The “Benefits” of a Difficult Conversation

September 24, 2020  •   LPi

people at work talking at a table

As the pastor of a faith community, you’re bound to run into some uncomfortable situations. Whether that be with a parishioner who is unhappy with the quality of the music, or a staff member who is feeling burned out and definitely showing it, your role in the parish is to be a positive light in the darkness — and this includes having difficult conversations you’d rather avoid.

Patrick Lencioni is the co-founder of The Amazing Parish, an organization committed to helping pastors and their teams improve organizationally and spiritually. In his book, “The Better Pastor,” intended specifically for clergy, Lencioni tells the story of a priest who is challenged to think differently about his “job.”

Conversations: Difficult, Uncomfortable, Loving

In the book, he points out that though the most important element of being a priest is pursuit of holiness and love of God and the Church, a pastor is also the leader of an organization that requires management and leadership skills. Part of this is holding people accountable, which, as he says, “often involves difficult, uncomfortable, and loving conversations.”

In Lencioni’s book, the fictional priest, Fr. Daniel Connor, has a very frank conversation with long-time parishioner, Ken Hartman, who tells him everything that is “wrong” with the parish. But rather than use the conversation as a time to vent, Ken convinces Fr. Dan to find ways to fix these issues using ways more often found in Fortune 500 companies, not small-town parishes. So, instead of shying away from difficult conversations, Fr. Dan decides to face them head-on, with surprising results.

“We didn’t learn anything about leadership or management or strategy in seminary,”
said Fr. Dan. “And none of that was part of my calling to the priesthood. I became a priest to serve the Lord and, as you said, to bring people to Him.”

“I’m with you, Father. Your calling isn’t about management and leadership. And I’m
glad for that because what makes someone a great priest is his love for God and for people, not the ability to run meetings or do performance reviews,” said Ken. “But Father, you’re not just a priest. You’re a pastor … You’re the leader of this extremely important organization. And if you don’t do that part of your job well, it affects the Church’s ability to bring people to Christ.” (46-47)

The Gifts We Bring

Fr. Pat Heppe, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for the past 43 years, is well-versed in the topic of difficult conversations. Although there are numerous ways you can avoid them, it’s not smart to do so, he says. But the number one way to work with any parish difficulties — especially in a parish you’re new to — is to simply listen.

“The two most traumatic transitions that people have are change of job and change of residence,” he explains. “When you’re a priest, each assignment means that you leave behind a certain structure that you’re used to. When you leave committee members and staff, you leave behind job security and personal support. Coming into a new faith community is not only challenging on a personal level, but also brings its own set of challenges that you must now help navigate through.”

While many priests may be eager to come into a new parish with a whole new set of ideas and ways of doing things, Fr. Pat is adamant that it must be kept in check.

“As a priest, you look at vocations as a calling,” he said. “It’s exciting, but I need to step back and ask myself, ‘What are the gifts that I’m bringing that God wants me to use? The gifts that are best used for this situation?’”

“One of the most unspoken rules that we as priests follow is that we don’t change anything within the parish for at least a year. You spend a lot of time looking, listening and trying to understand where people are coming from. That’s why God gave us two ears and one mouth,” he laughs.

Teams to Drive the Parish Forward

One real-life example Fr. Pat was able to share was the time he was assigned to lead a huge parish cluster. Due to the large size of each parish, and the fact that there was only one of him, he went ahead and made some changes to the staff organizational chart by implementing a part of The Amazing Parish’s most well-known tactics.

“Instead of having various ministries or staff, we now have ‘teams,’” he explains. “And each team works together to solve problems that arise. So instead of everyone coming to me to make decisions that I, frankly, just don’t have the bandwidth to solve, we all work together.” Forming teams such as Christian formation, administration, human resources, youth and family ministry, for example, really helps to make decisions.

“It’s an amazing way to bring together everyone’s knowledge of the parish, the history of how things have been, and the many, many talents each one brings to the table,” he adds. “Together, we can make calculated, informed decisions, instead of rushed, short-term solutions.”

Looking for more ways to have difficult conversations at your parish? Consider the following tips for a positive outcome:

  1. Choose an Appropriate Setting: Depending on the severity of the issue, be sure to find a private place where you won’t get interrupted. It should be quiet and free of distractions like a ringing phone or a constant flow of visitors.
  2. Be direct: Don’t beat around the bush — offer specifics of the issue you’re trying to address. The more transparency you can provide, the better the critique will be received.
  3. Watch Your Language: This applies not only to spoken word, but also your body. Be kind yet firm. Say what you need to say, and then open the floor to discussion.
  4. Share Your Vision: So many times, difficult conversations turn into a venting competition. Instead, be sure to offer some solutions you’d like to see implemented. Give him or her ideas of how to move forward and be sure to ask if they have any questions or need you to clarify anything you said.

To help parish leaders navigate their way through the COVID-19 pandemic and the “new normal,” The Amazing Parish has created a free webinar series, “Surviving or Thriving,” co-sponsored by LPi. Watch now on-demand!

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