6 Ways To Be Smarter About Difficult Conversations

What is the essence of ministry? How do you define it? A definition we’ve come to appreciate at our church goes like this: Ministry is a series of difficult conversations. 

The easy stuff works itself out. But the entrenched patterns, the destructive habits, the corrosive relationships, those don’t seem to go anywhere. Until there’s a hard conversation.

One parishioner was renting from another. However the rent was not getting paid. And the delinquent renter was also acquiring a newer car, nice things, etc. Meanwhile, the landlord was struggling to keep their financial house from sinking. I knew both parties very well. They were respected leaders in the church. I couldn’t deny that a hard conversation was needed, I just didn’t want to do it.

I suspect that I’m not alone in my aversion to those talks. It’s much more fun to share stories of where God is at work. Or even to talk about strategy, outreach, theology, and the like. But when the enemy is putting in overtime, the temptation is to avoid the issue/person. There are a million other priorities calling for a pastor’s time, which means the hard conversation can always wait until another day. 

Except that waiting doesn’t help. And if ministry really is serving (think basin and towel), then avoiding the hard conversation is hardly serving the other person(s). 

My own 30-year pastoral ministry is pockmarked with difficult conversations. Some of them have ambushed me. Others I lurched into without adequate preparation. Get knocked around a few times and you either quit the game or learn how to play smarter.

Here are 6 ways I’ve learned to be smarter about difficult conversations:

1. TALK TO GOD FIRST. Sounds obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs to be said. And done.

2. TALK TO A TRUSTED ADVISOR NEXT. My wife, my senior staff, my board members, my cycling partners, and other confidants have all served in this role. There have been times when my advisors have helped me see that the difficult conversation doesn’t need to happen because I’m the problem, the irritant, the source of the difficulty. 

3. PICK A TIME AND PLACE THAT ARE CONDUCIVE TO A HARD CONVERSATION. I’m not always the most emotionally intelligent guy in the room, so I sometimes have to think several times thru this one.

4. MOBILIZE A PRAYER TEAM. There are a handful of my trusted advisors who I can call on to pray without telling them why. I’ll simply say, “I have a difficult conversation next Thursday at 3 pm. Could I ask you to be in prayer?” 

5. LOOK FOR PAIN AND POTENTIAL. Very often the situation got difficult in the first place because someone was dealing with pain (perhaps not in a healthy way). And if I look for the potential, not just the problem, I’m closer to seeing what God sees in that person.

6. KNOW MY DESIRED OUTCOMES. Is it for the other person to see a blind spot? To cease a destructive activity? To change a sinful behavior? To stop cheating on their spouse, or defrauding another church member? To acknowledge their own brokenness or bondage? To repent? I may not realize the desired outcome, but I at least want to know what it is.

These tips don’t guarantee success. I’ve had plenty of difficult conversations turn south. People get angry. They leave the church, which happened in the case I mentioned above. They say mean things. They question my motives, my character, my calling, etc. Even when I’ve done my best attempt to cultivate a successful outcome, the choice is ultimately not up to me. When that happens, we’re in good company. Even Jesus had people walk away from difficult conversations in anger.

Thankfully, I’ve also had plenty of difficult conversations lead to growth. There have been breakthroughs, and healing, and transformation. Which in my book counts as ministry. 

If you aren’t having difficult conversations, perhaps you’re missing out on the ministry God has in front of you. 

The more I stay in this calling, and the more I understand about real ministry, the more I’m convinced that it always comes down to difficult conversations. So what difficult conversation do you need to have in order to genuinely minister to that person you’re thinking of?

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Mark Tindle
Mark is Lead Pastor at Seneca Creek Community Church in Gaithersburg, MD where he's served since 1989. He's a former U.S. Marine, and a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and TEDS. He and his wife, Diane, have two grown daughters. Mark enjoys cycling, reading, Cornhusker football, and almost every kind of music. He blogs at marktindle.com.
Mark Tindle

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