Consider this scenario…

An outreach ministry team seeks council approval to use mission auction monies for an elevator to make the congregation’s building more accessible to people with disabilities. During council discussion of this request, the pastor questions the appropriateness of using mission funds for an elevator. After all, she points out, mission monies should be used only for the congregation’s outreach ministries. Since no one from the outreach ministry team is present, council refers the request back for clarification.

This referral action seems sensible, except for an important misperception: the outreach ministry team thinks their request is rejected rather than returned for clarification. They also feel that the pastor exerts undue influence in the council’s action.

Feeling hurt, unappreciated, and ignored, the ministry team members angrily demand a meeting with the pastor. They also send her a feisty memo expressing their frustration, including a sharply worded demand that the council reconsider their request. They argue that people outside the congregation will use the elevator, including a number of organizations that meet at congregation’s building (e.g. A.A., a preschool, etc.) Their rationale acknowledges that an elevator serves the congregation, but presents compelling ways that it also is an outreach ministry.

What happens next?

When the disgruntled outreach ministry team meets with the pastor, she corrects the misperception that the council denied their request. However, rather than talk past one another, play the blame-game, let the conflict spiral out of control, further damage trust, or fracture relationships, the pastor listens to ministry team members’ feelings of anger and hurt. She also checks her perception of what she heard them say and feel. Moreover, rather than try to convince these members that they no longer have reason to feel angry, the pastor calmly acknowledges their frustration.

This pastor’s active listening and perception checking skills, together with her non-anxious presence, defuse this potentially conflicted situation. It communicates to ministry team members that the she takes them seriously. They feel confirmed, understood, and appreciated. It also communicates that the pastor tries to use her power and influence to serve and help rather than cajole and control.

However, this incident could have had a very different, all-too-common outcome.

Why healthy communication matters

Feelings of neglect, resentment, anger, blame, lack of appreciation, and frustration are often long lasting. Misperceptions, anxiety, passive-aggressive communication styles, power struggles, dis-confirming messages, cultural insensitivity, ineffective listening, and destructive conflict often have dire consequences––individually, collectively, and synergistically. In fact, these communication breakdowns can spiral out of control, leading to such disgruntlement, dissension, distrust, and division that people angrily leave the congregation.

By contrast, effectively employed communication behaviors can avert a potentially disastrous situation. Use of wise, timely, and effective interpersonal, small group, and organizational communication skills can make the difference between destructive, out-of-control, unhealthy relationships and constructive, manageable, healthy ones.

Communication in the Church: A Handbook for Healthier Relationships, a recently released Rowman & Littlefield and Alban publication by Thomas G. Kirkpatrick, targets six topics that account for the vast majority of communication breakdowns in our congregations:

  • Building relationships
  • Leading meetings
  • Experiencing trust
  • Practicing forgiveness
  • Using power
  • Bridging cultures

It provides some simple guidelines that can go a long way in helping people improve the quality of communication in your congregation and everyday life. Hopefully, you’ll find numerous “ah-ha” moments along the way, and even more importantly, some practical skills that will enrich and deepen the relationships in your faith community and beyond.

Thomas G. Kirkpatrick is an educator, trainer, writer, and consultant with specialties in interpersonal communication, small group ministries, and conflict management. He is the author of Small Groups in the Church: A Handbook for Creating Community. He has served as pastor at several churches and professor at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and Whitworth University, and he has also been a campus minister and program director of camps and conferences. You may contact him at his website.

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