Confused leaders

Any leader can have confused views on authority and power. Not only do we have the right/wrong, wise/unwise, and like/dislike axes to be clear on, we now must think ever more carefully about ‘formal/informal/illegitimately informal’ and so on.

Marcus Honeysett’s new book2 has served to help the church - and specifically its leaders - to become more self-aware and transparent about the way that they wield the authority and power given to them by the Lord and delegated to them by their own church. It is so very helpful.

But it can lead to ‘overload’ in thinking things through, and into introspection concerning proper/improper motivation which can lead on to paralysis. This anxiety can lead to a power vacuum and someone - not necessarily recognised and appointed by the church body - will step into it.

They may even sound like a victim as they wield significant power to get their own way. They only need to be regularly negative to bring the whole of church decision-making to a least common denominator, or even to a complete halt. Strong personalities may still govern the church but by negative default.

I have certainly sensed that many younger leaders are feeling worried. They hear, on a regular basis, of colleagues and peers being charged with ‘abuse of power’, and they don’t want to get embroiled in that too. Who wants to be known as a modern-day Diotrephes (3 John:9-10)?

So, they avoid the difficult conversations.

Passive leaders

They are also coming from a cultural context where young men are especially struggling to find a clear role in the modern world. Decades of ‘conditioning’ - some of it really helpful, some of it not - have led to a widespread sense of a loss of identity amongst young men/potential church leaders of the future.

It is remarkable to think that W.Cdr. Guy Gibson VC was only 24 when he led the Dambusters raid and only 26 when he was killed in action. John Petrie-Andrews did over 60 missions as a Lancaster pilot. He was 18.

As ‘the Great Generation’ led to the ‘Builders’, then the ‘Boomers’, Gen X, the Millennials, and Gen Z, there has been an erosion of confidence in the West that men know how to behave properly towards women, and to lead in home and church.

I now meet many a wonderful young couple where the woman is confident, visionary, and properly assertive, whereas the man is in the backseat, takes his cue from her, and needs lots of reassurance. She speaks well, and he is content to watch and admire her.

There is so much to admire about that scenario. But there is a part of me that worries that this may not lead to a generation of confident male elders who take on the preaching mantle from the present generation of gifted preachers and will very much struggle with the inevitable challenges of church life.

I have often said to would-be church leaders: “You know the job is more about conflict resolution than almost anything else. The preaching is the nice bit of the job!”

Those conflicts need resolving lest the church slips into a caricature of what it should be and brings dishonour to God, where his reputation is trashed by his people. Great portions of the pastoral epistles are written to young leaders who must bring God’s word so to bear that the church behaves as it should (see for example the sustained arguments in 1 Timothy 3:14 and following, or Titus 3:1-2 and following).

One of my fellow elders, bless him, would often say to me that I needed to go and have a difficult conversation. I used to retort “Why me?” His consistent reply: “Because you are a leader and it’s what has to be done.”

They never got less difficult, but I did get used to the fact that it was part of my role to have them and have them as well as they could be had.

This is part one of three in a series on difficult conversations. Also see Difficult, Inevitable, and Necessary (part 2) 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.

1Patrick Lencioni: What’s Your Motive?, Global Leadership Network (globalleadership.org).

2 Marcus Honeysett, Powerful Leaders (IVP, 2022).

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