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Breaking Bad News to Your Church:
From Conflict to Connection

How you tell a church about a hard decision can determine whether people will accept the decision and move on, or question it and quibble over its merits for weeks, months, or even years.

By Tracey R. Carpenter and Susan A. Chiasson

If you are a pastor, you know you can count on having problems in your church. You may be tempted to think that once you have made the difficult decision about how to handle the situation, you have solved the problem. Unfortunately, most of us have learned all too well that this is not the case.

Often, an even greater hurdle lies ahead: how to tell the congregation about your decision. Many pastors believe that simply announcing the decision — and possibly offering a brief explanation — will end the matter. But as experience has taught many of us, relying on the authority of the pulpit to bring closure to an important matter does not guarantee resolution.

In this article, we explain why this method is typically ineffective — illustrated by a frequently arising example — and outline our suggestions for addressing such situations.

Simple Announcements Rarely Diffuse Complex Situations

A number of factors complicate church issues, making it difficult to properly — and publicly — address problems: (1) the nature of any tough situation; (2) the nature of pastors; (3) the presence of newly-churched members in the congregation; and (4) social media. Let us look at each more closely.

1. The nature of a tough situation

Any situation that requires a pastor to struggle to find the right decision necessarily involves important issues central to the church. It also involves some uncertainty or ambiguity that will engage the emotions and beliefs of the congregation. These factors make it difficult for your church to simply listen to your decision, accept it, and move on.

Why? The combination of importance and uncertainty creates an environment that promotes confusion. Humans want their world to make sense. When something confuses them, they naturally seek information to ease that tension. Connecting things they have heard and seen, speculating, and talking with others are common ways to attempt to gain information. Efforts to quell such endeavors by chastising members not to gossip or listen to the rumor mill will be fruitless. In times of genuine uncertainty or confusion, seeking information is not sinful; information is central to understanding and intelligent processing.

The necessary byproduct of importance and uncertainty is emotion. Uncertainty about important things can make people anxious or fearful. If not handled thoughtfully, anxiety and fear can easily shift to anger or hostility. Psychological research demonstrates that when people are in a state of heightened emotion like anger or anxiety (known as hot emotions), they cannot process information systematically and logically. In short, emotions can prevent people from hearing your message.

2. The nature of pastors

Pastors are typically inclined, by nature and training, to look for the good in people and to hope for the best. Most exhibit a protective instinct and hesitate to reveal that a person or situation has become problematic. When it comes to breaking bad news to people, pastors often pull their punches and soften the blow. This approach muddles their message, and instead of decreasing uncertainty, adds to it.

3. The presence of newly churched members in the congregation

People raised in the church understand that conflict will occasionally occur, and that pastors must make decisions that some will deem hurtful or offensive. Newly churched persons, however, may lack such understanding and have unrealistic expectations about how churches handle conflict. Without guidance from the pastor on how people can settle conflict in a Christian context, some may turn to other members who offer rumor and gossip — under the guise of guidance — to explain what is going on. Others may feel confused, alienated, and hang back from wholly joining in with church activities; some may become disillusioned and leave.

4. The effect of social media

Before social media, rumor chains worked over the phone, by e-mail, or face to face between people who knew each other well enough to talk about sensitive issues. But social media makes it possible for people to air grievances and discuss issues with acquaintances and strangers. It increases exponentially the possibility for people to stir up trouble and question your decisions persistently and publicly.

Example: Firing a Staff Member

Examining a common issue allows us to see those factors at work. Suppose you have a staff member who is constantly at odds with the rest of the staff, as well as with members of the congregation. You have counseled him repeatedly, but the problematic behavior persists and is causing conflict that you cannot overlook. You know that firing him is the right decision. You know that if he remains at the church, he will continue his trouble-making ways. You must decide. What do you tell him? What do you tell the congregation?

Commonly, pastors choose a face-saving approach and attribute the firing to different visions or to the Lord leading in a different direction. The hope of that strategy is to maintain peace and prevent anger. The other strategy is to be direct and honest with the employee and the congregation that the employment situation is not working.

Our experience has led us to strongly advocate the latter, more direct approach. Before we describe how we would apply it to the example of the fired staff member, let’s first consider potential consequences of adopting a face-saving, softer approach.

Using the face-saving approach creates more uncertainty and emotion about an important issue. Allowing someone you fired for cause to continue attending the church invites further problems, but using a soft approach makes it difficult to remove the offender from the congregation. If you are not direct about why you are letting him go, then asking him to leave the congregation can create anger and confusion on his part. He is likely to express these feelings to other members of the congregation. If you are not direct with the congregation, they may view his firing and exclusion as callous. They may even be offended by what they perceive as slights, such as the church not rallying around him during this difficult time or not giving him a love offering.

Using the direct approach with the staff member and face-saving approach with the congregation will still increase uncertainty and emotion. The protective instincts of a pastor often lead him to openly discuss with the staff member why he is being let go, but he uses a much softer approach (“God is leading him elsewhere, but we appreciate his work here and wish him the best.”) with the congregation.

This well-meaning approach is both extremely common and extremely problematic. Almost inevitably, the terminated employee will express his frustrations and anger to members of the congregation. Even a conditional severance package, i.e., no bad-mouthing, is only helpful until he receives his last severance check. Additionally, he can conduct a whisper campaign through his friends or acquaintances, and he can expand that circle and extend his complaining through social media.

The inconsistency between his private comments and the public statement can cause rumblings within the congregation that are difficult to control. Once a pastor addresses the congregation with a softer approach, he drastically limits his future options. As a vocal and persistent campaign against the church develops and grows, the pastor is tied to his first explanation, and it is difficult for him to revisit the topic and explain, “This is what really happened.” Although such campaigns do eventually die down, they plant seeds of doubt and uncertainty within the congregation that will quickly surface when the next problem arises.

Use a direct approach to address the obstacles to clear communication and connection. In your private conversations with the offender, with your leadership, and in your public conversations with your congregation, maintain a clear, consistent, and truthful message. You do not need to give either the staff member or your congregation all the details in your thought processes, but you should provide enough information for them to understand your decision. Be mindful that, for most people, this situation will trigger negative emotions. To work through those emotions, you must acknowledge their existence and intensity.

This approach promotes trust in you, respect for your leadership, and understanding of how a church functions. It also helps maintain a healthy, thriving church. Below are recommendations based on the example of the fired staff member.

When Meeting With the Staff Member:

  1. Clearly explain why you are letting him go. Outline the main issues, but do not rehash them or allow an argument as to whether he was the cause of them.
  2. Make it clear that your decision is final.
  3. Be polite, respectful, and calm. Be prepared for the fact he is likely to be upset and angry.
  4. When he asks what the church will be told — as he likely will — be prepared with a response. Do not whitewash the response for his benefit, and do not allow him to believe that the public statement is up for negotiation.

When Addressing the Congregation:

  1. Address the issue directly. Do not provide vague reasons or say that you “have different visions.” For example, say that promoting unity in the body was a critical component of his job, and he was deficient in that area. If you have a strong principle of “unity of church comes first,” this is the time to restate it.
  2. Own your decision. Strong leaders are called on to make tough decisions, so this is an opportunity to establish yourself as a strong leader.
  3. Be clear about who is accountable for what, without condemnation. You do not want to demonize the fired staff member, but you do want the congregation to understand that you extended grace and gave him opportunities to address the problematic behaviors before you took these measures.
  4. Tell your story once — completely and clearly — and offer to continue to be a source of information. Encourage people, especially the newly churched, to talk to you, or a few other leaders, privately if they have trouble understanding this. You know you have been successful if, after you have communicated your decision, people come to you with questions.
  5. Be prepared for some people to be angry over your decision. If you have clearly communicated the reason for the dismissal, it is likely most of the church will support you, but there will always be issues that arise as a result of major decisions. The goal is to handle the situation in such a way that these issues come to your attention immediately, and you can deal with them rather than letting them festering under the surface indefinitely.

Keep These General Truths in Mind Throughout:

  1. The goal is protecting the unity of the church. No scenario is likely to end with you having a good relationship with the fired employee, so do not make decisions with that goal in mind. Instead, your goal should be a resolution that best protects the members of your congregation — particularly the newest and most vulnerable members — and causes the fewest distractions from your ultimate goal.
  2. Expect emotional fallout, but do not let that prospect deter you. Emotions run high in church transitions, and there will always be fallout from any tough decision. Proper handling of the presentation of those decisions can limit the effect of any lingering issues on your church members while reassuring them that you are a leader they can trust.

Conclusion

How you tell a church about a hard decision can determine whether people will accept the decision and move on, or question it and quibble over its merits for weeks, months, or even years. It can determine whether the newly churched will watch from the sidelines, confused and alienated, and drift away, or whether they will understand that they have a place and a part in this church dialogue, and draw closer. Although difficult to walk through, these situations define your leadership style: Do you ignore or address conflict?

Our hope is that this information will encourage you to use conflict as an opportunity to heal your church, forge stronger connections among members, and grow as a leader.

Tracey R. Carpenter, Ph.D. and Susan A. Chiasson, Ph.D., Carpenter Trial Consulting, Houston, Texas.

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