September 12, 2013
The Truth, Not the Whole Truth, but Nothing but the Truth
The tough art of communicating sensitive information.
The pastor stood before the congregation with a stern look on his face. His fingers curled tightly over the edges of the podium. “As some of you know, we had to make a … hard decision this week. What we want you to understand is that the elders handled the situation with wisdom and fairness, and though we know this is tough for some of you, we’re going to move ahead. God has great things in store for our church. We encourage you all not to gossip … as you don’t really know the situation. Pray for us as we make these hard calls on your behalf. Now, if you will turn in your Bibles…”
The congregation sat in stunned, pained silence.
Tough communication is an art
Communicating with a congregation in tough times is more art than science. Rules and policies outlining what to say and what not to say are rarely helpful because every situation is different. Sometimes, the whole truth can and should be told. But there are other times, when someone has to be let go, or a tough call has to be made by the elders where the truth, but not the whole truth is what’s necessary. Knowing and navigating the difference can challenge even the best leaders.
What do we say? The short answer is as much as possible. When staff are let go, or there are other difficult situations that arise, people will want to know the whys and hows. They often have invested great time and energy into the relationships and ministries of those at the center of the storm. They feel a sense of ownership and given today’s general distrust of authority will often assume the worst.
That’s where authenticity and transparency become a leader’s greatest assets in times of trouble. When standing in front of a congregation, attempting to explain a hurtful situation or challenging leadership call our natural desire is to cover our own rears, to say those things that will put us in the best light. This tendency should be recognized and resisted by owning our own parts in whatever hurt has come to our community. Few situations are 100% black and white, even those where someone has fallen morally. In even those extreme situations leadership should make clear not just what happened, but what they could have done to make it less likely to have happened.
People need to know two things: your heart for them and those involved in the difficult situation, and as many facts as you can tell them. Telling them how you feel is necessary, but not sufficient. They will also want to know whatever you can tell them about the situation and probably a bit more. Avoid the temptation to under-share or over-share. They need to know the truth, but the whole truth may be a disservice to many involved. It’s always good to ask those in the middle of things “What are you comfortable with us sharing with the congregation?”
There’s been a recent, troubling tendency in churches to use non-disclosure agreements as a condition of severance. Let’s just say that this is neither transparent nor authentic. If your goal is to see that only your side of the story is shared, then a non-disclosure agreement is the way to go. But even if the whole story doesn’t become known, the fact that a non-disclosure agreement was signed will, and that’s a fast-track way to sowing seeds of distrust in your community. They will want to know what you are hiding.
Choose a different route. Choose transparency. Choose to honor all those involved by speaking the truth, as much of the truth as you can ethically share and nothing but the honest, if painful truth.
Don’t let tough info “dribble out”
One of the mistakes that churches consistently make in discussing difficult situations with their congregations is allowing information to dribble out. They under-communicate at first, and when the backlash from this happens, they are forced to revise and expand on their initial statements.
Don’t stonewall. Don’t hide behind your pastoral authority. Let people know that while you are handling things as best you can, you realize that you are by no means perfect and still learning. Give a venue for questions to be asked and answered. Understand that congregations need time to process. As leaders, you may have been living with a difficult situation for some time and just want it to be over. Recognize that they are just hearing about it, and will need time to come to grips with what has happened, to move through the stages of dealing with it, and to heal.
Handling tough situations will test your leadership ability, but not nearly as much as it will test your character. Stonewalling, whitewashing, or running roughshod over others’ feelings have no place in Jesus’ church. The ability to stand before people and honestly, transparently, and with care for all involved walk them through a hard situation is what distinguishes a pastor from a politico, one who just wants to be seen in the best light. Trust God and your people enough to tell them the truth, maybe not the whole truth, but nothing but the truth.
Bob Hyatt is a pastor and writer in Portland, Oregon.