Word, words, words! More than anything else, my days are filled with words. I currently have 235 meetings scheduled between September 6 and December 6. I’ll likely add 30 more meetings of one sort or another before the 3 months is over. Most of the meetings are an hour, but a few are all day and night. Some meetings are in my office, many are in local churches, and others are in the Bishop’s office. But every meeting has one thing in common: they involve words. It would be fascinating to know exactly how many words are uttered in those meetings and who is doing most of the talking!
I am an introvert by nature. Meeting with people demands a lot of energy, which leaves me drained and wanting to crawl into my shell of silence by the time I get home at night. Clearly, words are one of the most critical components of human interaction. Even more important, however, is learning how to honor those with whom we converse, convey truth and grace, and demonstrate that others have been heard.
The primary purpose of words is to connect with others. One of the most critical social skills that we can teach our children is how to converse comfortably with a wide variety of people in many different situations. In almost any profession the ability to communicate clearly, listen carefully, and respect differences is high on the list of desired qualities.
Unfortunately, role models for civilized conversation seem few and far between. I lament the state of rhetoric in our country, where politicians, TV and radio talk show hosts, and even preachers often talk at or through each other without any intention of listening or compromising. I despair of the stereotyping of individuals with different racial, cultural, or religious backgrounds. My heart aches when people square off on social issues and have little desire to grow and learn from those who have a different understanding. Whenever words are used as a weapon, the fabric of civilization tears a little bit more.
It was a delight to recently observe one of our children reading The Art of Civilized Conversation; A Guide to Expressing Yourself with Style and Grace by Margaret Shepherd with Sharon Hogan. Certain that I had not always modeled healthy conversation over the years, I was grateful that she wanted to gain greater skills in her use of words, words, and more words. The Art of Civilized Conversation contained many helpful hints for remembering names, “working the crowd,” and being mindful of facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. Shepherd and Hogan’s Ten Rules of Conversation include:
- Tell the truth.
- Don’t ramble.
- Don’t interrupt.
- Ask questions and listen to the answers.
- Don’t take advantage of people.
- Don’t dwell on appearances.
- Don’t touch taboo topics; i.e. sex, religion, politics, net worth, or private body matters.
- Disagree in a civilized fashion.
- Don’t be a bore.
- Don’t gossip.
Words are as important in the church as they are in our everyday life. God created the world by speaking, the gospel writer John calls Jesus the Word become flesh, and we refer to the Bible as the Word of God. Jesus says in Mark 13:11 that when we are persecuted, we shouldn’t worry about the words we say because the Holy Spirit will speak through us. The writer of Ecclesiastes challenges us not to speak rashly and let our words be few (5:2). Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” And in Matthew 12:36 Jesus warns us, “I tell you on that day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter.”
If God’s word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, how, then, are we called to model healthy and holy conversation in the church? Here are my Ten Rules for Church Conversation.
- If you want the church to grow, don’t talk to your friends at coffee hour. Last week a pastor told me of an elderly man in his congregation who said, “Pastor, I really do want to be welcoming to guests, but by the time I get through talking with my friends, the visitors have gone home!” Every church member’s job is to seek out and welcome visitors, for there is no greater turn-off for a guest than to have no one speak to them. After introducing yourself to a guest, your next job is to introduce them to 4 other people.
- Don’t monopolize conversations, Bible studies, or the pastor’s time. Despite what you think, church is not about you (yes, really!). It’s about God and God’s love for you as well as the rest of the world. Monitor the quantity as well as the quality of your words.
- Cultivate the art of listening. Learn how to observe and evaluate situations before jumping into the fray. Use your intuition to ask questions that lead people to share what is on their hearts. It is more important to understand than to be understood.
- Measure your words: aka think before you speak. James 3:5 (The Message) says, “A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything – or destroy it.” Careless words can hurt deeply and irreparably harm relationships. Choosing every word carefully and lovingly is a spiritual discipline like no other. If you make a mistake and say something stupid, apologize.
- Get beyond the weather. The church should be a place where we should engage one another in matters of the soul, even if they are taboo in the secular world. There is no time for shallow conversations that evade difficult issues or minimize pain. If someone needs counsel, listen non-judgmentally and compassionately. If someone needs help, assist in finding the appropriate resources. If someone is deep in grief, words are not even necessary. Simply be present to them. Did Jesus ever talk about the weather?
- If you hear someone gossip, nip it in the bud. State clearly that you will not pass on unsubstantiated rumors about others. Encourage that person to go directly to the individual involved rather than talk behind that person’s back. Rule of thumb: don’t say anything about a person that you would not say in that person’s presence.
- Have the courage to engage conflict directly, creatively, and graciously. It is not necessary to be blunt, outspoken, or hurtful in order to tell the truth. Follow The Rule of Christ in Matthew 18:15-20 when church members disagree on the mission and direction of the congregation, the wisdom of a building program, the effectiveness of the pastor and/or staff, or worship and music styles. Conversation becomes holy when we invite God into the process and shed our own preconceptions, fears, and prejudices.
- Be proactive rather than reactive. If you see injustice, don’t ignore it. If you see someone being treated unfairly, help defuse the situation. If someone flies off the handle, remain calm and do not escalate bad behavior. If you observe racism sexism, ageism, or homophobia, speak to the individuals involved. Remember, people outside the church are looking at us, to see if we practice what we preach.
- Take the high road. This is the most important rule for modeling the love of Christ. To listen without being defensive; to be kind and respectful despite what others say to or about us; to see Christ in everyone we meet regardless of their words or actions; to refuse to return evil for evil no matter what; to bear the cross willingly without striking back is the greatest gift we can offer to our world. In their book Leadership on the Line Martin Linsky and Ronald Heifetz write, “Receiving anger, then, is a sacred task because it tests us in our most sensitive places. It demands that we remain true to a purpose beyond ourselves and stands by people compassionately, even when they unleash demons. Taking the heat with grace communicates respect for the pains of change.”
- We cannot be too kind or too tender in our words. Words test our character, judge our steadiness, and offer an extraordinary witness to the power of verbal communication to bless. When we express constantly gratitude, support the efforts of others with sincere appreciation, and gently offer constructive feedback, we make an extraordinary witness to the power of gracious conversation to change not only the church, but the world.
Words, words, words. How will you use words today?