We Can (and Must) Hear Hard Things

Some words are hard to hear:

  • To the Pastor: “We need for you to take a class on preaching/worship leadership/administration.” (Ouch for Pastors who already consider themselves to be good preachers, worship leaders, and administrators.)
  • To the Music Director: “We invite you to spend time attending a conference to hone your skills and get some fresh ideas.” (Ouch for Music Directors who believe themselves to be in no need of improvement.)
  • To the longtime volunteer Confirmation Teacher: “We thank you for serving in this role for so long, but we would like to give someone new the opportunity to teach Confirmation.” (Ouch! I thought the kids loved me – especially that part of Confirmation when we talk about church history!”)
  • To the longtime Chairperson of the Annual Fried Chicken Fundraiser: “The elders have decided that the Annual Fried Chicken Fundraiser needs to take a break. We have had a hard time getting volunteers to cover it and we’ve actually lost money on it for several years.” (Ouch for the Fried Chicken Fundraiser Chairperson. “But this is my thing! I’m going to leave the Church if I can’t be in charge of the Fried Chicken Fundraiser.“)

Note: Each of us have a long list of harmful things we have been told about ourselves or our activities which are not true. I’m not talking about power plays or mean criticisms or cattiness here. I’m talking about those hard truths we need to hear for the sake of clarity and healthy relationships and our ability to expand the Reign of God.

It’s not only uncomfortable to say hard things like:”It’s time for a change in the way you do things.”

It’s also uncomfortable to hear hard things. One of the best things we can do as leaders – in any context – is be open to receiving uncomfortable feedback.

What often happens is:

  • Deafness: As if nothing was said at all. Example: Pastors to whom (conflict-averse) leaders attempt to say, “You really need to take a preaching refresher” but no refresher course is considered much less scheduled.
  • Defensiveness: The one receiving hard truths reacts with hostility and anxiety, and probably offers a threat: “Fine. If I can’t lead the youth group, I’ll just leave.”
  • Congregational war-mongering: The offended one lines up their supporters and it’s war. Gossip, ugliness, and basic unChrist-like behaviors ensue. “It would be better to destroy the Church if I can’t have my way.”

Obviously this is about trust. If we trust our parishoners, our leaders, our colleagues, our siblings in Christ, we can both say and hear hard things. What’s also true is that for millennia, church people have been saying hurtful and untrue things.

If we are told something uncomfortable, consider:

  • Is the person sharing the difficult thing as a lone ranger making a personal swipe? (I once had a Personnel Committee member tell me it was “time to go” where I was pastor. He had gone rogue and the Personnel Committee had not asked him to have this conversation with me.) One might say he simply didn’t want a female pastor.
  • Ask the person who is sharing the difficult truth, “Are you sharing this on behalf of the whole church?” (If so, they should have brought at least one other person with the authority to have this conversation with you.)
  • Ask trusted others if this resonates with them too. Trusted colleagues will indeed be able to speak to hard feedback.

A common Call to Confession in my faith tradition is: If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. (Thank you John the Evangelist.) Part of our own spiritual growth – if we believe we were created to serve rather than to be served – is to let hard truths sink in. We cannot grow if we don’t embrace the truth that we can and need to do better.

Do I need to listen more and talk less? (Ouch. Yes. It’s true.)

Note: I’m on study leave this week and this is my last post for January. Thanks be to God.

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