by Andrew Mochrie
Growing up, my parents instructed me to play well with others, specifically my sister. Those conversations often came after I had not played well, or somehow left my sister crying in the sandbox. (I was just doing my best to teach her how to exfoliate her face and arms…) As I grew older it finally clicked that the best way to avoid those hard conversations was to go ahead and play well with others.
When I think about navigating church conflict and politics, I go back to those days on the playground. When you’re entering the playground or meetings that you know will be filled with conflict, it’s better to plan to play well. Playing well with others doesn’t mean you avoid honesty or disagreement, quite the opposite. How would you feel if someone told you one thing and they felt the opposite way? This attitude often leads to telling others how you “really” feel. Be honest and intentional about how you disagree and the words you use in that disagreement.
Recently, I found myself in a situation at church in which an external group that met at our church changed its policy about certain hot button issues. A member of the congregation who was up in arms about the issue approached me: you would have thought we were about to witness a coup d’état at church. This gentleman requested my presence in a meeting the next morning with the rest of staff and the leaders of the external group to let us know what they planned to do about the situation and policy change. Immediately my spidey sense was tingling and I knew that bad things could happen in this meeting, mostly because I was on high alert. I was ready to shout words like “oppression” “closed-minded” “ignorant” “get away from me Satan”–you know, the usual Christian fighting words, aka words that would get me fired. The good news was that meeting I agreed to attend was the next day and not in that moment.
Once I’d calmed down, I called my youth ministry coach, who is kind of like a mentor (if you don’t have one, get one). I talked through all of my thoughts, aggravations, and concerns. Like the pro he is, he gave me the best advice, which was to think very carefully about what I was going to say and how I was going to respond to what they were approaching us with the next morning, and to listen. He always says, “Slow to speak, quick to listen” in situations like these. That night, after youth group, I did all but write down what I was going to say. I researched our denominational stance, the external group’s stance, who they wanted to ask to leave, and on the new external group’s stance they wanted to bring in to replace the original group. I had a lot on my side going for me in this meeting.
Monday morning came and the first thing I did was talk to my Senior Pastor. I let him know I was not okay with what was about to happen in our church and that I was going to let them know, in as loving a way as I could, that I would not support this new group. If there is one thing I have learned in youth ministry, it’s always keep your Senior Pastor in the know. The meeting began shortly after and I sat, kept quiet, and listened. I didn’t think about how I was going to respond, I just listened to what they had to say. I was shaking furious. I was so angry that my face was red, my hands were shaking, and I couldn’t look at anyone the entire time they spoke. They handed us a piece of paper that made me even more angry and made me want to shout Christian fighting words again, but I kept repeating, “slow to speak, quick to listen” in my head. Finally they asked me what I thought.
I sat very quietly for about a minute. I lifted my head and used my words very intentionally. I was honest with them. I let them know I truly did appreciate the leadership of this group: they took a stance and stood by it, and I hoped they would appreciate that I would stand by what I felt was right. All of my thoughts from the night before came out very slowly and intentionally so as not to throw any stones. Finally, after they responded defending their decision, I let them know that I very respectfully disagreed and could not support them. I told them I would speak highly of them as people and as leaders, because even though I didn’t agree with their decision, they are still good leaders. But I would not promote or support this new group. At the end of the meeting we all shook hands and hugged.
Since that meeting I have had several conversations with my pastor and those leaders. We actually have one more meeting that will determine what happens in other aspects of this situation, in which I will speak up, though it will be slow and intentional. The most important things that helped me in navigating these type of church politics were
1) my coach’s advice of “slow to speak, quick to listen,”
2) being intentional and well thought out with my response, and
3) having relationships with these people outside of church things: that relational collateral I built up over time played a major role; we respected each other enough to disagree and continue to have relationships.
You don’t have to keep quiet and be passive aggressive to play well with others. To play well with others might just mean you are “slow to speak, quick to listen,” well thought out, and that you have real relationships with them outside of the playground known as church politics.
Andrew Mochrie is a third year graduate resident with the Center for Youth Ministry Training and is the youth minister at a church in Middle Tennessee.