“We must be transformed in ourselves if we hope to have better conversations in our congregations. To relate to one another well involves more than learning the skills of good communication.”

Courageous Conversations in Churches: Where Communication Skills and Self-Transformation Meet

By Betty Pries (July 2021)

Why is it so hard for people within church communities to have heart-to-heart conversations for situations involving conflict or harm? We know that humble, honest, and grace-filled conversations – while difficult – can be helpful to heal wounds. We also know that engaging in these types of conversations is gospel work; yet doing so with fellow congregants remains challenging. Why? 

In days gone by when people used to talk to their seatmates on airplanes, my conversations with fellow travelers sometimes revealed that I work with  congregations in conflict. Depending on the traveler’s response, I knew immediately whether they attended church. Those who said, “I didn’t know churches had conflict,” revealed that they were not associated with a church. Those that do (or once did) attend church always said: “Oh wow, that must be tough.” Sometimes individuals in the latter group would pause after their response and then pour out a story of pain – pain at the hands of congregants or clergy who left that person and others wounded and, in some cases, traumatized.  

Some might argue that it is logical that churches cause harm. Churches, after all, are made up of broken people. Sometimes congregants say to me: “Surely, that group must resolve things better than us.” In reality, no faith group has a corner on getting it right – nor on getting it wrong. Every institution can fall into the trap of unhealthy and even deeply painful conflict. 

Part of what makes conflict in churches so difficult is that we want the church to be better than normal society, to live up to Christlike ideals of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Can congregations actually achieve this ideal?  

Sometimes I think it is our ideal of getting it right that gets us stuck. Because Christians long for their congregations to be places of kindness and grace, they can avoid important conversations for fear of creating additional harm or tension. Instead, congregations fall into the trap of keeping artificial harmony until it is too late. In other words, congregants can feel obliged to swallow their differences, allowing their disagreements and hurts to grow until they become unwieldy and painful. Just learning to have better disagreements would help churches  tremendously. Kindness does not mean ignoring differences. Instead, kindness involves leaning into differences with grace, humility, clarity and honesty. 

There is, however, an even deeper problem with which churches must contend. Too often Christians have seen faith as a set of right beliefs; they may view faith as a one-time initiation. Instead, we are wise to consider Christian faith as an ongoing journey of daily and continuous transformation that is more about developing a right spirit alongside right action, rather than adhering to a code of beliefs. Of course, beliefs matter. Divorced from a daily and continuous transformation, however, beliefs ring hollow. Spiritless belief is like acknowledging that the sun and sky exist while never actually leaving one’s house to experience the warmth of the sun or the vastness of the sky.  

Why is this important? Because, metaphorically speaking, experiencing the warmth of the sun and the vastness of the sky changes us. A direct encounter with that which is Ultimate is both comforting and confronting; it is an experience that is, at once, a reminder of both our greatness and our finitude. In the  embrace of divine mercy, we remember our home; we recall our goodness and the value of our being. These are all great things and deeply healing in our journey’s of growth.

As we sink into the embrace of divine mercy, however, we discover that it is difficult to pass through the doorway into the home to which we are being called. It is as though we are carrying so many bags, we do not fit through the portal that leads to a full experience of mercy and grace. Our bags, of course, are so familiar– even comforting – to us, we have a hard time letting them go. They are the limitations of our ego and the prison of our shame. They are the wounds within us that we have come to love. And, if we are honest, our bags include the pain we have caused to others. 

As we stand at the portal of our healing, we are invited to release our attachment to the burdens we carry, becoming free in the grace that calls us home. It is in moments such as these (and if we are open to it, these moments will come frequently) that we are invited into a deep and profound transformation, into becoming increasingly Christlike in our relationship with ourselves, with our neighbors, with our global community, and with the planet we inhabit. One could say that this journey is a perpetual dying before we die, dying to our ego self and being resurrected to our deeper self and into union with God. 

What does all of this mean for our relationships in the congregation? People of faith have long struggled with the desire to remove the splinter from another’s eye even as the log in their own eye is still firmly in place. In other words, we must be transformed in ourselves if we hope to have better conversations in our congregations. To relate to one another well involves more than learning the skills of good communication. Of course, skills are important. Skills alone though will not be sustainable if our underlying condition is plagued with ego attachments, shame and a relentless judgement of self and other. To engage our differences well, we do need to become Christlike. But to do that we must learn to die before we physically die, freeing ourselves from the burdens that block our passage through the portal of God’s grace into the home of mercy to which we are called. 

To be clear, none of us pass through this portal only once. We must make our way to our home in God’s grace over and over again. It is why we must die before we die again and again. But what a promise lies on the other side. As we make our way into the home of God’s mercy, we learn to see the other – and ourselves – through the eyes of God. When this occurs, some of what has frustrated us with regard to the other simply begins to fall away.

For some difficulties we will find new and helpful words for engaging our differences. Other concerns will take on a heightened urgency for us, and though we might not know what to say, our action to initiate conversation will flow from this urgency. Whatever the level of our concern, when we see through the eyes of God we become deeply rooted in an unconditional love for the person(s) with whom we disagree, even as we uphold the healthy boundaries that allow our communities to become places of goodness, generosity and grace. 

What does all of this mean practically? How do we turn these commitments of faith and inner transformation into concrete steps that allow us to engage one another well? When we have those moments of bumping up against each other in our church communities, I propose the following steps: 

1. Engage in Self-Reflection. 

a. Reflect on the situation. What is yours to own in this experience? What did you contribute to the situation? What is in your back story that has caused you to be impacted by this situation? What do you believe the other has contributed? What could the other person’s intention be that has nothing to do with you? What could be in the other person’s back story that has caused them to be impacted by this situation? 

b. Nurture love. How can you nurture a deep love for yourself, and honor your pain and rest in your identity as a child of God? How can you nurture a deep love for the other person, and honor their pain and rest in their identity as a child of God? 

c. Set a plan. Does it make sense to talk with the other person directly? If not, will you need the  support of a third party? If you will talk directly, how will you want to manage the meeting to ensure the conversation is healthy? How will you arrange for the conversation? What type of meeting location will be safe, both emotionally and  physically? How can you ensure the meeting is both honest and grace-filled? How will you listen for God’s leading in your preparation and your meeting?

(Note: if it doesn’t feel safe to meet alone with the other person, read the article “Where Two or Three Gather”)

2. Arrange a Meeting. 

Contact the other person and ask for a meeting – in person, by phone or by  email. State your intent for a positive meeting but do not get into the issues now. Engaging in issues of concern requires time and tender care that a later, dedicated meeting affords. As you prepare for the meeting, remember the other person’s personhood as a child of God.  

3. Meet with the Other Person.

a. After welcoming the other, share the reason for meeting. Ask the other person for their perspective, letting them speak first if they wish.

b. Share your perspective. Listen deeply, carefully and with humility. Use open-ended questions to help you listen well. Speak with generosity and grace, sharing your truth while still making space for the other’s story. Paraphrase to ensure you are hearing correctly, and also to give them the gift of being heard well.

c. Ask about how the situation impacted them and share how the situation impacted you. Be curious about their intent and share your intent behind whatever went wrong. 

d. As you move through the conversation, listen for God’s leading for you and the other.

e. As you wrap up the conversation, review what you have discussed to ensure you are on the same page with one another. Discuss how you will manage differences in the future. Develop plans to right the wrongs that have occurred between you, and if it is helpful, write down mutual agreements.

4. Get Back into Stride

a. It takes time, even after really good tough conversations, to get into stride with one another again. Give each other grace for the time it will take to feel normal with one another again. Act normally with one another until being normal with one another feels normal again. Take concrete actions to normalize the relationship between you.

b. Some relationships, even after good conversations, do end up parting ways. Sometimes reconciliation is not an option. If reconciliation is not an option, ensure you continue to honor the other’s personhood, even as you set boundaries. Remember – those relationships that cannot be healed can still be our teacher. 

In the end, we are all children of the Beloved, worthy of dignity and grace. Living together in communities of faith will cause us, undoubtedly, to bump up against one another. Our ego attachments and shame stories will cause us each to stumble and fall. We will harm one another, and after our fall, we will need to  learn to get up again and to mend what is broken. Becoming a people of merciful honesty and gracious truth-telling is possible. Doing so depends on a long, ongoing, sometimes difficult yet often joyful journey of transformation that never ends, a journey that promises both healing and hope – for ourselves, for our  communities and for our world.

Betty Pries works for Credence and Co in Ontario, Canada.