“We need to talk.” Those words often signal there is a hard truth to share, a difficult decision to make, a problem to solve, or a conflict to address. They have an insistent tone as if something important has been denied, avoided, or postponed. “We need to talk” feels like an imperative, not an invitation, obligation, or opportunity.
Sometimes, leaders have to say something like “We need to talk” to the people they serve. Maybe the proverbial elephant in the room has to be named so that it can either be shown the door or given a seat at the decision-making table: lagging income and mounting expenses, a struggling program that runs on the dwindling energy of inertia and nostalgia, a staff member or volunteer leader who’s drifting into troublesome behavior, or a sense of vision and mission which no longer inspires and motivates. Some of us are part of congregations or other organizations where almost everyone knows the real challenges, but almost no one will say the truly important things out loud. We urgently need to talk about such realities.
I’m convinced that “we need to talk” more than we do, but I don’t mean we need more committee and board meetings (we need better, not more, meetings). I mean, instead, conversations with a focus on nurturing relationships, not on decision-making; animated by exploration and discovery, not driven by an agenda and the production of deliverables; and unhurried, even leisurely, not obsessed with efficiency. Think coffee shop, a dinner table, or a backyard barbecue, not an office, a boardroom, or a fluorescent-lit room with a whiteboard and projector.
What I have in mind has resonance with, but isn’t the same as, “dinner church” (Dinner Church Collective; https://dinnerchurch.com/) or “slow church” (C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. InterVarsity Press, 2014). Whatever the place or format, we “need to talk” across generations, varieties of experience and perspective, and diversities of needs and hopes. We need conversations that take us outside our usual roles and the expectations that come with them and beyond our silos and turf, conversations that aren’t about promoting or defending an initiative or a program.
Adaptive leadership theory tells us that there are challenges that defy definition or description and, for that reason, also elude solutions. We don’t know what to do because we don’t know what we face. We’re wondering, for instance:
Are declines in rates of church participation part of the lingering effects of pandemic isolation, cultural upheaval, and political polarization? Or did those realities reveal and accelerate trends that were already in motion? In either case, how does “the church” engage “the culture”? Or should we be asking how “churches” engage “cultures”? Or, how does “our church” engage the “cultures around and within us”? Is engagement the right way to think of the church’s mission in times like ours? Or do we need a different metaphor, like embodiment or accompaniment?
How do we tame institutional imperatives and processes so that they serve the needs and aspirations of our faith communities rather than constrain them?
How do we use technology to enhance rather than replace gathered faith communities?
How do we communicate the reality and vision of Jesus in ways that speak meaningfully to people’s pervasive and persistent needs for love and belonging, meaning and purpose, liberation and healing?
These questions might not be right, but we need opportunities to talk about whether they are or not and to arrive at better questions. We need to laugh, give thanks, lament, and pray together; honor one another by speaking—and hearing—truthfully and lovingly; and serve each other by offering concrete help with the stresses of ordinary life. We need to ponder and wonder together about what the Spirit might be saying to us and trust that the wisdom we need will come to us.
What we learn will inevitably enrich the talking we do when we have an agenda, proposals to consider, and decisions to make. It will also be livelier, more real, and even more fun. We need to—we get to—talk.