Three Keys to Handling Tough Conversations

Three Keys to Handling Tough Conversations

How to prepare and facilitate effectively

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.

More on Difficult Conversations

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