I’ve been stirring conversations about important topics churches have been better known for ignoring – sexuality, LGBTQ, child abuse, women in leadership, #churchtoo.
I have to tell you: It’s been incredibly rich and rewarding to see God at work in the middle of the tough conversations.
I’m discovering that, done right, on the other side of difficult conversations can be refreshed ministries, deeper trust and greater opportunities for new connections and further gospel reach.
Here are some things I’m learning about stirring up the tough conversations that I thought might help and encourage you as you wade into difficult but needed conversation.
It’s probably necessary to add, don’t just stir up difficult conversations because you like it, only stir them up with godly intentions and the right attitude to bring deep conversations, richer relationships and fresh ways forward.
1. Creating the right environment matters.
Establish a safe space to allow people to be wrong or to get the language wrong, to disagree even with you the leader, to say what they are thinking and feeling without fear of judgement, to know that this is a space where we are beginning to work it out together.
In order to create this kind of environment, you need to be humble as the leader and admit you could be wrong and invite disagreement and discussion.
As the leader, create this environment by giving permission for people to be unsure how to express themselves but applauding their courage to express themselves anyway, to disagree and to give each other grace.
2. Vulnerability is greatly appreciated.
I have discovered as the leader of the conversation when I’m vulnerable about my own fears, doubts and temptations, it opens the conversation to new levels. Modelling vulnerability creates the safety for others to be vulnerable too.
3. People need to see your heart.
More than expecting you to have all the right answers or being able to agree with everything you say, people need to see your heart for people in these discussions.
I’ve had many people disagree strongly with me in these discussions but walk away acknowledging my love for God and others; that’s a huge win. If people know you are “for them,” you can have all kinds of difficult conversations.
4. Permission to disagree.
One of the best things we can do is give people permission to disagree. The goal isn’t that we all think and perceive things exactly the same; that would be a cult!
The goal is to love and respect one another and find a way forward. It is possible to disagree starkly and still love and be in fellowship with one another.
5. Listening matters.
All those things you were taught in kindergarten, “You have two ears, and one mouth. Listen more than you talk,” matter in difficult discussions.
Listening well, acknowledging what the other is thinking and feeling, acknowledging their perspective and fears even if you don’t agree goes a long way.
We all need to be heard. Hearing someone and acknowledging what they are saying and feeling isn’t the same as agreeing 100% with their viewpoint. It’s valuing them and acknowledging their point of view. Listen well.
6. Let it go.
After difficult discussions, some people may decide they fit better somewhere else and that’s OK. Just make sure they go knowing you love them and want God’s best for them.
7. God does work in and through these dialogues.
Having these difficult conversations has increased my prayer life, especially for things like wisdom, help and for God to be at work in the conversations.
God is faithful. Repeatedly in these difficult conversations, I’ve seen God turn a conversation around by shifting a conversation toward Jesus and our common belief in Jesus. I’ve seen Jesus give us fresh ideas when the conversation seemed stuck.
God is at work in our relationships and the difficult conversations we need to have in communities.
As I’ve said often to people in these discussions, the depth of conversation should match the depth of relationship. God will help the relationship go deeper, and the conversations go deeper.
8. Make sure your own heart is right with God.
I have discovered when I’m resting in Christ and my identity is firmly set in Christ, it is way easier when someone disagrees with me or even is angry with me. Yes, that does happen in these discussions.
When I’m secure, knowing I’m a beloved child of God and nothing can change that, others anger doesn’t pierce me, and I’m filled with love for them.
I can have humility about my understanding of things, yet utter confidence in my God and my security and identity in God.
I give myself the “Holy Spirit test” during and after these difficult conversations, asking myself through that whole discussion, “Did I display the fruit of the Spirit – the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control of Jesus?”
One of my reoccurring prayers as churches (and conventions) navigate what can be difficult conversations is we’d display what it means to love one another, we’d display what it means to be family and truly be united under Christ, even while we debate passionately and disagree heartily.
May we be able to say, “I see it differently, but I love you and I know we both love Christ.” May they know we are Jesus’ disciples by our love.
As we wade into the water of difficult conversations, may we find Jesus helping us to walk on the water.
Renee Embree is director of youth and family ministries with the Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada (CBAC) and the director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry Studies at Acadia Divinity School in Nova Scotia.