Grace for botched conversations
Some years ago, working on church staff in a multiethnic church, I asked my pastor, “Can you help me get an idea of ways I can avoid putting my foot in my mouth?” He just smiled and said, “Oh, you will put your foot in your mouth.”
Of course he was right. In a thousand ways people of a majority culture think they are just relating to the world as it is, and not through a cultural lens. Being part of majority culture, I often don’t realize I even have a culture. But that doesn’t prevent me from living and speaking out of it.
And so I did put my foot in my mouth. I felt embarrassed. I had to apologize. And not just about cultural differences. In 10 years of counseling, I can easily think of saying things I wish I hadn’t. And I can even more easily think of saying things I wish I hadn’t outside of counseling! God help us. We never stop learning to do good with our words.
The mission of Blue Ridge Christian Counseling is to strengthen the care ministries of churches through training and collaborative counseling. We love being of help to people helpers of all kinds – lay, pastoral, professional. In some sense we all provide counsel, we all help by listening and talking. Helping us to fulfill the rich vision of one-another life in the church is why we exist.
So how do we help people take steps of discipleship, whether for the first time (evangelism) or for the thousandth time (spiritual formation)?
One small way is to actively seek to avoid doing damage. No one goes to the doctor just hoping that the doctor will “do no harm”–that is quite a low bar! But in conversational ministry, whether in congregational or professional contexts, whether in informal or formal contexts, the call to “do no harm” is particularly important for creating a place of trust–for the purpose of not just protection from harm but for the doing of real good.
Many times churches (i.e., I/we/you) become less of a place of refuge for those hurting and struggling when we speak words that leave people feeling more hurt. And so we want to pay special attention to this.
It’s of course not possible to “do no harm” if that means “cause no offense.” If that were true, where would the prophetic voice of the church ever emerge? We have to be able to say hard things, both to society in general and individuals in particular.
But offense is also a human reality, and it can happen unintentionally and still be a big breach in the relationship. Remember what James says: “the tongue is a fire” (James 3:6). Counselors think about this need to pay attention to relational distance all the time when we inevitably have hard conversations, or there’s a misunderstanding and a person is upset. Attend to the breach; repair; connect.
So we all want to create relationships where we can help, relationships of trust that are imperfect, and are sometimes difficult. But we want to attend to the things we do that make those conversations better or worse – we want to speak truth in love, as the apostle Paul calls us (Eph 4:6). And what’s the best way to do this? To know the grace of God–His kindness to us, forgiveness, and generous love expressed in Jesus, the Savior who is “gentle and lowly.” Those forgiven much, love much. Knowing we are imperfect with our words is painful–but it can bring us the godly sorrow that leads to repentance (2 Cor 7:10).
Consider this as a small next step: read Ed Welch’s brief article, “You Know You Trashed a Conversation When . . .”
You’ll be challenged, maybe chastened, but wiser–and, God willing, doing less harm, and more good for the body of Christ.