Friday, August 17, 2012

Listen to the whispers

John Maxwell says, "Listen to the whispers and you won't have to hear the screams."  What great advice to church leaders!  I have worked with enough conflicted churches to know that most conflicts do not happen overnight.  They have usually been building for months before the lid finally blows off.  Most of the time there have been hints that there are potential problems brewing but many of us in leadership either do not take them seriously, believe we are too busy to respond to what we consider insignificant matters, or just don't hear them for whatever reason.  Ignore the whispers long enough and they will eventually become loud enough they can't be ignored any longer.

It helps for leaders to understand that responding to whispers is more than responding to the issues people are raising;  You are often dealing with their concerns and their fears.  It's more than just facts; it's their feelings about the facts.  If you are dealing with a misunderstanding around some issue, resolve that misunderstanding but don't stop there.  Help the person address the feelings and fears that surrounded that misunderstanding.

A number of years ago the finance committee of the church I pastored recommended a substantial pay increase for me.  There had been many years I never received any salary increase and even more years when that increase was rather minimal.  Because the church was doing much better financially they wanted to be able to help make up for some of the years I didn't receive an increase.  A few people opposed the salary increase as being excessive.  These were people with whom I enjoyed a good relationship.  None of them were mad at me, but some of them felt that I may have asked the committee for that increase, and they were not happy about that.  (I hadn't.  I was as surprised as anyone when I saw what they were recommending.)  I met with the people who were opposed to the increase to answer any questions they had.  My mistake was in responding to their misunderstandings around the issue.  I was merely addressing the facts of the matter.  (No, I didn't ask for a salary increase.  No, I didn't manipulate the finance committee.  No, I didn't know they were going to propose that increase until the night of the committee meeting.  Etc.)

Each of these were concerns that had been voiced by the opponents, but a bigger concern for most of them was never addressed.  The church had gone years with little financial reserves.  When I first went there giving was minimal at best.  Even though things had really turned around over the years there was the fear among the long time members, which made up most of the people who opposed the increase, that the church would revert back to its earlier financial situation.  When that was raised I blew it off not recognizing that fear was driving much of the opposition to the salary increase.  In some ways, it would have been better for me to have addressed that fear rather than just answering their questions.  Behind the verbal questions there was a whispered fear that went ignored.  Because it was ignored we had the only really bad business session in my twenty years as their pastor when that budget was presented.  The budget passed with my salary increase intact but it resulted in a breakdown of relationships between a few of our members who had been on opposite sides of the issue.  To a degree, those relationships never fully healed.

Today, I believe that if the fears had been addressed we could have prevented many of the problems this caused our church.  The good news is that we did not lose any members over the issue, our giving actually increased resulting in our becoming even stronger financially, and our church learned that it could have serious disagreements and survive.  In the years that followed our church purchased a new digital piano, increased our denominational mission support to 15% of our offerings, and built a new fellowship hall debt-free.  One of the reasons our small church was able to do such remarkable things was that we learned in the battle over my salary to listen to the whispers.

You can read more about listening to the whispers in my latest book The Healthy Community: Moving Your Church Beyond Tunnel Vision.

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