There are four words that strike terror into the hearts of almost every person:“we need to talk”. Engaging in difficult conversations, especially with loved ones or members of the church, is nerve wracking. The potential for hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and emotional outbursts are high, which is why we often either avoid them entirely, or address them in the wrong way. Here to discuss the ways in which we may confront these conversations in a faith-filled way is Dwain N. Esmond, an Associate Director for the Ellen G. White Estate at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, with guest host pastor Morgan Kochenhower, and ANN InDepth host Jennifer Stymiest.
As mentioned, tough conversations hold a risk factor, a delicate experience in which the relationship feels in jeopardy. Our feeling of uneasiness when initiating difficult conversations may stem from personal experience. Kochenhower elaborates, saying “growing up in your own family, with your parents, how did you see having tough conversations modeled?” Past experiences will inform how you proceed, and show what you may have to unlearn moving forward in relationships. If you can, there are ways to prepare for difficult conversations, such as surrendering the issue and the interaction to God, asking for wisdom, grace, and an understanding heart. Both Kochenhower and Esmond agree that knowing the reason and intent of the conversation is vital. If the intent is to prove the other person wrong, and not prioritize the relationship, then the interaction will lead to explosive or hurtful spaces that could potentially damage the relationship.
When addressing conflict on a personal level, there is a need to leave your ego at the door. Whether it's with a partner, a parent, a child, or a friend, the objective of the conversation must be kept at the center of the discussion. The purpose of the confrontation must be to resolve the issue in order to preserve the relationship. If the relationship is not the priority, then it leaves space for ego to take its place. When this happens, the desire to be right supersedes the true need for the confrontation, resulting in the other person feeling attacked or invalidated, emotions overtake respect, the issue is left unresolved, and the relationship bruised. It is easy for things to escalate, especially when discussing an issue that has caused discomfort, hurt, or division. It's at this point when we need to use scripture as our guide. Esmond praises Paul’s ability to frame every confrontation with drifting church members with love and respect: “Paul always finds something to praise first. What I'm saying is, the conversation, when it's difficult, is not the totality of who the person is or the situation.”
This method of handling confrontation should extend to church relationships as well. As healthy conflict resolution should be modeled in the home, the church should be the public space in which healthy conflict resolution can be maintained. Both Kochenhower and Esmond acknowledge that the Seventh-day Adventist church is often ruled by theology. In a rush to correct, we place theology over relationships, allowing the desire to prove them wrong rather than ask questions and use the conflict as a learning experience that grows relationships. When addressing hot button issues, the opposite may be true. Our fear of misrepresenting our beliefs or being misunderstood, could also prevent some from initiating a tough conversation that could lead to greater faith and understanding.
These one on one conversations may be the tipping point to someone's faith, however when it comes to conflicts on an administrative level, there is temptation to delegate the issue to the higher conferences. Yet even here, accountability must begin with one on one conversations. In the mess of “he said, she said” conflicts, legalism often becomes a factor. Yet when legalism enters, grace exits. For the issue to be truly resolved, grace must be extended, allowing for understanding and productivity to flourish. However, as Esmond points out, we are living in an era of cancel culture. “It's hard to not talk about cancel culture within this situation,” says Esmond, “my problem with cancel culture is the lack of redemption”. By digging into past indiscretions, keeping a constant record of wrongs, and removing any attempt for communication prevents growth to occur and grace to be extended. Rather than rushing to condemn, hold them accountable through tough conversations extended in grace.
As difficult as they are, engaging in these kinds of interactions allow for deeper healing and greater understanding. With the trial and error that comes with learning how to communicate, we must also acknowledge that even as we follow all the steps, an issue may not resolve the way we want. And that's okay. Even this God can be used to remind us that there is more than one person in a conflict, and more than one person in need of understanding. Kochenhower says a crucial question to ask is “What does the love of God look like in this conversation or in this issue? How can God's love be revealed?” With this as the foundation, the clutter of conflict leaves room for grace and allows the tough conversations to lead to growth.