Communication in the Church: A Handbook for Healthier Relationships

An outreach ministry team seeks council approval to use mission auction monies for an elevator to make the congregation’s building more accessible to people with disabilities. During council discussion of this request, the pastor questions the appropriateness of using mission funds for an elevator. After all, she points out, mission monies should be used only for the congregation’s outreach ministries. Since no one from the outreach ministry team is present, council refers the request back for clarification.

This referral action seems sensible, except for an important misperception. The outreach ministry team thinks their request is rejected rather than returned for clarification. They also feel that the pastor exerts undue influence in the council’s action. Feeling hurt, unappreciated, and ignored, the ministry team members angrily demand a meeting with the pastor. They also send her a feisty memo expressing their frustration, including a sharply worded demand that the council reconsider their request. They argue that people outside the congregation will use the elevator, including a number of organizations that meet at congregation’s building (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous and a preschool). Their rationale acknowledges that an elevator serves the congregation, and presents compelling ways that it also is an outreach ministry.

When the disgruntled outreach ministry team meets with the pastor, she corrects the misperception that the council denied their request. However, rather than talk past one another, play the blame-game, let the conflict spiral out of control, further damage trust, or fracture relationships, the pastor listens to ministry team members’ feelings of anger and hurt. She also checks her perception of what she heard them say and feel. Moreover, rather than try to convince these members that they no longer have reason to feel angry, the pastor calmly acknowledges their frustration.

This pastor’s active listening and perception-checking skills, together with her non-anxious presence, defuse this potentially conflicted situation. It communicates to ministry team members that she takes them seriously. They feel confirmed, understood, and appreciated. It also communicates that the pastor tries to use her power and influence to serve and help rather than cajole and control.

This incident could have had a different, all-too-common outcome. Feelings of neglect, resentment, anger, blame, lack of appreciation, and frustration are often long-lasting. Misperceptions, anxiety, passive-aggressive communication styles, power struggles, disconfirming messages, cultural insensitivity, ineffective listening, and destructive conflict often have dire consequences––individually, collectively, and synergistically. In fact, these communication breakdowns can spiral out of control, leading to such disgruntlement, dissension, distrust, and division that people angrily leave the congregation.

This scenario also illustrates how a variety of effectively employed communication behaviors can avert a potentially disastrous situation. Indeed, use of wise, timely, and effective interpersonal, small group, and organizational communication skills can make the difference between destructive, out-of control, unhealthy relationships and constructive, manageable, healthy ones.

Fortunately, most congregations are eager to help people create healthier ways of relating to one another. Wide-ranging topics to consider include communication effectiveness in preaching, leading worship, embracing change, pastoral care and counseling, personnel and staff relations, and church administration. It is not feasible, however, to satisfactorily address all such topics in a single book. So, this book targets six topics that account for the vast majority of communication breakdowns in our congregations:

  • Building Relationships
  • Leading Meetings
  • Experiencing Trust
  • Practicing Forgiveness
  • Using Power
  • Bridging Cultures

It is also possible to offer wide-ranging advice on these topics. Again, discretion is required. So, the goal of this book is to provide some simple guidelines that can go a long way to help people be more effective in how they build relationships,   lead meetings, experience trust, practice forgiveness, use power, and bridge cultures. Chapters 1 through 5 cover the first five topics. The sixth topic, bridging cultures, is incorporated into these chapters where appropriate. In short, to improve the quality of communication in your congregation and everyday life, you’ll find guidelines for creating healthier relationships on each of these six topics.

Overview of Book

Here’s what you’ll find in each chapter:

  • All-Too-Common Scenarios––Real-life contexts
  • Sensible Guidelines––Good-to-know learning
  • Practical Applications––Good-to-go applications
  • Suggestions for Further Study––Good-to-get resources

Further resource materials are at the back of the book, including appendixes, notes, a bibliography, and an index. You may adapt this book’s content and resources to a variety of religious communities, learning audiences, work contexts, educational programs, and training events. While it is geared particularly for clergy, laypersons, continuing educational planners, professors, students and scholars, business and community leaders, nonprofit organizations, consultants, and professional speakers will also find it useful.

Welcome to this exciting journey. I hope you’ll find numerous “aha” moments along the way, and even more importantly, some practical skills that will enrich and deepen the relationships in your faith community and everyday life. I think our prospect of making communication work by helping people create healthier ways of relating to each other has promise, indeed!