I'm not sure that having difficult conversations was something I expected to do so much of when I was getting into ministry.
I knew I'd be walking with people through the loss of a loved one and counseling people through marital difficulties, but as difficult as those situations are, people want their pastor to be involved in them.
What I wasn't expecting was to find myself needing to directly address sin or other issues where people aren't coming to me for help, but rather where I need to confront them.
One of the commitments that our small-group leaders make is to tithe to our church. Like everything else in our Leadership Covenant that our leaders and staff sign, this is a goal we're striving toward, not a rule that automatically disqualifies you from leading.
Not too long after I began doing small-group ministry, I had a leader who contacted our finance team about getting a donation credit for the food they purchased for their small group. That's not something we offer simply for logistical reasons, but before responding, the finance team decided to check this person's giving history. It wasn't going to change their answer, but they wanted to be sensitive to the fact that this person may be supporting the church in a significant way.
What they found was the opposite. This leader hadn't given a dime to the church.
Now, in the grand scope of issues I deal with, this one is actually pretty minor. But even for minor issues, I really prefer to meet with people in person to discuss them. I'm not a fan of phone conversations and even less so of handling something like this over e-mail. So I scheduled a meeting. The leader couldn't make it, so we rescheduled. And then when it came time for that meeting, the leader cancelled again, at which point I explained that I really needed to talk to him about something.
And that's when it blew up.
I told him I wanted to talk in person, and he wanted to know what about. I said it would be better if we talked in person, but he kept insisting.
So we spent an hour on the phone hashing through everything. I honestly don't remember exactly what was said, but it didn't go well. It was one of the first times I'd had a conversation like this, and I'm sure there are some things I could have said or done better. But the heart of the issue was that the leader lacked any sort of teachability or humility on the topic.
After we finished, he began calling. He called the church office. He called my boss, our Discipleship Pastor. He called our Lead Pastor. And when he couldn't get through to anyone, he just kept calling. The phone was ringing off the hook.
I wasn't hiding, and I certainly wasn't hiding anything from my leadership. In fact, I was in our Discipleship Pastor's office talking through the best way forward.
That situation more or less resolved, although the leader later ended up leaving the church over some other issues.
It wasn't a pretty situation, but it was definitely a learning experience. I've had dozens more conversations like this, although few, if any, have been as volatile. Along the way I've learned some important lessons on how to handle them well.
Who Should Have This Conversation?
When you realize that an issue needs to be addressed, one of the first things to ask is, "Who should have this conversation?" In spite of how poorly this all went, one thing we got right was that I was the best person to have the conversation. I had been in a small group with this leader previously, and I also served as his small-group coach. While it wasn't an easy conversation to have, I had more relational capital with the leader than anyone else on staff.
Fast forward a few years, and I found myself in the opposite situation. I was the primary person having these types of conversations with our small-group leaders, but with more leaders and more multi-site locations, a growing percentage of our leaders were people I didn't know or hadn't even met. I was running around putting out fires and dealing with problems, but too often the leaders didn't know me well enough to trust or respect me enough for me to be able to speak into their lives and groups.
So we made a change. At each of our locations, we have a point person who is responsible for promoting groups to the congregation and managing logistics there. We realized that these point people are the best people to pastor the group leaders at their respective locations.
Create a Natural Time to Talk
Scheduling a meeting to have a difficult conversation can be as difficult as the conversation itself. It's a tricky balance between not wanting to blindside the person ("I thought we were just catching up, and you're telling me we're meeting to discuss my sexual purity?"), but also wanting to be able to have the conversation face to face. It's a bad idea to have these conversations on the phone like I did in this situation—or worse, on the Internet.
One way to mitigate this is to build these conversations into your system. We meet with every new leader to review our Leadership Covenant. This meeting creates a natural space to discuss sensitive topics. It doesn't mean that the conversation itself is always easy, but we do have a forum in which to have it. We can talk about parts of the Covenant that might be of concern, things that their application revealed that we might need to explore further, potential issues that came back from a reference, and more.
Effective, Healthy Conversations
The way you have difficult conversations can have a huge impact—either positively or negatively—on your church. I'd go so far as to say doing them poorly could destroy your church and doing them well could be a huge factor in its thriving. This is both an art and a science, and I've found three things that help them to go well.
I'm like a detective before going into one of these meetings. I try to figure out what's really going on. If I have to address a problem, I want to have all the facts.
I'll reread someone's leadership application to see if there's something in there that sheds light on the issue. I'll ask staff members, other leaders, and group members for their thoughts. This has to be done in such a way that if someone has a concern they'll raise it but without gossiping or besmirching someone's reputation. I ask for an opinion, but I don't insinuate that there's a problem. It's not, "We've had some concerns about this leader. What do you think?" but rather, "How would you feel about this leader stepping into a larger role?" or "How do you think this leader would do at handling conflict in his or her group?"
I do, however, try to get a second and maybe even a third opinion from someone else who has all of the facts. I don't go around just talking about this with anyone and everyone, but it's completely appropriate to talk through the concern with another pastor or senior leader.
My goals here are to 1) make sure my perspective is right, because there are things I may have missed, and 2) to make sure my heart is right. Sometimes we get worked up over a pet peeve or a thorn-in-the-side person, and the issue that needs to be addressed isn't the character of someone else—it's our own character.
I usually have this conversation with one or two of the following: our Discipleship Pastor (my boss), our Coaching and Care Pastor, one of our Campus Pastors, or one of our Small Group Directors.
The one piece of preparation I'm worst at is the most important: You need to pray about it. I tend to leave this part out all too often, but it can make the difference between a difficult conversation that begins a process of discipleship, healing, and growth, and a conversation that causes a falling out.
By the end of the preparatory process, my goal is to have a game plan going into the meeting. I want to know where we are and some potential next steps.
When the meeting arrives, there are a few things that can help it go smoothly:
Relax. If you're stressed, nervous, or angry, that's probably going to come through. If you're relaxed, the other person will feel at ease, and you'll have a much more productive conversation. That's part of why prayer is so important. You're praying for the other person, but you're also praying that you will handle the situation well and have a holy confidence.
Start by listening. Say as little as possible at the beginning of the meeting. Spend a lot of time asking for the other person's thoughts, opinions, perspectives, and feelings. Begin with, "I've heard some concerns that …" or "I noticed this happening, and I wasn't sure what to make of it. Can you tell me more?"
The object of a difficult conversation is never punishment; it's growth. When I'm meeting with leaders to discuss a problem, I want them to grow through it and come out better and stronger and more Christlike on the other side. I'm not trying to make them pay for what they've done. One way to help ensure leaders know you want good for them and that you value them is simply listening to what they have to say. They might be dead wrong, but let them express their perspective before you tell them that. It's important to hear their side of the situation.
The second reason why what they have to say is important is that you could be dead wrong. Recently I had a situation where I thought some leaders were being stubborn. They were leading what we call a "black market" group, an under the radar group that isn't officially registered with the church and often isn't open to new people joining.
We discourage official groups from becoming black market groups unless there is a good reason. We want to combat "us four and no more" syndrome, and very practically speaking, we need groups to remain official, open groups, because we need places for people to connect. (By the way, I fully realize that while open groups are important in our context, closed groups have their place in other contexts.)
One way we encourage leaders to keep their groups open and linked in to the larger church body is that we support and resource our official groups. We don't do that for black market groups, so when we got a reimbursement request for $300 to help pay for childcare for a group that I didn't even know existed, I was less than excited.
Instead of calling up the leader and letting him know he couldn't have the money, I decided to listen first. To my surprise, I learned that they had tried to register the group. In fact, they thought they had registered the group, but apparently it didn't go through for some reason.
I have been known to have the occasional bout of foot-in-mouth disease, and one of the best treatments I've found is simply listening first and speaking second because sometimes I'm wrong. Don't let your preparation and fact finding get in the way of listening to the perspective of the person you're meeting with.
While I want to have a game plan, as Helmuth von Moltke the Elder famously said, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy" (The person you're meeting with shouldn't be your enemy, but you get my point). In other words, don't let your preparation, fact finding, and game plan get in the way of what you might have gotten wrong or what God might be doing in and through the situation.
Which leads me to my final point.
Sensitivity to the Spirit
Let's go back to that leader who I was having issues with and talking to on the phone. It turns out that someone else on our team had some concerns about him a couple of times, and I kept advocating for him.
It's good to be an advocate for your people, but you also need to listen when there's a check in your gut. When your team members or other staff members keep bringing up issues, the Spirit may be speaking through them. As you pray for your meeting, ask the Spirit to give you guidance and wisdom. You may find the Spirit giving you a check in your gut. I've ignored that more than once, and, unfortunately, I've paid the price.
Fact finding is important. The conversation is important. But neither is as important as the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the Shepherd of his church, and he will work through his Spirit to guide us in helping him shepherd it.
—Will Johnston is the Small Group Catalyst for National Community Church in Washington, D.C.; copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.