The Church Board and Crucial Conversations: Navigating Complex Dialogue



  • Church strengthening


One thing seminary does not prepare you for is having really difficult conversations with the people you care about. Leaders often must learn to speak the truth in love, and great leaders learn to have hard conversations and do them well. 

In this article adapted from Converge’s Church Board Development training series, Converge Great Lakes president Ken Nabi shares his insights on how church boards can successfully navigate complex conversations.

The Importance of Effective Communication

I've spent my adult life investing vast amounts of time helping people navigate tricky and complex conversations. Have you ever walked into a conversation where you did not know it would get tense? And you didn't know what to say? And you didn't say what you meant to?

Here's how you can tell if you need to grow in this area: How much time do you spend rehearsing what you wish you'd said? Lots of people have the most truthful, blunt conversations in their minds only. This is tragic because only through vulnerable, honest dialogue can you merge your heart with another person.

The Biblical Perspective

Great leaders learn to have hard conversations well. It reminds me of Ephesians 4:15, which says, "Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ" (NIV). Speaking lovingly and honestly is an expression of spiritual maturity.

In Galatians 1:10, Paul says, "Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God?" (NIV) The obvious answer is that every one of us must seek the approval of God, and the way we speak to other people reflects this. Having hard conversations needs to be done well.

Every pastor, every leader and every board member will have to learn this skill, or they will not last long at their church. I recommend the books Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan. Al Switzler and Emily Gregory and Crucial Accountability by the same authors. They're excellent resources with lots of companion questions to help you follow up.

Understanding Crucial Conversations

So, what exactly is a crucial conversation? Patterson and his team define three factors that must be present: stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.

1. Stakes Are High

When stakes are high, what you're discussing really matters. The topic is not inconsequential; the ramifications of the decision have implications that could be far-reaching. It could involve personnel decisions, financial investments or key strategic directions. If the decision has a significant impact, it's a crucial conversation.

2. Opinions Vary

Opinions vary when two or more people have looked at the challenge, facts or issues and arrived at different opinions. This can make decision-making trickier, especially if people initially appear to agree but later reveal differing opinions. Gathering diverse perspectives is crucial in navigating these conversations effectively.

I've found over the years that the more outspoken the leader, the more important it is for that person to work at gathering different opinions because often it's too easy for others to just go along. Great leaders work at gathering those different opinions. That's especially true in a group setting.

3. Emotions Run Strong

This is when people feel strongly about the topic being discussed. They may express passion, raise their voices or become visibly emotional. Others will shut down and avoid speaking altogether, feel shame or manipulated or leave the conversation. Recognizing and managing emotions is essential in handling crucial conversations, as they can influence the direction and outcome of the discussion.



Principles for Effective Dialogue

As you prepare for a difficult conversation, consider these three principles to help set the guardrails:

1. Dialogue Openly

Embrace the open exchange of ideas. Dialogue skills can be learned, including asking good questions, listening objectively, and clarifying with follow-up question. Creatingate an environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing their perspect is essentialive. When you start to feel difficulty, open dialogue must be invited.

You must want your leaders, your staff, the board or that person that you're talking with to want to share their perspective. But first, look inward. Matthew 7:3-5 tells us to inspect the board in our own eye before we're searching out the speck in someone else's eye. We are to evaluate our own heart and motives first.

2. Define Clearly

Know what the preferred outcome looks like. Sometimes, it helps to start by defining what you do not want. Define the desired unity or agreement, and be open to exploring alternative perspectives. Embrace win-win solutions and consider options that may not have been initially apparent.

3. Develop Safety

Proverbs 15:1 tells us, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (NIV). Create an environment where people feel safe to speak candidly and transparently. This involves fostering mutual respect and a shared purpose. Validate others' perspectives without assigning negative motives and genuinely consider different viewpoints. 

This is extremely important in a group discussion, because when a person feels safe, they are better able to speak what they believe. Make it OK to push back, have a different opinion or disagree. Great leaders, learn to cultivate this into the culture of team discussions.

Sometimes the best thing for a strong leader to do is to hold off on giving their opinion, so the team can interact without their strong voice.



Overcoming Barriers to Effective Communication

One significant barrier to effective, crucial conversations is the power of stories. Often, we formulate narratives in our heads based on interpretations of others' words or actions. These stories can lead to misunderstandings and hinder productive dialogue. Focus on observable facts and behaviors without jumping to conclusions or assigning negative motives. 

We often assign negative emotions to someone else’s perspective. “They don’t love the church like I do.” “They’re so unspiritual.” “They don’t like me.” When I was a senior pastor, I would tell our staff team to believe the best first, come up with a reason that has a good explanation and refuse to disparage someone else.

Necessary Ingredients for Success

Finally, three necessary ingredients can set the stage for every crucial conversation:

1. Humility

Approach conversations humbly, acknowledging that you don't have all the answers. Humility is magnetic and gives evidence of Christ-like maturity.

2. Confidence

Be confident in expressing what you mean clealy, while also listening to and valuing other perspectives. Confidence coupled with openness to different viewpoints fosters constructive dialogue.

3. Skill Development

Work on developing the necessary skills for effective communication, including active listening, empathy and validation of others' perspectives. Always strive to speak the truth in love, guided by a desire for mutual understanding and growth.


Great leaders know how to have hard conversations well. Building a culture of open dialogue, clear communication and emotional safety is essential for church boards, leaders and teams. By embracing these principles and overcoming communication barriers, you can navigate crucial conversations with confidence and integrity, leading to greater unity, understanding and effectiveness in ministry.

This post is based on a video message from Converge Great Lakes president Ken Nabi. As of May 2024 (when this article was published), the message is one of 36 video discussions included in Church Board Development training, which is free to all Converge churches and available to churches outside of Converge for a small fee. More than 200 churches actively use Church Board Development training in their board meetings. Learn more about investing in your board and strengthening your church through Church Board Development.

Converge, National

Converge is a movement of churches working together to help people meet, know and follow Jesus. We do this by starting and strengthening churches together worldwide.

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