The conversation you are hearing sounds violent. People are talking about “bringing in the big guns” and “rallying the troops.” You hear that people got “shot down” or “blown away,” and now there is talk about the need to “fall back” or to “retreat.” And these people are not talking about a recent engagement in Iraq. They are describing what has taken place at a recent church council meeting or some other gathering of church people.

Language is often more than a simple transmission of ideas. Words shape the way we understand and look at events and experiences. Metaphors in particular create an atmosphere or mood, providing an emotional content to what we communicate. Leadership often involves creating the emotional and psychological framework for our work by choosing carefully the words we use to describe people or situations.

The language used in the above example is not unique to the church. As author Geoff Crinean1 notes in an essay included in Margaret J. Wheatley’s recent book, Finding Our Way, such language is borrowed from the boardrooms of America, where the talk is frequently about how to “attack” various problems. Battle language, he says, provides convenient metaphors to describe the problem-solving process.

But if reaching a decision is approached as a conflict, there will be winners and losers. The process will be viewed as a confrontation between right and wrong, maybe even between good and evil. If that is what the struggle is about, then participants in that struggle will be convinced of the need to prevail. No wonder, then, that to come out on top in such a conflict provides a great feeling of success, and that to lose creates such a feeling of despair.

What seldom is grasped, Crinean contends, is that once a decision-making process has been framed as a battle, a series of disastrous, if unintended, consequences are bound to follow. In effect, he says, this frame creates a culture of blame and establishes the rules by which the group or organization will function. If there are to be winners and losers, good people and bad, then, of necessity, people need to protect themselves. They become reactive and defensive. Creativity becomes one of the first casualties. Why risk sharing innovative ideas if it means you will become the target of “pot shots”? Positions become hardened and polarized. People fight back using innuendo, stonewalling, delaying tactics, and sabotage. Factual information becomes scarce. Gossip and rumors flourish. To line up people on your side becomes far more important than considering alternatives. All of these “rules of engagement” typically continue in a system long after the initial battle has been concluded.

Sadly, these same rules of engagement are framing the discussions that take place in many congregations. In fairness, most clergy don’t set out to create a combative climate. They begin with idealism, with visions of the good that will be accomplished. But seemingly out of nowhere come criticism, resistance, and accusations. I suppose it is only human to respond both defensively and offensively, but this soon becomes something like a contest to see who can pile up the most rocks to defend his or her position, only to realize too late that each of the parties is standing in a boat. The winner loses.

What if instead of “attacking” a problem we chose to diagnose it? What if instead of “taking a shot at it” we chose to address the issue? What if instead of “coming out on top” we chose to dialogue? Admittedly, “diagnose,” “address,” and “dialogue” don’t quite stir the blood like the battle metaphors, but they seem more appropriate to congregational life. “Diagnose” implies to “know thoroughly.” Instead of looking merely for information that supports our ideas, we are open to getting as much information as possible from as many different sources as possible. “Address” implies both “speaking to” (rather than “speaking against”) as well as “defining a location” as a prelude to opening communication (as opposed to “avoiding” an issue). And, of course, “dialogue” has a long history in churches and provides the picture of “talking through” a problem by listening to different sides. All depict that the church is a community of believers, that God’s Spirit dwells in each one, that together they are the body of Christ, that the body functions best when each part is involved, that the body in its entirety responds to problems, and that, like any living organism, it will automatically adapt, change, and grow in response to the changes in the environment once those changes have been identified.

For leaders, a primary task, then, is to choose the words and metaphors that affirm process, interaction, and the value of the whole, for that is the language that is more apt to facilitate harmony or healing within the organism, whether it is a committee, a congregation, or a community.

1. Crinean, Geoff, “Transforming Aggression into Creativity: An Ancient Practice for Solving Problems,” from Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time by Margaret J. Wheatley (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2005), pp. 180–181.