"...a time to keep silence and a time to speak." Ecclesiastes 3:7
How do church leaders know the difference? When is it time to shut up and when is it time to speak up? Sometimes anxiety leads us to be silent when we should speak, and to speak when we shouldn't.
There's a time to keep silence. Listening is a key pastoral and leadership skill. Here are some examples: a mother comes into your office worried about her teenage daughter. You immediately start giving her advice on raising adolescents, and offer to recommend the youth leader give the daughter extra support. She thanks you - and a month later is back with the same issue.
Or this: you meet with the education team, full of ideas you brought back from a denominational conference. You notice heads nodding, and you assume everyone is on board. Nothing seems to happen after the meeting. The next meeting you bring in some more good ideas. No one seems to pick up on them.
Both pastorally and organizationally, you can take up all the air with your good advice and ideas. There's nothing wrong with good ideas, but remember to ask questions and listen at least as much as you talk. A mentor of mine used to say, "Feel the back of your chair." Even if you think you've got the perfect idea or advice, take a deep breath before you say anything.
At the same time, there is a time to speak up. I often work with clergy who can say very clearly what they'd like to see happen at church. "Have you told your people that?" I ask. "Well, not in so many words," they say. It's not overfunctioning, nor is it autocratic, to say out loud, "Here's what I'd like to see here."
It's also critical to speak up when people are behaving badly, whether it's staff or church members. Clergy can't do this alone - you need allies who are willing to take a stand as well. Anxiety and fear of conflict can lead church leaders to avoid difficult conversations, but it's in the best interests of the congregation to do so. I'm as conflict-avoidant as the next clergyperson, and I have to work hard to do this. But in my experience, avoiding these conversations only leads to more difficult encounters down the road.
I don't have a formula to offer for when to keep silence and when to speak up. Think it through, if you've got time to do so. Don't answer e-mails that make you anxious until the following day. Tell people, I've got to think about that - I'll get back to you. It's more about wisdom and maturity than about technique. The good news is, you can get better at this: take time, get thoughtful input, and consider your own goals.
Rev. Margaret Marcuson works with churches that want to create a ministry that lasts and clergy who want more impact on the people they serve best. She is the author of Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry (Seabury, 2009). She served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Gardner, Massachusetts for thirteen years.
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