Like many of you, I receive a steady barrage of e-mail advertisements from companies pitching their latest product or service. On Sunday, July 14th, I received an ad to view a 60-minute webinar entitled “Stop Avoiding Difficult Conversations”. The title captured my attention as it came just twelve hours after the announcement of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial on Saturday. With twitter erupting and the media abuzz, I found the webinar title timely, provocative, and prophetic.
The webinar promised to teach participants “how to prepare for your difficult conversation”. I began to wonder whether or not clergy and church leaders were prepared and willing to have “the difficult conversation” warranted by the trial results.
Tweeting Is Not Enough
After hearing the verdict, I added my muse to the cacophony of reactions spewing across social media. But voicing my solo opinion in cyberspace didn’t seem enough for such a volatile issue. Can one “tweet” lead to better understanding or mutual respect or reconciliation between people?
As Saturday night bled into Sunday morning, I wondered whether pastors and congregations would pause to address the landmark decision or act as if nothing had happened and simply “praise the Lord” in their worship services. Would churches interrupt their regularly scheduled programming to weigh in on the breaking news?
I wondered whether or not pastors would forgo some sleep to edit or completely rewrite their sermons? For those following the lectionary, I wondered if pastors would preach the parable on the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) with fresh insight? The court of public opinion was in session, but would the church take time to talk and reflect and pray?
Honesty Without Pretense
I am haunted by the candid words of a pastor at a clergy retreat who remarked “There’s more honesty in an AA meeting then there is a typical Sunday morning worship service”. Honest conversation, devoid of Christianese and predictable ritual responses, can be the norm—if we choose it as a priority in our churches.
Regardless of where you stand with the verdict in the Zimmerman trial, there is an opportunity for a larger conversation. A young man was killed. Another man’s life is marred forever. We need to talk about our national perceptions about the issues dredged up by this court case: the role of race in matters of morality, justice, sanctity of life, power, privilege, and self-defense to name a few.
Starting the Difficult Conversation
How do you start the difficult conversation? I have been reading Know Your Story and Lead with It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership by Richard L. Hester & Kelli Walker-Jones. The premise of this type of leadership is simple. Clergy leaders should learn their own inner story first and lead others in discovery of their stories. In short, it teaches people how to start honest, civil conversations about things that deeply affect our lives.
Much of what we value in life emerges from what we learn implicitly. We watch, we hear, we listen to others and consciously or unconsciously chose what information becomes part of our personal narrative. That narrative shapes our values, beliefs and behaviors. To this narrative God’s transforming message in scripture offers a countercultural alternative. Conversations take on new depth when we talk about the times our story collides with God’s story.
Curious Listener vs. Know-it-all Expert
If we engage in honest conversations as curious listeners rather than know-it-all experts, critical questions may emerge that reveal the path that churches could take. If we create sacred space, the Holy Spirit will function as our Teacher and guide us. Consider the following possibilities. What would happen if churches took time to lead neighborhoods and representatives from law enforcement in honest conversations about how to conduct neighborhood watch groups? What would happen if churches led conversations about how to get know and love one’s neighbor? What would happen if churches led conversations about the assumptions that fuel fears between people? Who knows what other questions could emerge from church-initiated conversations.
The preparation for honest conversation begins with discovering one’s personal story. What we typically know about ourselves is a “thin narrative” derived from the editorial choices we make. The discovery process pushes us beyond the unexamined narrative that fuels many of our behaviors and attitudes. To get to the “thicker” version of our narrative we need to share our story with others in a trusting environment. We also need to hear our story alongside the story of others.
To build trust, invite everyone in the conversation to suspend the presumption of “knowing” the right answer. Instead encourage people to simply listen to each other without commentary. Authors Hester and Walker-Jones (2009) urge adoption of Parker Palmer’s practice of Circles of Trust: “no fixing, no saving, no advising, no setting each other straight”(p. 25). The ground rules are simple: listen without being the expert, respect the other person, and go into the conversation as a curious listener. If we learn to talk with honest candor in peaceful times those skills will be available when challenging situations arise.
We often fear what we don’t know. It is not enough to merely co-exist or tolerate each other in this country. That, Howard Thurman says is “contact without fellowship”. If we really are “our brother’s keeper” and if we truly believe you should “love your neighbor as yourself” then it is time to talk—even if it means starting a difficult conversation.
Hester, R. & Walker-Jones, K. (2009). Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute.