How to Create an Environment of Honest Communication Among Your Staff

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I recently pitched an idea to a couple of people on my church's staff. This idea was meeting a need that we were trying to solve. It was a solution and just plausible enough to work, but it was a terrible fit—and I knew that. I wanted to see if I'd get honest feedback. Instead of getting a direct response, I received zero feedback. The people avoided the subject; instead of providing me with honest feedback (whether it was something I wanted to hear or not), they avoided the topic altogether.

Obviously, this shows a need for change in the environment of my own church's staff. If we can't be honest and open with one another, how can we expect to achieve anything great? Instead, we avoid difficult discussions—appearing apathetic—and as a result, we can't expect our outcome to be anything beyond mediocre.

I'm going to guess my church isn't the only one that struggles with this dilemma. People want to be liked. Nobody wants to be known as the "staff pessimist." But this can be a sign of a lack of trust. People can't give criticism for fear of how it will be received. A staff member might not pitch that idea rolling around her brain because she’s afraid of the reaction.

How, then, do we change that environment? How can we create an atmosphere of trust that fosters open, honest dialogue? Here are six things I am working on in my church, and I think they may help yours as well.

1. Listen more than you speak

When you listen—actually listen—it gives space for others to speak. There's a reason James says to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Listening builds trust over time when the speaker realizes they're heard. And when we listen well, we're learning how to improve the environment for our staff too. Listen without interrupting. Listen without responding negatively. Listen without thinking of your response. Just listen.

2. Practice humility

When we're in a position of authority, it can be hard to practice humility well. You're the decision-maker. You're the one with all the responsibility. And everyone looks to you for leadership. So it's even more important to be humble and to practice humility among your staff. One way to do this is to take the blame when something goes wrong, even if it's not directly your fault. Take the responsibility off other staff members or leaders. But when something goes well, give credit to those actively engaged in the win. Take blame; give credit.

3. Don't gossip

Often in leadership, we need to build trust by allowing people to come to us to air their grievances or issues, which can be a vital Human Resource role. However, this can easily do more than receive the case and cross the line to gossip. It's essential not to repeat what you’ve heard because people will automatically assume that if you're willing to speak about another employee, you'll also speak poorly of them when they turn their backs.

4. Communicate clearly and often

I'm kind of notorious for keeping things close to the chest—even when I don't need to—and not always communicating well (ironic, since my whole job is about better communication). Sharing better is something I continuously work at, but it can be challenging to figure out what's worth communicating. The best answer I've found: over-communicate. When it comes to building trust in your staff, be transparent and truthful. I've learned this through mistakes—by not being transparent, genuine, or clear.

5. Trust your team

Do you want your team to trust you and trust one another? Trust them to do their job. Don't micromanage; instead, give your staff the freedom to work their best. And provide them with the benefit of the doubt.

6. Encourage dialogue and collaboration

Creating silos in ministry is pretty easy to do. Everyone gets busy working on their ministry area to get laser-focused on what we need to get done quickly. This tunnel vision means we don't think about connecting with other ministry areas, even though thinking and working together can benefit the church. Find ways to encourage your staff to talk with each other openly and to collaborate on events, programs, and ministry.

Building trust and healthy communication among staff members doesn't have to include ropes courses or trust falls. Find creative ways to foster relationships with each other throughout the week so that you can flourish together in ministry.

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Let's Discuss…

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Thanks for this excellent exposition of what may well be a common problem. And the suggestions for how to change this make sense. 

But I have one question: Who decides that the problem needs attention? How does this issue end up on any church agenda? Who initiates an intervention? What if the problem is glaring to some, but invisible to others, particularly to those higher in the church hierarchy? What then?

Community Builder

John, you ask: "Who decides that the problem needs attention?" 
If it's a problem, it needs attention. That requires those in leadership -- those with authority -- to make the decision to put the problem on the church agenda.

And if the problem is glaring to some but invisible to others, then it merits being raised. If a face-to-face discussion doesn't bring the right results then a letter to those in authority is appropriate. Letters always require a response.

 

Community Builder

Then there's this one, Bryan.

If you're a leader, show leadership. Dare to speak out. Dare to risk being shot down.

I once served as chair of council, consisting of a group of highly qualified leaders in business. In their day jobs, they made major decisions every day. But get them in a room with fellow elders and they clam up. It's as though they left their decision-making abilities at the door ... for fear of making a wrong decision.

I agree; clear communication is important: communication among staff, with staff, with the congregation. It should be carried out with respect and humility. It should not be carried out with fear and trembling.

If you have been given authority -- whether that's over major decisions or over the Sunday school teaching schedule -- exercise it. And don't be afraid of a discussion or a contrary viewpoint.