When you are leading, you often must make difficult decisions, decisions that involve several moving parts. One of those “parts” is almost always people, people who come with strengths and weaknesses, families, obligations, and dreams. Ideally, the people we work with are people that we have built good relationships with and have respect for. In church ministry and non-profits, it is very common to care deeply for the people we work for, work with, and who work for us. This can make for a great work environment, but it can also make the conversations that result from difficult decisions a challenge to navigate. Suddenly, the decision we have made has real time impact on everything from a person’s dreams and goals, to how they view themselves and their abilities to - in the case of job security - pay their rent, car insurance, and kid’s medical expenses.
It is tempting in these situations to avoid having crucial conversations. It can be tempting to minimize, distort, and feel the need to justify the truth when we do have these conversations. To make matters muddier, as leaders we often have information and details that we cannot always share. Often, there are factors outside of our control. All this makes clarity hard but essential.
I’ll never forget one of the worst and best lessons I learned about the importance of having clear conversations with those I lead. I was serving as a children’s pastor at a large church. Despite the size, finding quality volunteers was often difficult, but I was blessed with a great team. I had two types of leaders. One group was gifted in teaching and had a solid foundation in Scripture; the other group did not have the gift of teaching and were less knowledgeable but they were committed and willing to learn which made them gold. All of them had shown themselves to care deeply about the children and families we saw each week, saw what we did every weekend as ministry and not just glorified child care, and were willing to try just about any of my hair brained ideas.
One leader specifically was a pillar of the ministry. We will call her Jo. She was outstanding. Called. Gifted. Talented. She could manage a large group, make the Bible come alive, had years of experience, insightful feedback, and could follow even when she did not agree. Over the course of a couple years, I made several changes to how we did children’s ministry. Jo loved some and others, not so much. But she always found a way to make it work. Eventually, we moved to a video based curriculum with more small group time. There were many factors that led to this decision and there was wisdom behind the decision. When the time came to make the announcement, and train all the volunteers, I explained thoroughly the reasons for this change, sharing what I could, and providing a variety of ways to make it work to allow for the different styles of teaching and leading we had. I watched as Jo’s face revealed not excitement, not understanding, and not even resignation. It revealed hurt.
The truth was, I knew it would.
You see, I knew that no matter what conversation I had with Jo, this would be one transition she would struggle to make and possibly choose to not make. I feared both hurting her as well as losing her. I feared a difficult conversation, that even with solid reasons and her understanding there were larger pieces at play, which would leave us at odds. There would be things we would not agree on. This would potentially mean her leaving my ministry.
So, I avoided.
Avoidance as Default
I chose the difficult decision but did not have the clear conversation that should have accompanied it.
I justified my decision. It was the best decision for the two types of leaders I had, the numerical growth we were seeing, and the growth in how we were ministering to families and children. I justified avoiding this conversation because I could not be expected to have a personal conversation with every leader over every decision I made. I minimized the investment and experience of this specific leader as well as the impact this decision would have on her as an individual. I distorted the truth by convincing myself that I was called to pastor children and families first and then my volunteers.
The truth was far simpler. I did not want to have the conversation because it would make me uncomfortable. I did not want to have the conversation because there would be information (policies, pressures, and vision from leadership higher up) that I could not share. That is an uncomfortable position to be in. I did not want to have the conversation because I knew that hurt and a sense of being pushed out could not be avoided. Jo had my utmost respect and I was grateful for her. I had no intention of hurting her, but I realize in hindsight I also did not want to hurt her because of how it would make me feel.
So, I avoided rather than have a clear conversation.
What would a clear conversation have looked like? It would have been as honest as possible. While I could not share everything, I would have shared as much as I could. I would have acknowledged up front that the decision being made would be one that would hurt her. I would have taken time to recognize that and allowed space for it. Jo would have had time to process the changes. Again, Jo was not just any volunteer, but an instrumental part of why the ministry had been quality before I came, held together under a succession of several leaders in a short time, and why it continued to be successful after I came. I would have offered suggestions and listened to hers for how I might help her make the transition. Toughest of all, I would have talked about whether this particular area was where she should continue to serve given her gifts and feelings toward the decision. I would have neither pushed her out nor left her behind to find her own way.
Unfortunately, because I failed to have a clear conversation, I watched as Jo felt mislead. I do not know, but I have always wondered if she felt lied to. I didn’t lie, but because I did not have the clear conversation I should have I am not convinced I was honest either. In that moment, I lost a leader. Not the change. Not the curriculum. Me. The reality is that there were many changes in the church happening and Jo would probably have resigned at some point; maybe I wasn’t the first nail in the coffin or the last. Nevertheless, the one place where she had been able to trust a leader (a young one at that), to invest and improve a ministry, provide feedback and be heard, and continue to grow herself had suddenly vanished, all because I failed to have one clear conversation over one difficult decision.
I took from Jo the opportunity to grieve in a safe place, to pray over her next steps in a healthy and supported environment and transition out of ministry in a way that felt loved and respected.
I failed to lead her.
I had the title of pastor, but had not pastored at all.
What do we do?
Since then, I have seen this pattern repeated over and over by many church leaders. In hindsight, I can look back on years as a pastor’s kid and see this played out in several scenarios. It’s hard in the church because we are called to love and to relationships. We know too well the wounds the church has inflicted on others. We don’t want to be part of the problem.
I wonder, though, if we are creating more wounds with kisses.
Proverbs 27:6 says, Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiples kisses.
Hurt and transition probably could not have been avoided for Jo and I. Had I had a clear conversation though, those would have been wounds from a friend. Wounds we might have grown from. Instead, I chose to kiss her, to make it appear all good and nothing bad. It would be nice to say my intentions were all good, but at best they were mixed. I wasn’t Jo’s enemy but in that moment, I did not have her best interest at heart. I was looking out for my comfort. One of the definitions of an enemy is something that harms or weakens something else.
I never meant to harm Jo, or to weaken her in any way, but I did because I didn't want to deal with the messiness, awkwardness and sometimes painfulness of a clear conversation.
So, how do we make sure we have these clear conversations? Here are a few questions I ask myself now:
- What are my motives for avoiding a conversation or not having a clear as possible one? Is this more about me, my comfort and my goals than what the other person needs from me as a leader?
- Will not having this conversation create more hurt than having it? Sometimes hurt is unavoidable, so what is the healthiest way to engage when that is the reality?
- What conversation will most likely set the person up for future success and more maturity? Am I doing this person a disservice?