In this, like many of Paul’s letters, he advises the new Christian community on how they should communicate with one another during times of difficulty and stress.
What might Paul advise the church today?
Last spring, with the availability of effective vaccines, we thought the COVID crisis was finally behind us and we could return to the “before times.” We were back in the sanctuary for worship and reuniting with our community of faith. But then COVID infection rates began rising and we are once again having to make difficult decisions that cause the community stress.
We want to sing together, share Communion, and reunite with our family of faith, but how do we do it safely?
How would Paul guide us to be faithful to God and to our relationships with one another today?
These stressful times can lead to disagreements about how to proceed, different ideas about masks, anger over conflicting perspectives on the vaccine and — most important — misunderstanding about our mutual purpose as a Christian community.
In Ephesians, the early church is called to speak truth in love (4:15), to put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling and slander, together with all malice. And to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as Christ has forgiven us (4:31-32).
How do we speak the truth in love: truth about how we are feeling, truth about what we want, truth about where we believe God is leading us as a community of faith?
Speaking the truth -- sharing thoughts and ideas openly and honestly -- requires courage, vulnerability and safety, Speaking the truth in our church communities as we seek to build up the body of Christ requires the creation of sanctuaries where people can speak without fear.
In the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, the authors write that when you build safety you can dialogue about almost anything. This isn’t something that just happens; “safety has to be made.”
In a crucial conversation opinions vary, stakes are high, and emotions run strong. How do we talk openly? How do we work through high stakes and controversial issues honestly and respectfully and still remain together as a community of faith?
According to the authors of Crucial Conversations, successful conversations encourage the free flow of information and “start with heart”: working on ourselves first and recognizing what we really want (our motives), and developing our personal dialogue skills.
People who are gifted in dialogue, based on their research, keep a constant vigil for safety because nothing kills conversation like fear. For them, the first condition for safety is mutual purpose, which means that others perceive that we are working toward a common outcome, that we care about their goals, interests and values, and vice versa. Finding mutual purpose means that we really must care about the interests of others – not just our own.
At the same time, the authors of Crucial Conversations are clear that “while it’s true that there’s no reason to enter a crucial conversation if you don’t have Mutual Purpose, it’s equally true that you can’t stay in conversation if you don’t maintain Mutual Respect.”
To be able to speak our truth and for others to speak theirs, there must be Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect -- truth spoken in love. In the letter to the Ephesians (5:1-2a) that means we are called to “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love as Christ loved us.”
As we continue to learn how to BE CHURCH in new circumstances, may we build safety for crucial conversations seeking mutual purpose while respecting each other, learning to love as Christ loved us.
Questions for discussion
- What advice about communication do you think Paul would give the church today?
- Is your congregation a safe place for a crucial conversation? How was that safety built? Or how could it be built?
- Do you remember a time when you entered into a crucial conversation that was a positive experience? What conditions made that possible?
- Could you identify a mutual purpose for an upcoming crucial conversation in your congregation? Where is God in that purpose?