Time to Have the Difficult Conversation (Kwasi Kena)

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.

Just Listen…
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.

  • Vance P. Ross

    Kwasi: this is excellent and so typical of the intelligent and heartfelt spirit you bring to all ministerial discourse. Thanks. Vance P. Ross

  • disqus_at95K9bcZs

    I don’t understand your concept of a “difficult conversation.” If everyone in the group is to “suspend the presumption of “knowing” the right answer” and everyone just shares their tentative “ideas” how will anyone arrive at knowledge of the truth or conviction on anything? I don’t see “difficult conversations” in the New Testament between Jesus and his disciples or in the letters of Paul. There seem to be a few “Know-it-all experts” in the early church!

    Incidentally, the Zimmerman trial was not about race and those who try to make it so are serving their own interests not the public interest. Such conversations do not shed light or unite, they further divide an already divided community.

    You write “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?” It may be that some pastors might consider that praising the Lord might be more important than a minor should-not-have-happened trial in Florida. It seems that as Saturday night bled into Sunday morning you were already mentally pre-judging how pastors would handle the Zimmerman trial and verdict in their Sunday services. It seems that if they did not inject the racial overtones of the trial into their Sunday services it would not be all right with you. Was that the spirit you intended? Is your “certain understanding” of the trial the kind of thing you encourage people to suspend when they enter into a “difficult conversation?”

    Just wondering. Thanks for all you do to advance the gospel.

    • desertmother

      As I read the author’s post I read a call for Christians to break their silence. I followed some of the after-trial conversations and it was clear to me that the hair-splitting over the verdict hinged on the fact that the law does not necessarily make MORAL judgements, it makes LEGAL judgements. If I am the pastor of a church, I would consider it my duty to make a moral commentary at this point lest my congregations take my silence as an endorsement of doing what is LEGAL even if it is immoral. The same could be said about abortions. They are LEGAL but some of us Christians consider them immoral. I am not silent about that either!

  • Kwasi Kena

    The “difficult conversation” pertains to taking the opportunity to open a dialogue about an event that stirred divided views in this country. When divisiveness is so blatant, should the church remain silent? Or does it seize the opportunity to talk, and examine the issues from multiple angles and seek a godly path to healing and reconciliation. Scripture says we are to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-21). What does it mean when the church is silent while people rage, mourn, or spew incendiary remarks in public.
    The idea of suspending a know-it-all perspective is only one of many techniques one may employ to encourage a fair hearing from all sides. [This is a blog and not a full fledged book on managing conflict. As such, it carries the obligatory sound-bite treatment of a topic.]
    The larger issue is one young man was senselessly killed and another man is forever marred by this event. Two families received death threats–is that alone not worth talking about? Is might makes right and threat by lethal force not worth talking about? When the church presses the mute button with such issues floating about, what does that say about it as a promoter of the kingdom of God. If we are to usher in God’s kingdom on earth as in “Thy will be done on earth as in heaven”–now. Does the church have the luxury of allowing vicious sentiments from both sides of the issue to go unaddressed?
    Surely, the ministry of reconciliation can play an active role in the midst of disturbing national events.