Be Courageous! Don’t Avoid Hard or Awkward Conversations
Among the most esteemed professions in our culture are “first responders,” people who courageously move toward dangers and disasters rather than the normal human reaction of running for their lives. I think here especially of firefighters who go into burning buildings and rescue people despite the heat and the imminent danger of a collapsing building. Now I don’t imagine that secular society will ever see pastors with that kind of esteem, but I do believe that we pastors must see a significant aspect of our pastoral ministry in that light: moving toward pain, suffering, sorrow, and dysfunction. And given that pastors’ tools are words, that means especially not avoiding the hard or awkward conversations with the people of our flocks.
When the little boy Samuel heard God speaking his name for the very first time, Eli had to tell him to say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9). Little did Samuel know that the Lord was calling him to ministry, and was testing him to see if he would speak a very challenging message of judgment to a man he loved dearly—Eli. But Samuel faithfully told Eli what God had told him despite the pain it would cause, thus beginning a lifetime of courageous proclamation of words from God.
Pastors must similarly follow the leading of the Holy Spirit to proclaim God’s Word in its fullness, even when it’s hard. Paul said he did not “shrink back” from fully proclaiming the Word in all its dimensions, even if it brought temporary pain to himself or his hearers (Acts 20:20, 27). Pastors can neither be people-pleasers on the one side, nor take pleasure in hurting people on the other. A loving courage for the sake of the final blessedness of the flock is the goal.
HAND OR AWKWARD SCENARIOS ABOUND
People are complex, and sin complexifies. In my almost twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, I have had many hard conversations, as well as many awkward ones. Hard conversations include confronting someone in a significant sin pattern as a first step in a painful church discipline process. I once had to deal with a man in an adulterous relationship who thought he was still acting in complete secrecy. He didn’t know that his wife had hired a private investigator who obtained proof-positive of the affair. In front of two church leaders, I read him the account of Ananias and Sapphira lying to God from Acts 5 and said, “Sometimes we only get one chance to tell the truth.” I asked him if he was involved in an adulterous relationship. He lied to me and the other two men. Amazingly, within a month he had been diagnosed with the cancer that took his life in less than a year. Thankfully, after some time he confessed and renounced the sin completely before he died. But I never forgot how scary the lessons of holiness were from that fateful moment. I and the other two men still shudder with the memory.
Other hard conversations include rebuking an openly disdainful church member from a consistent pattern of challenging the elders publicly; comforting a family grieving over the sudden death of a family member by suicide; suspending a man from ministry because of abusing relationships with co-laborers.
The word “awkward” would be attached to far less severe situations. Here are some examples:
- telling someone that thinks he has the gift of teaching that he really doesn’t;
- showing someone a blind spot in their sanctification, a pattern of sin that they clearly are not aware of;
- telling a young single man who is sweetly pursuing a young single woman in the church that she is not really interested in him and he needs to back off;
- conversely, telling a young single man that he should be moving ahead in a relationship when he is dragging his feet (One man once said to his discipler who was urging him to pursue a godly young woman in their church, “I guess I’m waiting for a ‘ten.’” The discipler answered, “Brother let me be honest… you’re about a ‘seven’… maybe a ‘six’!” Now that’s an awkward moment!);
- working with a socially awkward person whose mannerisms are off-putting for everyone that knows him—body odor, strange laugh, talks too much, too “touchy-feely,” painfully shy, etc.;
- dealing with an extremely needy person whose insecurities make him want to spend as much time with you as possible;
- winsomely evaluating a person’s ministry performance in detail—leading in worship, preaching, public reading of Scripture, or organizing the men’s retreat;
- asking forgiveness of a person when we are convicted that we have been unkind;
- pointing out a consistent pattern of procrastination or sloppy workmanship in a church member’s ministry;
- any interaction of any kind in which a person’s child is misbehaving and their parenting could be improved (people are extremely sensitive about their children!).
I could list many, many others! As it turns out, imperfect people interacting closely with other imperfect people creates a river of such moments.
FOUR BASIC EXHORTATIONS
1. Be humble.
Before you confront any other imperfect person about his sins or weaknesses, spend significant time in prayer humbling yourself. Remember that no such pattern ever exists in another person that couldn’t easily exist in you. This is exactly what I think it means to remove the log from your own eye so that you will be able to see clearly enough to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Mt. 7:5).
2. Be gentle.
As we’ve just noted, Jesus likened the correction we do in other people’s lives to dealing with their eyes. There is no more sensitive part of the body than the eye. The cornea has around 7000 nerve terminals per square millimeter—around 300 to 600 times the number found in the skin. So when you have a hard or awkward conversation, use extreme gentleness. In your courage, be tender-hearted. Let them see that your heart is for their final blessedness in eternity, and that any pain the encounter is producing is shared by both of you. Job 6:25 says, “How painful are honest words!” Keep that in mind as you speak.
3. Be truthful.
Make certain that the hard things you are saying are actually true. Whatever work you need to do to ascertain the truth, do it. And make sure that your words are saturated with biblical truth. Use the pertinent scriptures. Let the Word of God be “living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12). Let it do its clean, sharp work in the soul. Make certain that you are being clear about the topic and the counsel you are giving. They should have no doubt about what to do when you get done. In other words, don’t be so “gentle” that they are confused what that conversation was all about.
4. Be hopeful.
Point them to the eternal hope in Christ, that God is at work in them to fit them for glory. If you are closing one door—perhaps to a ministry or a relationship—then tell them that God will open other doors. Give them eternal perspective, and remind them that God is working tenderly for their final perfection. Give them a strong sense of your abiding affection for them as a pastor, and how much you see the grace of God working in their lives.