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!

Better Ways to Better Relationships in the Church: Guidelines for Practicing Humility, Experiencing Empathy, Feeling Compassion, Showing Kindness, Expressing Appreciation, and Doing Justice

A mid-sized congregation received a $50,000 bequest from the estate of a long-term member. This was the third such bequest in recent years. The congregation decided to use monies from the first bequest for deferred maintenance of its building, including tuckpointing its brick walls and refurbishing its stained-glass windows. Monies from the next bequest were used to remodel the fellowship hall, including an outdated kitchen. The congregation was deeply appreciative of these bequests and everyone was pleased with how the bequests were used.

Controversy arose, however, over how to use its recent bequest. Most options discussed by the board centered on using the new monies for additional building improvements––until the congregation’s outreach ministry team met to discuss its recommendations. Heated debate surfaced among team members until Alex spoke. Alex was highly respected in the congregation and its most wealthy member. He rarely spoke up in meetings, but he decided to express his frustration with where the discussion was going this time. He said, “I’ve supported the use of our previous bequest funds for necessary building improvements. However, the building is now in good shape, and I think we’ve spent enough money on ourselves. In fact, what is the clubhouse for if not to do ministry?

Alex’s surprising and quite unexpected comment forever changed the mindset and direction of the congregation. It changed the dynamics of conversation and transformed relationships among team members, the board, and members of the congregation. Here was a quiet, humble team member showing empathy, compassion, and kindness for outsiders. His recommendation was rooted in a sense of justice and appreciation for people outside the congregation who needed the church’s good fortune more than it did. It had enough for itself––and for those beyond its walls.

                   *         *         *

A local United Churches council decides to sponsor a town hall meeting to address protests against racial injustice by prominent professional athletes in its community. The mayor, a member of one of the faith communities with ties to local sports teams, is asked to moderate the meeting. Fans, athletes, and owners of several sports teams are invited to speak. Some fans show up with signs denouncing players for kneeling to protest racial injustice during the singing of the national anthem. Others display signs supporting Black Lives Matter protests. Tempers flare between fans supporting the right of players to protest and those feeling frustration with what they perceive as players’ disrespect for the American flag. Shouting and jeering continue as the mayor begins the forum with an opening statement supporting the right of players to protest racism in America while also citing polls showing a growing number of fans are boycotting games resulting in declining game attendance and loss of revenue for team owners. She shows empathy for everyone’s interests, calling for a compassionate understanding of each other’s feelings and a fair, even-handed approach to a complicated, many-layered social issue.

The mayor then calls on an angry fan in a calm, kindly manner with grateful appreciation for their passion. In response, the fan poses a question with tolerance and curiosity rather than with hate and disgust: “I agree that systemic racism in America is a social evil we must all face together. Why, though, can’t players find a different method of protest that seems more patriotic?” To which a player responds, “I don’t see myself being unpatriotic at all. How can we take pride in a nation of liberty and justice for all when there’s inequality and injustice for so many? I’m frustrated that you take my act of protest differently than I intend.” A potentially volatile situation begins to turn into one of civility as empathy, compassion, kindness, appreciation, and fairness temper frustration, hate, anger, disrespect, and intolerance. During this era of racial protests, relationships begin to be transformed between people with opposing points of view, and impetus is sparked for churches and citizens to face and deal with racism in their community.

*         *          *

These two scenarios could have had different, all-too-common outcomes. Many such controversies result in unhealthy relationships and communication breakdowns. People’s frustration with one another can lead to blaming and angry harangues. Conversations spiral out of control as careful listening gives way to misunderstanding and supportive relationships are threatened by defensiveness. What can transform relationships gone awry? How can relationships be built, repaired, and restored so that they flourish and thrive? What are better ways to better relationships?

The way these scenarios unfold reveals ways to create healthier relationships––practices that have the power to transform relationships for the better:

  • Practicing humility
  • Experiencing empathy
  • Feeling compassion
  • Showing kindness
  • Expressing appreciation
  • Doing justice

None of these practices is a surprise, of course. They are rooted in relationship science and religious traditions along with a variety of  philosophical, psychological, and cultural viewpoints. For example, such practices from the Judeo-Christian tradition include justice, kindness, and humility (see Mic 6:8). Likewise, a list of core values or character strengths in the New Testament book of Colossians includes compassion, gentleness, patience, and gratitude. Empathy is demonstrated in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Indeed, there is a wide array of practices found in a variety of perspectives that have the power to make our relationships flourish.

Social science researchers identify similar positive social behaviors. Indeed, “positive emotions have long been studied as markers of people’s overall well-being or happiness.”[1] A literature review of the texts of influential religious and philosophical traditions by Katherine Dahlsgaard identifies six sets of core strengths and positive social practices:

  • Wisdom and knowledge (cognitive strengths)
  • Courage (emotional strengths)
  • Humanity (interpersonal strengths)
  • Justice (civic strengths)
  • Temperance (strengths protecting against excess)
  • Transcendence (strengths of connection and meaning)[2]

Among twenty-four specific practices are religiousness, close relations, modesty, kindness, appreciation, gratitude, and fairness.

And while not the focus of this book, it is worth noting that most people around the world abhor leaders and members of society whose behaviors include:

  • Arrogance and egomania
  • Bigotry and hate
  • Incivility and hostility
  • Intolerance and indifference
  • Bullying and abuse
  • Injustice and unfairness
  • Cruelty and evil

Ultimately, such negative social behaviors lead to relational breakdowns, religious extremism, intellectual chaos, political instability, and cultural disadvantage.

Fortunately, most congregations and faith communities are eager to help people transform their relationships for the better. Wide-ranging topics to consider include numerous transformative practices. It is not feasible, however, to satisfactorily address all such topics in a single book. So, this book targets six topics to create healthier relationships and repair relationship breakdowns in our congregations and faith communities: practicing humility, experiencing empathy, feeling compassion, showing kindness, expressing appreciation, and doing justice. You’ll find chapters on each of these topics.

It is also possible to offer wide-ranging advice on these topics. Again, it is necessary to limit the scope of our inquiry. So, the goal of this book is to provide some practical guidelines that can go a long way in helping people be more effective in how they transform relationships for the better in their congregations and everyday lives. In short, you’ll find practical wisdom in each of these six areas that will strengthen your relationships at home, at work, in congregations, and in society.

Overview of Book

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

  • Real-Life Scenarios
  • Sensible Guidelines
  • Practical Applications
  • Suggestions for Further Study

Further resources include extensive chapter footnotes and a bibliography and index at the back of the book.

You may adapt this book’s content and resources to a variety of religious communities, learning audiences, work contexts, and educational programs. It is geared particularly for clergy, laypersons, denominational leaders, continuing educational planners, professors, students, and scholars. However, business and community leaders, nonprofit organizations, clinicians, consultants, and professional speakers will also find it useful. Insights are drawn from the latest research by relationship and social scientists on each topic. Wisdom gleaned from this research is translated into practical guidelines for transforming relationships gone awry, into relationships that flourish.

As this book was completed and goes to press, we are facing four momentous challenges as a human family: recovery of democracy, systemic racism, climate change, and a global pandemic. To help meet such challenges, the six topics of this book could not be more vital or essential. I hope the guidelines presented in the chapters that follow offer some practical ways to enrich and deepen relationships in your congregation and everyday life.

[1] Michael F. Cohn and Barbara L. Fredrickson, “Positive Emotions,” in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 13.

[2] Christopher Peterson and Nansook Park, “Classifying and Measuring Strengths of Character,” in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 27.