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Creating courageous conversations in congregations


“If you could wake up in a world where the folks in your church had the capacity for brave and difficult conversations, would your church be transformed?” I asked this question in a workshop at the #churchtoo conference at Canadian Mennonite University, May 31–June 1, 2019.

Most people put up their hands.

We often think of courage as people rushing into burning buildings or climbing onto a roof to rescue someone. I believe it’s also time to think of courage as the ability to

  • be vulnerable,
  • talk with people rather than about people,
  • speak one’s perspective without knowing how it will be heard,
  • listen respectfully – without cynicism, sarcasm, or steely silence – to new thoughts,
  • communicate in a manner that is both clear and kind.

In a world where people are dehumanized, marginalized, and despised, God calls us to love like Jesus did. Grappling meaningfully with issues such as professional pastoral sexual misconduct by actually talking about the real pain of the victim, the mixture of horror and loyalty of the congregation, and the practical implications when a pastor has violated boundaries requires having conversations that are risky and fraught with danger.

Emotions will run high, miscommunication is likely, and defensiveness will be almost inevitable.
Such conversations are so difficult.

The convenient approach, historically, has been to avoid it altogether. By not having those difficult conversations, we can avoid the awkward moments, the hurt feelings, and the work of righting relationships that were wounded. We cave in to our fears and remain silent.

If not having courageous conversations were effective, the article would stop here.
But, in the case of pastoral sexual misconduct, not having the conversations means

1. The silence tells victims that their violation, trauma, and resultant pain is irrelevant to the people of God. Jesus said that God leaves behind the 99 to pursue the one. We have the same calling.

2. The offending pastor isn’t called to account in a way that paves the path to redemption and recovery. Leaving the vulnerable unprotected and deceiving ourselves about the depth of the damage creates a space where the perpetrator can remain stuck in personal darkness.

3. Individuals in the congregation are isolated while dealing with the confusing pain of knowing the leader who created spiritual growth in them was so hurtful to another. Undiscussed, pain can fester in a congregation for decades. God calls us to supportive community – to be the loving presence of God to each other.

Avoiding the tough conversations doesn’t work. Equipping ourselves with the four skill sets of courage, developed by Brené Brown, allows us to enter into these conversations in a God-honouring way.


1. Learning to rumble with vulnerability:

Vulnerability is defined as risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure. Historically, it is often seen as weakness. Can you think of a single example of courage that you have exercised or witnessed that didn’t also require vulnerability?
During times of fear, often we want to armour up against vulnerability by puffing up, distancing, becoming cynical, etc. Protecting ourselves against our own fear removes our ability to authentically connect with others.
Courage learns to tolerate and remain in our own vulnerability, even in difficult conversations.


2. Living into our values:

Bob Goff writes, “I used to be afraid of failing at something that really mattered to me, but now I’m more afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.”
Aligning our behaviour with our deepest values allows us to have conversations that otherwise would seem too risky or illogical. Initiating difficult conversations in light of our commitment to Jesus’ costly love is part of our calling.


3. Creating trust:

By having healthy boundaries, being reliable and accountable, holding confidences, maintaining integrity, leading with curiosity (rather than judgment) and a generous spirit, we can develop trust with others. Courageous conversations happen best in a spirit of trust.


4. Learning to fall:

Courageous conversations around previously underdiscussed topics won’t always go well. We will all mess up, be hurtful, need to circle back and apologize. Mistakes are an inescapable outcome of brave dialogue. An ability to know how to move through anticipated blunders allows for conversations with an unknown outcome.

Rachel Held Evans, in her book Searching for Sunday, writes, “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.”

May God equip us in the courageous calling to have uncomfortable conversations that will create sanctuary for those tender souls who come seeking it in our midst.


Carolyn Klassen

is a therapist and certified Daring Way Facilitator, trained to facilitate the work developed out of the research of Brené Brown. She is a member of the teaching team at The Meeting Place, Winnipeg.

(For more about developing the four skill sets of courage, read Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead, Random House, 2019.

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Rudy Hiebert July 8, 2019 - 10:25

After reading the article about “Creating Courageous Conversations…” I was reminded that physical environments have a lot to do with facilitating this characteristic in a congregation. In the congregation we find ourselves this is a blessing in the form of a cafe were it happens, not in the foyer or sanctuary, although it does and would not discredit the times it does. A beverage that suits the preferences, ie. hot chocolate or latte makes the conversations productive enough to conclude to the last drop.

John C Swallow July 12, 2019 - 06:31

Excellent! What can add?


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