Somewhere near the top of the work of a church leader is communication. I like to think of elders and church staff as God’s “perception managers.”
A few years ago, we elders met with a guy who was then serving as an involvement minister for his church in Florida. He was teaching us about an involvement or spiritual formation ministry. Something like that. He said these words, that I’ve quoted many, many times since:
People fill gaps in their knowledge in the most pathological way possible.
This is not cynicism. It’s astute observation of human nature. It’s a corollary of this similar truth:
People fill gaps in their knowledge with their fears.
At my law office, we went through a period of layoffs during some the recent tough economic times. It was no fun. We had a bookkeeper who’d been with us for 20 years, and she didn’t lose her job and was under no threat of being fired. And we told her that. She was so afraid of losing her job, she quit — and took another job for much less money. We were dumbfounded.
This leads to —
People comfort themselves by repressing certain truths. When they are reminded of repressed truths, they do crazy things.
Alabama is an “at will” state, meaning that employees can be fired for any reason at all — or no reason at all — so long as the employer isn’t violating some federal civil rights law. This is true, and most employees repress this knowledge so that they feel secure in their jobs. But when someone is fired even though they were doing good work, as in a layoff, suddenly they feel insecure. They are reminded that they can be fired — which is a scary thought.
They are no more insecure than before, in fact, but they’d repressed their fears. When the layoffs came, the insecurity became real. And so our very fine bookkeeper quit to take another at-will job, with no more security at all, and for less pay. It was an irrational decision made in response to change in perceptions — not a change in reality.
In Churches of Christ, elders have virtually unlimited power. They have the power to bring in a brass band. They can fire the preacher and hire a pagan. They can have the foyer repainted and not ask anyone what the color ought to be. They can even re-arrange the chairs, turn down the lights, and light candles.
Of course, there are very real practical limits on what the elders can do and still have a viable congregation. But when elders make an unexpected change, some people are delighted by the surprise and variety. Others are reminded how little control they have, they can’t bear the thought of losing control (although their control hasn’t really changed), and so they leave to join a congregation where they have even less control — but won’t be subject to unpleasant surprises.
Why do people freak when the lights are turned down or the chairs re-arranged? Because it reminds them how little control they have (in a typical Church of Christ, where we don’t vote on chairs and candles), they then begin to fear what else might happen that they can’t control, and they panic. Some leave. Some just complain. Most are testing the waters to see how much control they have — regardless of what they say or think.
It is therefore important that complainers feel valued. They can’t be given control of the church, but they can feel loved, significant, respected, and valued. Take the time to talk to them. Their complaining is likely an indication that they need to be assured that they matter. Not that they are in control; just that they matter. Ignoring them will send them away.
A wise friend of mine is fond of saying,
Nothing is more empowering than information.
While keeping secrets just makes things worse, sharing information does some wonderful things. It tells the church that you trust them to know your thinking. It assures them that there is no secret agenda they should fear. It lets them understand your goals and heart better. The reasons you give say a lot about who you are.
So here’s some advice, and I hope the readers can offer more and better advice in the comments.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. It is literally impossible to over-communicate.
- Do not assume that everyone who needs to know is present at church. Some are home sick. Some are traveling. And no, their friends will not catch them up. Announce it next week, too. And put it in the bulletin. And on the website. Send it out in an email, a text, and on Twitter. Do ALL these things. Twice or more. (And there will still be members who insist that you didn’t tell them.) As God’s perception managers, this is the easiest and most important part of your job. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
- Do not make a decision without also deciding how this will be communicated, by whom, and when — and how many times.
- Give the reason why. This just drives me nuts. If we’re going to take Wednesday night classes off for July this summer, tell us why. I don’t understand why so many elderships struggle with this! It’s not hard. Here’s my theory —
- To some men, explaining why feels like defending — and men don’t like feeling defensive.
- To some men, explaining why feels like you’re having to ask permission — and dadgumit! — I’m an elder!
- To some men, discussing the reason re-opens the question for further discussion. No, it does not. It determines whether you are part of the further discussion or your members instead talk behind your back. Wouldn’t it be better to have them talk to you rather than about you?
- Sometimes, the decision was made without adequate prayer and discussion, and some of the elders or staff aren’t really on board. They can’t explain it without saying things they don’t feel are entirely right. If so, then go back into the meeting and talk about it until you either feel good about the decision or you make a better decision. Don’t get in front of the church and announce a decision you don’t feel good about. The church can smell division and disagreement. It’ll be bad. Very bad. Be honest enough with your fellow elders to express your reservations. There’s always enough time to fix a bad decision before you announce it. Take the time needed.
- You will often need to spend more time on how to communicate and explain a decision than actually making the decision. Take the time. If you’re not chairing the meeting, don’t let the discussion move to another topic until the communication side has been covered.
- It’s often very helpful to pass around a draft announcement via email. If so, please take the time to read it and comment on it. It’s okay to ask your wife’s input. Women communicate differently. They hear differently. Let her help. And it’s certainly okay to suggest revisions in the draft. No one’s feelings will be hurt — and they’ll certainly be hurt less than a bad announcement will hurt the credibility of the eldership.
- Don’t dawdle. Make a decision — and if you need to meet late or extra to get it done right, do so. Or discuss via email.
- Ask members who are neither on staff nor otherwise “in the know” what their questions and concerns are. It’s just so easy to forget that, just because you know what’s going on, that doesn’t mean anyone else does. Make a routine of it.
- Warn people. If you’re going to re-arrange the chairs, tell them before time. Some members don’t deal well with change. A little more courtesy and a little less shock will go a long way. And when the youth minister is astonished that old people need advance notice, tell him to get over himself. Old people have earned the right to a little notice. It’s simple courtesy and sensitivity to people’s feelings.
- Share bad news quickly. Delay only makes it worse.
- Sometimes, you have to keep secrets. In a preacher search, remind the church that you cannot release names of men who already have jobs and haven’t yet told their own churches. It’s tough not being able to share the names of the men you’ve talked to, but without keeping their confidences, you can’t hire them. Say this. Often. But you can still say that you’ve interviewed 12 people from a list that started with 40 names. Any information helps the church feel included and trusted. Failing to keep the church advised on a minister search makes them feel like you’re hiding something. And they’ll fill the gap in their knowledge in the most pathological way possible. So keep them informed. It’s not hard.