Learning to speak more honestly in meetings

Melissa was sitting in a meeting of church leaders, and she was ready to tell the truth.

“Before I say this, could you pass me the PayDay?” she said.

At that moment, the item she had requested — a PayDay candy bar with a grubby red, white and blue wrapper — sat in front of Jon. It had moved around the room in the past hour. I could tell: courage was winning over fear.

What does a candy bar have to do with courage?

At the opening of the meeting, I’d introduced the idea that courage was a gift that would be rewarded. Soon, I was watching grown adults vie for that PayDay. I know it seems a little silly, but it’s vital to find a way to speak more honestly with one another.

We meet often but not well. We attend long meetings that go nowhere. We meet to solve problems but leave pertinent concerns unsaid. We meet for healing but let fear drive out openness.

It is no myth that the real conversations take place in the parking lots and bathrooms. It’s true for me, and I’m trained to help people speak freely. I sometimes wait until I’m walking to the car beside a committee member to have the honest discussion I should have had in the meeting. Why? I didn’t feel safe to mention my concerns.

People have different reasons for keeping silent. Introverts may be internally processing and not want to fight for airtime. Others may sense that speaking about the elephant in the room is discouraged. Many may find that their fear of offending someone is greater than the value of sharing a sincere opinion. People with less power may feel that their voices are unwelcome.

How do we bring the candor expressed in informal settings into more formal meetings — where honesty can feed the potential for more lasting solutions? How do we motivate people to bring their voices into the room?

There are numerous techniques to structure meetings for effective outcomes. When I facilitate conversations, I love to playfully reward honest talk with a PayDay.

I start by saying, “Who will overcome fear for a PayDay candy bar? Who will give us the gift of your courage to speak the truth today?”

Then I pull out the promised reward. No one seems impressed. Typically, it’s been riding in the bottom of my purse for days. If the participants groan at the sight, I counter that fame goes hand in hand with this PayDay.

I explain: “Here’s how this works. You’ll know when someone is brave.

“For instance, one of you may say, ‘I like that vision statement, but I don’t love it. For me to love it, it would have to include something riskier, such as …’

“I expect one of you to shout out, ‘That deserves the PayDay!’

“A while later, someone may say, ‘I wanted to have a funeral for that practice a long time ago.’ If I see people around the table respond with wide eyes, I’ll know to walk over and put the PayDay in front of that brave person.

“There is only one PayDay. It sits in front of the last courageous speaker.

“You do not eat it. You bask in its glory.”

Many times, the participants aren’t convinced — until the first honest comment shifts the conversation and someone quietly passes the PayDay. The recipient grins, and the rest of the room gets it.

Then we’re off and running. The meeting gets more interesting and productive. People actually sit up, lean forward and appear more engaged, because the conversation seems more authentic.

Soon, some participants like Melissa are requesting the candy for themselves even before they speak. Recently, a quiet participant took the game so seriously that they raised their hand and said, “I have not received the PayDay yet, but when I do, could you not have it passed from the last person, but could you go get it and put it in front of me yourself?”

The simple delivery of a PayDay candy bar can minimize fear and motivate people to share new and diverse perspectives. It can help participants be more likely to address the core problem rather than just the presenting symptoms. Sometimes, this honesty can become “confession within community” and offer a chance at healing.

Seeing honesty take root, even in this lighthearted way, can create a confident momentum that builds on itself. After all, fear is not a theological concept. Casting out fear is.

Tim Keller and I agree: denominations do something important. While Keller and I might express that importance differently, I will take what I can get. Saying anything positive about denominations has not been popular for decades.

Keller was interviewed this spring on Christianity Today’s “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast, which chronicles Mark Driscoll’s ministry at the Seattle megachurch and the church-related networks he helped establish and influence. It is a troubling account of fame and abuse.

In a bonus episode, the host gave the bestselling author and now-retired founding pastor at New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church a chance to explain his connections to Driscoll and to interpret what happened.

Keller took a moment to explain how his and Redeemer’s participation in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) created an accountability that was not present for Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, because Mars Hill did not have a denominational affiliation. Keller was a part of networks with Driscoll, and those networks functioned very differently from denominations, Keller said.

Networks connect people to each other to make a difference, particularly in a community, while denominations provide oversight and doctrine, he said. Although Keller focused much more of his efforts in connection with Driscoll on establishing and nurturing networks, he also accepted the discipline and rules created in the PCA, and he believes that congregations are better off being part of denominations, he said.

Given the context of the Mars Hill story and the convictions of the PCA, it is not surprising that Keller would emphasize the regulatory work of his denomination. But when I pull back and consider why we need denominations, something broader comes to mind: discipleship, the formation of Christians.

Think about who shaped you. Who inspired, supported and encouraged your development? Was it parents, grandparents, pastors, schoolteachers or community volunteers? I am conditioned by American culture to recognize all the individuals that support me. I hope that you can name a cloud of witnesses in your life from childhood to now.

But I am also thinking about where that cloud of people comes from. Where do they learn, get support and resources? How are the lessons of the past brought to future generations?

This is the work of institutions — schools, churches, child care agencies, camps and more. It takes time and money across decades to build such institutions. I am specifically thinking about organizations that have served their missions across three or more generations. These organizations have traditions that get passed down, and that is one of the ways formation works.

For generations, denominations have been the institutions that support congregations and organize ministries of all kinds. They set rules for life. They articulate convictions on matters of faith and life. They train and ordain clergy. They discipline violations of their rules. Some denominations, like the PCA, have books of order that include many regulations. Other denominations have short covenants that describe expectations but very few regulatory functions.

Denominational work has not been popular for at least 40 years. Most of the time, people in congregations see accountability as a hindrance rather than a lifesaving barrier. The work of passing on the faith and providing structures that support discipleship doesn’t receive much attention. Yet this work is vital.

Keller mentions the significance of networks, and I agree that these loose associations of people formed around a common interest or concern are significant sources of innovation and encouragement. Networks form within geographies, within and across denominations, and around critical work like disaster relief or church planting. Generally, networks don’t have any rules and may not have any legal structure. As a result, networks can rise and fall quickly.

If a network continues beyond a generation, it often develops a structure, including a paid staff and other financial obligations. This process of institutionalization leads to forming something that for groups of congregations looks like a denomination.

Can a congregation be healthy without a denomination or similar institutional support? Sure. I have seen congregations be healthy for a whole generation or longer. But eventually, there is some difficulty. Maybe it is conflict or legal problems or misconduct. At that moment, the congregation needs friends from outside their membership. They need someone from whom to seek advice or get direction. If they are not a part of a denomination, they create a structure. Essentially, they create a temporary denomination.

I am not arguing that the 20th-century denominations and their agencies can rest easy. Most denominations are in trouble. They need to focus on the work that they are best suited to do. This requires discernment and painful trimming.

In the 21st century, denominations need to identify their core work. What do they offer that both meets needs of congregations and communities in the moment and offers the discipline necessary for future generations? I believe denominations need to focus on those activities that are most effective in forming the disciplines of discipleship and the identity of “Christian.”

When I got started in ministry in the 1970s as a teenager, I witnessed the last moments of an age when denominations were the “main thing” and congregations served to support the work and life of the denomination.

Soon after I went to school, that script flipped, and denominations have been figuring out that flip throughout my career. The process is slow, because denominations are complex political systems. Authority is diffused, and decision making is multilayered. Yes, such work requires much patience.

The starting point is a conversation about why denominations are important. The stake I drive in the ground is that denominations provide the support that helps congregations form Christians to live as faithful disciples. What stake would you drive in the ground? What is required for congregations to continue their vital work in your communities?

A local church is facing a number of pressing decisions over the next several months.

Attrition and the “Great Resignation” have created opportunities for budget revisions and have prompted much-needed discussions about staff responsibilities and mission alignment.

Identity conversations have required consideration of worship styles and outreach partners.

The potential sale of campus property has generated questions about impact, legacy and stewardship.

Denominational shifts have raised inquiries about tradition, affiliation and authority.

After listing these cascading challenges, the pastor told me, “There is so much coming at the church at once, I don’t know that we can handle all of it. No matter what decisions are made, there will be some sort of loss along the way.

“I worry that we don’t have the emotional bandwidth to make so many important and different yet related decisions one after the other. It feels like there isn’t a break in sight.

“And we are just getting our stride back, figuring out who we are again in the same space. Then bam! — we are hit with this mountain of deferred decisions we couldn’t make in the last two years, in addition to whatever was coming our way in the normal course of the year. I wish we could just rest for a while. I wish we could just be together and regain our strength for a season before we have to address what feels like a spewing fire hose of major challenges that all need attention right now.”

“What would happen if you did that?” I asked her.

She was flummoxed. “We can’t just stop. People are relying on us. We have to…”

Certainly, some decisions have nonnegotiable timelines, but we often let outside forces determine the urgency of others. In yielding to such forces, we relinquish our agency in making the wisest and best-informed choices for our constituents. Some forms of urgency limit our vision of the opportunities before us and create false binary choices.

“We have to do this now or never.”

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“If we don’t act on this, someone else will.”

Sometimes urgency makes sense. Emergencies and crises necessitate expedited decision-making practices. Thanks be to God for our leaders who know how to do this well.

The season that follows a crisis, however, requires a different kind of leadership and decision making, as well as alternative timelines for deciding.

It’s like in the movies. After a storm or an alien invasion or some other form of devastation has come through an area, those who reemerge are timid, unsure whether the environment is as safe as it once was. Will infrastructures still bear weight? Is the ground safe, or might it collapse? Is all the bad stuff gone? What is different and what is the same in the places we love, where we share history? What will our future be like?

In those grand cinematic moments, a leader predictably rises up to reassure the people: “We are here. We are OK. This isn’t the world we left, but it is the world we have. Our future will be bright. We are strong, and we will prevail.”

Triumphant music swells to a crescendo, and the people cheer in gratitude, affirmation and hope.

Perhaps the church should live into Oscar Wilde’s saying, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

It is OK to emerge from this season slowly. Taking time to be together and renew relationships is good and holy work. Reinforcing the church’s relational foundation in order to be able to better serve the surrounding community is vital and slow labor. And rest is part of the equation, not a future reward for reaching a benchmark. Resting in and with one another is part of God’s perfect vision of Sabbath.

There are very few “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunities when we worship a God of abundance. What might happen if we fully trust in God’s timing and generosity when we feel the tyranny of urgency pushing us to make decisions before we are ready?

What might happen if we delay or stagger making some decisions today to refocus our efforts on healing, resting, renewing relationships and re-becoming who we need to be in order to serve as the hands and feet of Christ to our neighbors tomorrow?

We’ve seen the end of the movies. With a slow and steady pace, we discover that the infrastructures do bear the weight. The ground does not collapse. The church is strong, and we will prevail.

Certainly, some decisions have nonnegotiable timelines, but we often let outside forces determine the urgency of others. In yielding to such forces, we relinquish our agency in making the wisest and best-informed choices for our constituents.

As chaplain in a volunteer fire department, I accompanied survivors wandering through the wreckage of fires, picking up pieces of the past and pondering next steps. I think of those moments as we move beyond lockdowns and start charting the future.

Many are assessing the damage to health, careers, families, neighbors and institutions. Some continue to feel the initial shock of loss. Some are moving through the debris looking for treasures to salvage and recalling what came before. Others recognize that they never had a place in what was lost and hope that whatever comes next will be different.

Those with energy are ready to make decisions about the future. They are considering the condition of structures and processes that are still standing. Some are deciding to raze everything and start from scratch. Others are looking at the insurance money and any other resources they have to determine what seems possible and practical.

In the case of a home that burned, at some point the family asks, “What sort of life do we aspire to live in this place?” They consider both their present circumstances and their hopes for the future.

Some are determined to replicate what has been lost. Almost all want to make improvements. A few want something very different — a new place with new neighbors. But most feel pressured to decide what is next before they feel ready.

What have we learned in these last two years about our lives, our neighbors and our world? What is our vision for the future? What do we rebuild, and why that thing? How have we been changed by seeing injustices that we had previously ignored or accepted as facts of life? What will we do differently? Can we take the time to decide?

More than a decade ago, I facilitated a visioning and planning process for an affluent white congregation that had a reputation for generosity in missions and a vision for justice. In the process, the congregation looked closely at its immediate community and realized that they had focused their attention on the major thoroughfare and the connected neighborhoods that their building faced. They had completely blocked out the neighbors behind their building, who had socioeconomic situations and racial and ethnic identities very different from those of the neighbors on the thoroughfare.

In discussions, the congregation decided to open itself to the neighbors in the back. The fence and bushes that shut out those neighbors were removed. This had an immediate impact, because it cleared a pathway for the neighbors to reach a bus stop in front of the church property. The congregation looked to cultivate relationships with both the neighbors and those the neighbors trusted.

The visioning process was complete and the fence down when the church sanctuary burned. The education and recreation facilities were spared, but the sanctuary was gone. In the next years, the congregation decided to build a new sanctuary that looked similar to the previous one but was oriented in a different direction. The new front doors would face the side yard and parking lot. Church members would no longer enter and leave worship looking at the thoroughfare.

They would see all their neighbors and be reminded at each service of their place in between.

What have the viral and racial pandemics exposed that you need to acknowledge in the rebuilding of your congregation or organization? What neighbors have you now seen? With whom are you joining forces? What public policy have you challenged that needs further revision?

This is a moment when we can examine fundamental assumptions. For congregations, this can be as basic as considering how we measure effectiveness.

For generations, congregations have gauged their vitality by average worship attendance. In the 20th century, this was an elegant measure that told insiders and outsiders much about the dynamics of a congregation, from the number of staff to hire to the size of facilities needed. Those who attended were the most likely to give money, serve on committees and attend Bible study.

COVID-19 made average attendance worthless as both a measure of vitality and a sign of faithfulness. If we need to measure effectiveness now, we need something else.

Recently, Reginald Blount invited me to consider how to measure the impact of Christian discipleship on the world. How could we measure social impact from Christian witness? How might that measure help us figure out what to rebuild and where?

Surveys by the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations project at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research indicate — and even the casual observer knows — that many congregations made redesigning worship their highest priority during the COVID-19 lockdowns. For example, congregations figured out how to do outdoor and virtual services. The second priority for many congregations was what sociologists call social outreach — meeting human needs for food, clothing, shelter and more.

In the 20th century, congregations saw worship as the gateway to deeper involvement in their activities. The implication was that the number of times people came to the church building was the mark of their engagement as Christians.

But what might happen if we saw worship as the occasion of focusing on God, from which flowed an invitation to engage our neighbors? Instead of rebuilding programs to attend, congregations might address the working conditions in the community. Instead of planning a building for the members to gather, congregations might re-envision the property as a staging area for life-giving resources or quality working conditions.

If we need examples of this life, we can look to the stories of many Black congregations. I recently visited the Bethel AME Church of Morristown, New Jersey. Their building is a place of worship and home to a feeding ministry that extends throughout the county.

This relatively small church is the catalyst for collaboration among multiple organizations and individuals. The number of people participating in the feeding ministry on a weekly basis far exceeds the number attending the congregation’s worship. By engaging in ministry, the people see with new eyes.

In rebuilding, perhaps we should start with why we are rebuilding and who is at the center of our rebuilding. If God’s love for the world is our why, then our neighbors can be our who. If so, what we rebuild might have renewed purpose and profound impact on the world.

They would see all their neighbors and be reminded at each service of their place in between.