Essential Conversations for Church Leaders
(What Won’t We Talk About?)
“Most churches are held together by what we won’t talk about.” For to talk about certain subjects is risky—so we simply avoid them choosing the rhetoric of unity and peace, with shallow roots that wither in the heat of conflict. My friend Randy, coined the phrase after years of ministry, teaching in universities and mainly, helping church leaders navigate difficult conversations. It is another way of saying we are conflict avoidant.
Sometimes leaders are unwilling to have the conversations. If leaders won’t talk openly with each other, and model what it means to stick together, how can we expect the church to do it? Churches follow their leaders—like it or not. Fearful leaders, unwilling to have the conversations lead the church to a false sense of unity and immaturity.
Learning to talk openly, respectfully and staying engaged with whom we disagree is hard work. It is even more difficult when our spiritual identity is not clear. “Striving to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4.3) assumes the need for conversation in the midst of diversity. The Apostle Paul speaks to the Ephesian church on the basis of their new identity in Christ and what Christ has done to make Jew and Gentile one (2.11-22). It is, the call of a gospel shaped community—the family of God. People who have Christ dwelling in their hearts through faith are rooted and grounded in love (2.17). This love shows up in concrete ways: humility, gentleness, patience and bearing with one another. In other words, we will manage ourselves in the midst of clear differences with another person. We will put up with them—endure well BECAUSE we are in Christ. “Speaking the truth in love” and “speaking the truth to our neighbors” without anger is about the body of Christ and our mutual life together— about growing up in Christ (4.15, 25). Bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling slander and malice has no place in our conversations (4.3). Our identity is in Christ, not our preferences, fears, or even our position on a particular issue. How we talk, listen and differ matters. The life of Christ in us and the Gospel is at stake.
So, what do leaders need to talk about? Here are a few common themes that won’t go away and matter.
- Where’s this church going? This is about leaders providing direction for the future rather than simply maintaining in the present. It includes worship practices, spiritual identity, values, ministry choices, priorities, use of facilities, etc.
- Who decides? Who decides. This is about church governance, elder-minister relationships, trust, empowerment, responsibility and authority, and ultimately, who makes what decisions in church? Members and leaders alike are frustrated with the pace and politics of decision making.
- Why are we losing our young people (18-35 yr olds)? This is not about doing church better; making technical changes, rather a spirit of listening and engaging them in authentic, caring and empowering ways.
- What difference are we making in our own people and the community around us? This is a question of consumeristic religion vs discipleship and following Jesus into the world—our own community. If your congregation ceased to exist tomorrow, would anyone in the community notice?
- What about gender? This is more than what women can and can’t do in “church.” It is about LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (and/or questioning) individuals/identities) and how to process theologically, practically and pastorally.
The willingness to ask the questions and and engage in the conversations is far less risky for our future than merely ignoring the questions. For if we always do what we have always done we will get what we have always got. The conversations are the work of leaders who trust God and know that the spirit of God dwells in the people of God.