I was recently asked to write a short piece on this question to form part of a discussion on resilience in ministry. This is an expanded version of what I said.
There are two strong tendencies in contemporary culture, and both of these affect conversations that we do and don’t have within the church. The first tendency is to contest everything, and this has made many parts of social media very unpleasant. Unless you limit your social media circles, you are likely to find anything you say challenged—it is highly conflictual. Because men are less ‘agreeable’ (in psychological terms) than women, these debates are often male dominated.
But the second tendency, often in response to that, is to avoid conflict, to shut down differences of view, and then often to resort to a form of ‘passive aggressive’ disagreement, without enabling conversation between different views. This is very common in church circles, where conflict is avoided and deference valued, which results in differences simmering as resentment.
In this context, how can we speak up well? Here are my five suggestions.
1. Be courageous
There are many reasons why we prefer to avoid conflict, and there are many additional reasons within church circles. The constant conflict of our culture is exhausting, and church life is not intended to be conflictual, partly because this is not considered to be ‘pastoral’. Don’t we we gather together as the people of God to be welcomed, encouraged, and restored, not to enter into difficult debates? After all, a repeated refrain of the people of God in the New Testament is that they were ‘one in heart and mind’ (see Acts 4.32 and parallel statements).
In addition, in many churches there continues to be a culture of deference. For clergy, there are particular reasons for this; bishops have enormous unspoken power of patronage over clergy, so clergy are often dissuaded from challenge decisions made at higher levels. And there is often a dynamic of deference in the local church too; clergy have powers to make decisions that can be hard to challenge on the one hand, whilst on the other, long-standing church members often exercise an informal power that clergy are reluctant to challenge.
All this means that speaking up on important issues requires a particular kind of moral courage. And speaking up is required! Change in the church tends to come by evolution, not by revolution, and radical new ideas are often introduced step by step, the technique of ‘salami slicing.’ If those ideas need to be challenged, then they need to be challenged early and quickly.
And they often do. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur talks of the ideas that shape our lives as either symbols—which are true and life-giving—or idols, which lead us astray. ‘The idols must be smashed for the symbols to live!’ For this to happen, we need to find the courage of Gideon (though he struggled! Judges 6.27–28).
2. Be secure
There are many things which inhibit our speaking up, and they often relate to questions of personal security. Externally, these can be real questions about ‘Will this risk my prospects in work or ministry?’ ‘Will this undermine relationships?’ But there are others around internal question of personal security: ‘Will people dislike me if I say this?’ ‘Will it undermine my self esteem?’
If we are going to speak up, it is vital that our personal security is rooted in God so that we do not not feel undermined, in ourselves and in our ministry, if people object to the challenges we are raising.
Asking questions or challenging assumptions can often feel risky and lonely. But it is remarkable how often, when one person asks a question or raises a challenge, others then quickly pipe up ‘Oh, I was thinking that too!’ If we can find our security rooted in God which will allow us to do this, we actually can be serving others and enabling them to explore as well.
3. Be objective
Raising difficult questions is made much more difficult if it is personalised. If we are going to raise questions, we need to do so about the issue at stake, and not the person who has expressed the view we are seeking to challenge. ‘Play the ball, and not the person’, as the saying goes.
This is important in protecting our own self esteem, but also the well being of others. Even on personal and contentious issues—no, especially on personal and contentious issues—our focus needs to be on the issue itself, and not on the people who express it.
This is not about de-personalising issues which affect people personally, not about adopting a cold objectivity which fails to appreciate reality. But it is about looking to establish common ground on which we might be able to agree with our interlocutors, as a way of defusing the emotional power that can dominate discussion.
The saying ‘a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes’ is attributed to Mark Twain—ironically, since it was not coined by him! In the internet age, untruths and half-truths are winged on their way through social media, making it even more important that we can base our discussion on agreed truths.
4. Be gracious
Scripture enjoins us repeatedly to speak gracious, particularly in the context of disagreement. Paul tells us to ‘kill our enemies with kindness’ (so to speak, Rom 12.20, quoting Proverbs 25.21); Peter urges us to offer a rational defence of our views, but to do it with ‘gentleness and respect’.
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3.15–16)
The aim should always be to seek to win the person, even if in the end that is not possible, and not merely to win the argument.
In the New Testament, both Jesus and Paul can be seen engaging in sharp disputes with their opponents. But both are also marked by an extraordinary generosity and graciousness. I used to ask students starting out studying Paul’s writings to imagine they were writing a letter, from a distance, to a church they knew in order to address a problem. In almost every case, their letters ended up with something along the lines of ‘You had better sort this out because I am telling you!’ By contrast, Paul’s language is consistently of appeal, not of command.
5. Be persistent and consistent
When we raise difficult questions, people will often respond in ways that avoid and deflect the issue itself. ‘You say that, but why aren’t you concerned about the other?’ ‘People who agree with you on this question also do this other terrible thing!’ ‘We accepted that other change—why can’t we go along with this one?’ And so on.
If an issue is important, then it is worth persisting with. If it matters now, then it will continue to matter. This requires careful, consistent, and persistent articulation of our case. And it is worth learning from these kind of deflection arguments. I have found that facing such challenges helps me refine my case and the way I express it. Why does this issue matter? At heart, what is the real issue? If we can get to that, then we can grow in our courage and confidence as we call people to the truth.
If we don’t speak up, then others will, and many will be influenced by those with the loudest voices, rather than those speaking the truth or saying what needs to be heard. So we need to be courageous, be secure, be objective, be gracious, and be persistent and consistent in holding out the truth in a confused world.