“Wait, you mean you still haven’t fired him yet?” I burst out at my colleague. She was having a meeting with her music director. The same music director. The same director, who, over a year before, she’d told me was impossible to work with and so she was forming a plan to ask him to resign. I assumed he was long gone but a year later, here she was: as angry with him as she ever was and still squirming over how she could find the nerve to let him go.
It’s not easy to fire someone. It’s not easy to be honest with your leadership or senior pastor about unpleasant things you’ve seen in your fellow staff, or lay leaders, or on committees. It’s not easy to be honest with people in your church when they are behaving badly, carelessly, or in a way that is disrupting parish life.
A disclaimer: I shouldn’t be writing this article. Even though I wrote an ordination essay back in 2007 outlining a Christian moral position on lying, connecting Immanuel Kant with the Sermon on the Mount, I’ve had a terrible time with honesty in my own congregation. It’s not that I’ve lied; but mostly, in my five-year tenure here, I’ve swallowed the truth. I didn’t want to make a mistake or hurt someone. Mostly, I ended up getting my own insides burnt, because the truth has a lot of spikey points when you try to swallow it.
But the longer I’m a priest, the more necessary it seems to me (and the easier it gets for me) to practice honesty. Honesty and transparency are crucial to developing a trusting relationship with a congregation. If you can’t tell the truth, reveal the numbers, bandage the wounds, or dig out the weeds because no one, including you, can point to them, you can’t help a congregation grow in the Gospel.
Now, it may be that your congregation has a systemic, historic problem with secrets and dishonesty. That’s going to require some love, patience, and formation in congregational development from the experts (ask colleagues or clergy you admire to help you find resources, support, and training).
On the other hand, pastoral honesty without humility or the foundation of relationship can be a clumsy, blunt, and hurtful instrument. Just because you’re clergy doesn’t mean you have a right or obligation to share your honest appraisal of everything. (For reference, see recent viral list: “Secrets Your Pastor Can’t Share in a Sermon.”) The right to be honest comes only from our responsibility to be relational.
Here are ten tips (I love tip lists!) for practicing responsible, relational honesty in your context:
- Be a leader that people can be honest with. Strive to be confident and calm enough that other people can tell you the truth, face to face, and you can hear it – and maybe even learn from it. Be able to admit when you’ve been wrong.
- Pick your battles. Some things are worth being honest about, and other things aren’t. If you’re not sure, sleep on it or ask colleagues for their perspective. Many things can be let go.
- Have the difficult conversation. Sleep on it… but not for a month! Get to the point, be directive, and don’t apologize. Preserve the good of your congregation above the feelings of individuals. Convey to the other person, despite the difficult topic, what you value about them as part of the conversation.
- Trust that your relationships with your leaders and congregation can withstand some bumpy roads. If you don’t trust that this is the case, visit, visit, visit your people to build up that trust. Or start looking for another job.
- Don’t try to have an honest conversation with an irrational, possibly crazy, person. They. Will. Always. Win. Set boundaries and expectations, then stick to them.
- Affirm, congratulate, and say “thank you” much more often than you correct, instruct, or criticize.
- Stay with your emotions and don’t try to stifle them: admitting your sadness, nervousness, or anger can help you set aside fear and rigidity.
- Show some vulnerability. Say “I don’t know” sometimes. Don’t be the pastor who always has the answers. Ask for help when you need it. Tell people when you’re having a bad day, when you disagree, or that you are going to turn down that piece of cake, thank you.
- Practice truth-telling with your church board. Appoint someone to play devil’s advocate for important conversations. Go around the table and ask people to share their perspective on an issue. Ask them, “What would you do if you were in my position?”
- And how to fire that staff person: Well, there’s no formula for this one because so many factors can be in play. Before taking action, talk to your mentor or colleagues. But don’t wait too long!
The old adage goes “Speak the truth in love,” but we often forget the rest of the verse: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” (Ephesians 4:15). Speaking the truth, first, is about seeking Christ and growing as part of his Body. Not about being righteous, confident, corrective, or even caring; but aspiring to “grow up into Christ.” Honesty is a spiritual discipline. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong. But the most healthy and holy honesty brings us closer to God and to one another, rather than pushing us apart. And that’s why, really, we should never be afraid of it.