Church conversations are in the news these days. United Methodist churches have been talking about who is staying and who is leaving, some Southern Baptist churches are now faced with talking about their views on women in ministry as it relates to denominational loyalty, moderate to progressive churches in all denominations may be talking about what LGBTQ inclusion means in their congregation or denomination, and many churches are talking about how to do ministry with a shrinking amount of financial resources and staff support?
Add to these “big issue conversations” all the time spent talking when a church must address conflict in the congregation, moral failure within church leadership, community transitions in the neighborhood, and countless other issues that arise in the normal life of a congregation. And . . . these conversations are all voiced against the backdrop of an increasingly polarized political climate. These are not easy conversations to have! How do we talk about these topics in our churches?
My CHC colleague, Guy Sayles, got me thinking on this subject with his excellent CHC blog post on April 25 entitled, We Need to Talk. Let me build on his thoughts and offer a simple suggestion for these conversations.
I was browsing my college alumni magazine and found an article in which the university’s Chancellor was quoted. He was talking about how to have difficult conversations. Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said, “At Vanderbilt, we want our students to freely argue their convictions while upholding civil discourse as a core value. We encourage them to understand first and evaluate later because we know that real innovation requires open inquiry, divergent thought, and that today’s world needs leaders who have not only the courage to speak but to listen and learn from one another.” (Vanderbilt Magazine, Spring Summer, 2023, Vol.104, No. 1, p. 8)
“Understand first and evaluate later.” I like that approach. Of course, it is nothing new. We have heard about this before. Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, taught us that one of the habits is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Too often, our emphasis in a conversation is to get our point across, make a reply, or offer an opinion or judgment. As Covey writes, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.” (Covey, p. 239) What if, we sought first to understand, then to be understood? That sounds like “understand first and evaluate later.”
The last sentence of the Chancellor’s words also sounds like Winston Churchill, who once said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” In our church conversations we have become prolific at taking a stand and speaking our minds. How well are we doing to show the courage of listening?
As good as Covey and Churchill are, there is a better reason to pay attention to the advice of “understand first and evaluate later.” We do this because the Bible tells us so. Have you read James 1:19-21 lately? “You must understand this, my beloved brothers and sisters: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for human anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”
There it is! “Quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” That sounds a lot like “understand first and evaluate later.” What would happen if we practiced this simple phrase in all our church conversations? Why don’t we take the command from Scripture and turn it into the prayer of our hearts? As we enter every church conversation, the short and simple – but profoundly important – prayer could be, “Gracious God, fill me with your Presence so that I may be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Lord, help me to understand first and evaluate later. Amen.”
I would love to try it. Will you?
In the past few weeks, the laity and clergy in Southern Baptist Churches have asked us numerous times regarding guidelines to engage in a healthy process of discernment related to recent SBC actions. As a result, we prayerfully offer these thoughts and guidelines for those engaged in such deliberations. Please see this document as an attempt to help those engaged in such conversations, whatever their context or history. If CHC can offer further assistance, don’t hesitate to contact us.