“Almost every time we at the Alban Institute are asked to help a congregation, people will tell us that the problem is ‘communication,’” Loren Mead once wrote. Congregations complain that people do not seem to know the information they need, information is misinterpreted, rumors and gossip flourish, or private material has been leaked publicly. Often congregants hear sensitive information that they have no need or right to know, yet they lack the information they do need to make reasonable decisions at a congregational meeting. The informal, and sometimes unhelpful, nature of congregational communication management leads to frequent joking about church business being done in the parking lot rather than at official meetings, or about the speed with which congregational rumors fly through the phone lines.
Congregants and leaders may have the wrong information, may be intentionally misled by another, or may lack the information that would reveal the reality of a situation. Ignorance, or simply not having access to necessary information, may be more innocent than intentional deception, yet the result may potentially be as harmful, especially if the ignorance comes from secret keeping. To create healthier congregational systems, both clergy and congregational leaders need to acknowledge the damage their communication patterns have created in the past and correct them in the present congregational culture.
Clergy of every faith tradition have the authority and power to control the dissemination of information. Those who identify negative communication behavior and teach new ways to manage congregational information can help transform their faith community. To begin changing a congregation’s communication culture, clergy need to be personally rigorous and ethical in their communications and behavior and develop support and accountability systems. Every clergyperson needs to meet monthly with a professional supervisor to review interpersonal or systemic issues in his or her ministry. This supervisor could be a spiritual director; a credentialed therapist; a congregational consultant; or someone else with professional training, insight, and the ability to give honest and constructive feedback.
Supervision can help clergy directly address areas where personal and professional issues converge. Clergy, like all people, tend to repeat patterns they learned in their family of origin. With growth and supervision, however, the clergyperson can learn to avoid the pitfalls of communication that impair individual and congregational functioning. Supervision can also help clergy clean up the congregational communication patterns that have injured them, rather than taking those patterns personally. A good deal of courage is needed for clergy to name and correct poor communication. Supervision provides an arena in which clergy can discuss the keeping or disclosing of confidences. Supervision can help clergy honor the power of each communication.
Clergy who name and stop negative communication behavior can help reshape congregational culture. They cannot do this alone, however. As lay leaders join the work of communication transformation, the number of individuals modeling more effective communication increases, as does the possibility of changing old patterns.
Whole congregations can identify themselves as victims of something or someone. The blame may be placed on current or past clergy or laity. Sometimes the blame is placed on a bishop or a superintendent or the polity of the congregation. “Victim” congregations create a place where individuals feel victimized and actually do become victims. This sense of powerlessness is debilitating—and yet it can be changed. Lay leaders need to believe that change is possible, that the congregation and individual leaders and clergy are not powerless, that, in fact, people within a congregation have the power to change it.
Unhealthy communication patterns create a culture where deception is possible, where blame replaces responsibility, and where power distortions bring growth to a slow and steady halt. In congregations where a person has misused power, three patterns of poor informational boundaries are usually evident: (1) information is censored to hide the abuse, (2) confidential material is leaked by the person abusing power, and (3) communication breaks down among congregants. Crucial information is concealed and private information is revealed. In incidents of sexual boundary crossings, it is likely that communication and information boundaries have also been crossed. In fact, a lack of communication boundaries can be a signpost that other boundaries of appropriate behavior may be ignored. That is why it is crucial to address communication issues as soon as negative patterns arise. When communication boundaries are sound, other types of boundaries are less likely to be violated.
Local congregational disclosure problems are established within the culture at large. Determining what information should be shared or protected is especially difficult in a culture where disclosure is highly valued, in which individuals are encouraged to be open and forthright with their friends and therapists—all the while proclaiming the right to privacy. In such a paradoxically private-but-open culture, how can a congregation exercise faith-based discernment to balance the need for the majority of its information to be open with the need to protect certain disclosures? Appropriate confidentiality protects the integrity and dignity of an individual worshiper. Prudent limited-access information protects disclosures within committees while they process difficult personnel problems. All the while, transparency enhances community trust and communication.
As clergy and lay leaders become conscious of the damage caused by negative communication patterns, they can open a wide arena for congregational discussion about how the congregation communicates: the protection of privacy, community communication patterns, and communication challenges in congregational life. Leaders also can encourage discussion of what the congregation talks about.
If a congregation is harboring major secrets, such discussions could create turmoil temporarily, even when communication guidelines are honored. As people share their personal experiences and feelings and are heard without judgment, they can slowly heal. Injustices can be addressed, amends made, and the path laid for courageous, enduring transparency.
It Starts with Each of Us
When people “walk the talk,” they have faith-life integrity. When people “talk the walk,” the intention behind their communication matches the precepts of their faith. Choices about when to speak and when to remain silent are never neutral. Sharing information can be well intentioned—or deceptive. Withholding information can be well intentioned—or deceptive. Every choice we make about communication stems from some conscious or unconscious expected outcome, which may be helpful or harmful to the health of the congregation. To create transparent congregations, each leader needs to “talk” a walk that is consistent with his or her faith.
Communication choices cannot be separated from faith. Religious leaders’ complicity in illusionary thinking, deceitfulness, secrecy, and ignorance shapes a congregation’s theology. And in turn, some theologies encourage giving false assurance, keeping secrets about the community’s dysfunction, and disguising reality. When truth is obfuscated or mismanaged, we must ask ourselves if our God is one of good impressions and “niceness”—or one of truth and justice. If our communication creates a “workable fantasy” rather than transparent community, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann warns, “Such fantasy will bring devastation upon a deceived community.”
The candor and openness of transparent congregations require sharing truthfully all that should be known and require, as well, the wis
dom to know that not everything that could be said should be said. With courage and discernment, faith leaders can talk their faith walk as they address old wounds and build up the community in a spirit of integrity and love. The truth about God and the truth about the world are intimately connected; we must tell them both.
Adapted from Healthy Disclosure: Solving Communication Quandaries in Congregations, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Healthy Disclosure: Solving Communication Quandaries in Congregations by Kibbie Simmons Ruth and Karen A. McClintock
Knowledge is power, and the way knowledge is shared in a congregation can build up or break down community. When congregational leaders are sensitive to the ways that information should be shared, the congregation can become safe and strong. Congregational consultants Kibbie Ruth and Karen McClintock show clergy and laity how to appropriately handle information. From proper ways to respond to rumors to relating information about a staff firing to the congregation, Healthy Disclosure is filled with step-by-step ideas for handling different types of sensitive material.
Preventing Sexual Abuse in Congregations: A Resource for Leaders by Karen A. McClintock
In this comprehensive resource, Karen McClintock gives clergy and lay leaders the tools they need to prevent sexual abuse in congregations. This book shows congregations how to protect children and vulnerable adults, prevent sexual harassment either by clergy or of clergy, and strengthen clergy families by raising awareness of the occupational and emotional risks inherent in pastoral ministry.
When A Congregation Is Betrayed edited by Beth Ann Gaede
The contributors to this volume provide non-technical guidance for the those on the front lines in congregations where misconduct has occurred. They give readers tools to engage congregation members in the issues surrounding clergy misconduct so that real healing can occur, they help congregations understand the victim’s/survivor’s experience, and they offer strategies to help afterpastors and other leaders manage a difficult situation, serve effectively, and even thrive.