How to Navigate Difficult Conversations in Your Church

Try these six tips for engaging others when it's time to discuss challenging subjects.

Two men talking

Few things are more difficult to attempt and handle well than having difficult conversations with church members. How can pastors and leaders navigate these potentially explosive situations? Here are a few ideas that might help.

Often we read Paul’s epistles and silently admire his willingness to admonish people who are living in disobedience. He called out people by name to be read for all time! He instructed Euodia and Syntyche to start getting along (Phil 4:2), confirmed that Demas had deserted him (2 Tim 4:10), and wrote a personal letter to Philemon—directly challenging his understanding of Christian brotherhood—to be read before the entire church (Philemon 2).

Few things are more difficult to attempt and handle well than having difficult conversations with church members. 

Difficult conversations do not have to be anger inducing or confrontational. Sometimes they are simply bad news: breaking it to a wife that her husband has confessed to an affair or informing parents their child vandalized the nursery. Depending on your context, informing the senior adult ladies they need to change classrooms could be a difficult conversation.

How can pastors and leaders navigate these potentially explosive situations? Here are a few ideas that might help.

1. Be clear about why you want to meet.

Never, ever ambush anyone in a meeting. (When I was young and dumb I did this. Can confirm: not a good idea.) Every person coming to the meeting should know what the meeting is about. If the issue is a child’s behavior, they should know that. If brother John is not fulfilling his duties on a ministry team and it is time for a conversation, do not spring it on him like a spider ambushing him in a dark room. Let them know know in advance.

This is especially true if the person is clueless that you think something is wrong. Ruining a perfectly good meal with “Well, the reason I asked you to lunch…” can create a cloud of suspicion about your motives that remains long after lunch has ended.

2. Be up front about everyone who will be in the meeting.

If the meeting requires witnesses, the subject(s) of the meeting need to know everyone who will be in the meeting. Further, as much as possible, every person should agree in advance to every person who attends the meeting.

If the subjects of the meeting are led to believe they are meeting with the pastor only to arrive and find the pastor, his wife, two deacons and their wives, it creates a dynamic of defensiveness that will not be productive. Sometimes there is reluctance or an outright objection to the witnesses, but you can forge ahead with integrity as long as their presence is disclosed in advance. (Clearly, if you are in step two of church discipline where witnesses are needed and the subject(s) refuse to meet, that is a different matter. This article does not address church discipline.)

3. Don’t bait-and-switch.

When you explain the meeting to the potential attendees, be truthful about your reason for meeting. Don’t say you need to meet about a parking issue if the real reason is sister Sue stealing money from the offering. Don’t say the meeting is about the Christmas program if there has been an accusation of adultery. (I did the bait-and-switch once, too, and have always regretted it.)

Perhaps after the meeting gets started other things will arise that need to be addressed; no problem. When all parties are traveling the road together, you can still make progress. But if some in the meeting are expecting to go one way only to find you intend to go in an unrelated direction, the journey will likely not go far or well.

"No matter how difficult the meeting is going to be, lay groundwork for a Christ-centered time. Ask for the Spirit of God to superintend everything that is said and done. "

4. Don’t include any more people than are necessary to address the issue.

Following the biblical pattern is good even when there is no sin involved. If only one person is involved in the situation, most likely they are the only person who needs to be in the meeting. Bringing in people who are not part of the problem or the solution opens the door to potential gossip which will not benefit anyone.

5. Do open with Scripture and prayer.

No matter how difficult the meeting is going to be, lay groundwork for a Christ-centered time. Ask for the Spirit of God to superintend everything that is said and done. Do not be afraid to pray in the middle of the meeting if you sense things are getting tense. 

6. Be hopeful inwardly and express hope outwardly.

Always express hope to those in the meeting. “I am hopeful that God is going to work in this situation today” is much better than “Well, this probably isn’t going to do anyone any good, but let’s get started.” Refuse to be defeatist no matter how difficult you think the conversation might be. Have faith that God is going to work to bring a resolution that honors him.

In the end, all the people meeting are part of the same local body of Christ and must pray and strive together to resolve conflicts not matter how minor or major. Such striving for unity makes the body stronger and provides a witness to those outside of God’s power.

Marty Duren is the director of communications for Great Commission Collective, and a bi-vocational groups pastor in Mt Juliet, Tenn. He’s happily married to Sonya, with whom he has four grown children and two grandsons. He enjoys family, reading, social media, and public theology.

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