Recently, I attended a dinner party that was a retirement party for a good friend who was retiring after many years in academia. There were toasts, humorous slideshows, wonderful meals and a fine selection of wines from Europe, Argentina and California. As the twenty or so people mingled I found myself in an interesting conversation with someone who knew that I had been elected bishop, and wondered what it was like. The question that stuck out for me most: “So, what’s the one thing that makes the most difference in what you do?”
Wow! Good question, I thought. I think I answered something about the effectiveness of my visits to congregations, now nearing 165 (next week), but later I let the question sink in deep. Ever have that happen? Someone asks you a question, and it haunts you, penetrates deep, lasts a while.
I’ve pondered that question, and I think the honest answer is: “The single most significant thing I do that makes a difference is to have honest conversations with people.” Or perhaps I should honestly say, “learning how to have those conversations and encouraging others to have them.” Since most of us are not naturally gifted in this area we need training. I’m learning from Jesus and Joseph Grenny.
Jesus gave us that wonderful, pain in the butt, gift recorded in Matthew 18:15-20.
15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
I say wonderful and pain in the butt, because we would all rather he not have provided this instruction – cause it’s so difficult. Face it, we’d all rather talk to everyone else about some difficult event that has happened, rather than speak directly to the person we have a breached relationship. How do I know this? Cause we all do it all the time.
I honestly believe that if we were able to follow Jesus directive here, large swaths of our interpersonal, political, international conflicts would be significantly improved.
Joseph Grenny and company have done some work in this area, and I’m learning from hom. His book Crucial Conversations is one of those business self help books that makes for good airport reading. But, it’s more than that. It’s concrete tools for how to talk to people about difficult topics. Those people could be our parents or children, co-worker, fellow church member, pastor, friend, enemy. Here’s the claim: Twenty years of research reveals that the key skill of effective leaders, from parents to presidents, is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues. Period.
We all need help in this area, cause there are very few people that are good at crucial conversations. This is especially true in the church, where our dominant value is to be nice. Well, I like to be nice, too. And I like it when people are nice to me. It feels good. But, the problem is, it doesn’t get us anywhere. There is no movement, we don’t make progress. But, even more than that, it’s not really helpful if we are to grow as human beings in our relationships with one another or with God. The reality is the way of the cross is the way of suffering, and suffering includes hearing and giving honest feedback.
The best feedback I ever got about my preaching was from the late Rev. Spencer Rice, who was Sr. Rector of Trinity Church in Boston, MA. He taught a summer course in homiletics (a fancy church word for how to give damn good sermons). I preached for that class, and I thought I was pretty hot stuff. Well, Spencer asked me to stay after class, and in a gentle, loving but forceful way gave me the biggest smack down of my life. He showed me that although my words were saying one thing, everything else was communicating the opposite message. It was hard to hear. But, in the long run, he worked with me. I thank God for that honest conversation he had with me 30 years ago.
Jesus gave us this gift in Matthew 18. It’s a frightening gift, but in the long run, it’s a gift that has cost, but even greater reward.