Having “The Talk” at Work

We all have encountered conversations in ministry that we’d prefer not to have, whether it is dealing with staff conflict, challenging a disruptive church member, or confronting a more serious issue of misconduct. While we all have different levels of “conflict tolerance,” giving bad news is never fun. And, as pastors, we are always anxious to preserve relationships and confront each situation with love and respect. Here are a few tips that might help when you have to have “the talk.”

  • Don’t wait      
    • We can spend days or weeks pondering over the “right” thing to do, but the more time we wait just adds to the anxiety and frustration on both sides.  
    • Waiting adds to the possibility of more lasting damage – to people, your church or to relationships.
  • Pick the right time and place
    • Decide the level of confidentiality that the conversation needs. Ask for a witness to sit in, if needed.
    • Set a time limit for this discussion. If the situation isn’t resolved in that time, schedule another meeting.
    • Pick a neutral place, such as a conference room, or chapel, to help even out the balance of power (as opposed to sitting in your office). Consider having the meeting in a public space, such as a coffee shop or communal workspace, if you anticipate an overly emotional response.
  • Prepare
    • Decide upon your desired outcome in advance. What is the goal of this conversation?
    • Talk to witnesses to provide concrete examples of misconduct or malfeasance.
    • Make sure you have facts and examples, not just hearsay and opinions.
    • Make sure you are calm. Practice calming techniques before you begin.
    • Pray ahead of time. Ask for patience, wisdom and kindness.
  • Listen and engage
    • Ask to hear each side. Listen without judgment.
    • Ask constructive questions. What does each participant think is a just settlement? How can things change?
    • Allow for silence.
  • Stay focused
    • Don’t allow the conversation to get sidetracked to unrelated issues.
    • Keep moving toward the goal that you set ahead of time.
    • If things get emotional or start to escalate, call a time out for people to calm down. Don’t be afraid to end the meeting and reconvene later.
  • Preserve the relationship
    • Focus on the issue, not on personal character.
    • Use “I Statements” rather than “You Statements.”
    • Have empathy for all participants.
    • At the end of the conversation, ask how you can support each participant moving forward. Ask them what they need from you.
    • Ask if you can pray, but be prepared that not all participants may be ready to pray. Accept that with grace.

All I’m Asking For is A Little Respect


At first, we were shocked. Then we were amused. Now, we seem to be resigned to it. I’m talking about public temper tantrums by grown-a** adults. Name-calling in school board meetings. Out-of-control airline passengers enraged after being told to pull up their mask. A Wall Street executive caught on video berating and cursing a yogurt shop employee who made a mistake on their order. This, apparently, is the world we live in – where my needs and wants come before anyone else’s and where I have the right to berate, belittle and bully anyone, in order to get what I want. I’m not sure how we got to this point, but it’s not a productive or healthy way to live.

And the workplace is not exempt from this cultural shift toward incivility. Interruptions and overtalking during meetings. Discounting the contributions of subordinates. Gossip and backbiting behind the scenes. It doesn’t have to rise to Succession-level nastiness to become an unhealthy workplace.

Aretha was right. Respect should be the bare minimum in our dealings with others, especially our co-workers. I was often told in Sunday school to try to see the face of Jesus in others. Heck, I just try to see my face in others. It’s as basic as the Golden Rule, a version of which is taught by every major world religion.

Christianity: In everything, do to everyone as you would have them do to you. (Matthew 7:12)

Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. (Hillel, Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

Islam: Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself. (The Prophet Mohammed, Hadith)

Hinduism: This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. (Mahabharata 5: 1517)

Respect is one of those values that we try to teach our kids as early as we can. One children’s book defines respect as “caring enough about the other person to think about your impact on them.” Will my words or actions make them happy or sad? Will my words or actions be helpful? Will my words or actions create friendship and goodwill? If kids can learn this basic concept, then why is it so hard for adults?

In the workplace, as in the family, respect needs to be modeled and expected from the top down. Respect is always reciprocal.

Here are just a few tips to keep in mind when building that culture of respect:

  • Value clear communication. Listen more than you talk. Think before you speak. Practice transparency and honesty.
  • Emphasize Inclusiveness and participation. Recognize diversity, not just in race and gender, but in work and communication styles as well. Encourage the introvert in a sea of outspokenness, as well as the divergent thinker among a multitude of methodical, structured types.
  • Be inquisitive. Get to know people as individuals. Ask questions, dig deeper, ask Why?. “Tell me more” can be a really handy phrase.
  • Recognize all contributions and value teamwork. Give credit where credit is due – publicly. Thank people for their ideas and insights
  • Learn to disagree in a positive, constructive manner. Ask questions. Give examples. Look for points of agreement and be open to compromise.  Accept that you may be wrong about something (or that you have made false assumptions).

Remember, that at its core, respect is simply recognizing and honoring the humanity of each person. Treating others with respect costs you nothing and creating a workplace culture of respect will reap benefits of longer retention, greater productivity and happier, healthier workers.

The Spiritual Gift of Creativity

Like most parents, I’ve always been proud of my two kids. And, running in upper-middle class, highly educated circles, kids were always a topic of discussion at most adult gatherings, especially when it came to colleges.

“Where is your child going?”

“What are they majoring in?”

Imagine my surprise when I started receiving comments like, “Oh, you’re one of those parents.” And “I would never pay for my child to do that?” Or “So, you’re happy supporting them for the rest of their lives?” The crime? My children were majoring in the arts – one in musical theater and the other in voice performance. Funny, but up until that point, everyone seemed to enjoy that my kids were so talented and creative. But, apparently to some people, creativity is only good until you turn 18.

Not me. I believe that creativity is as much a spiritual gift, as kindness and generosity and self-control (which is a much under-rated spiritual gift in my opinion!). After all, our God is essentially creative in nature. What was the first thing that God did? Created the heavens and the earth. And God continues to create – every day, a continual process of birth, growth and renewal. When we create, however we create, we are mirroring God, in as much as when we love, we mirror God’s love. When we are creative, we are tapping into the great wellspring of God’s creative force.

And, thank God, everyone is, or can be, creative. Creativity doesn’t just lie in the arts. Creative people are those who change the world around them – teaching a math lesson, growing orchids, or organizing a march for justice. Creative people look at the world with fresh eyes and imagine possibilities. Creativity moves the world forward.

Just a quick search on the Internet brings up hundreds of ideas to boost creativity. Most of them center around one theme: Do something differently. Instead of cooking the same things all the time, find and try a new recipe. Instead of walking the same route every morning, take a detour. Instead of using the same order of worship every Sunday, mix it up – add some poetry, or a narrated dialogue.

As a family of musicians and musical people, we were all saddened by the recent news of the death of Stephen Sondheim. Talk about creative! But I remember one of his much quoted lines from Sunday in the Park with George, sung by the character/painter George Seurat, “Look…I made a hat, where there never was a hat!” Creating something out of nothing. Bringing into existence, something that has never existed before. That is a spiritual gift. That is what God calls us to do with our lives and our ministries.

And, back to my kids…Yes, they both earned degrees in Music and Theater. And, not surprisingly, when it came to establishing careers, the creativity didn’t stop. The Musical Theater major is now a professor teaching history and specializing in the history of entertainment. And the other, who majored in Voice and Opera Directing, is now producing and directing video games. Best of all, I’m not supporting either one of them! God bless their creativity!

Envisioning a Roadmap to the Future

There is nothing I like more than planning a vacation. I devour travel guides like some people read novels. I read Tripadvisor suggestions about points of interest and Yelp reviews of restaurants in the area. I use Googlemaps to situate myself spatially and figure out how long the walk is from the train station to the hotel. By the time I actually pack my suitcase, I can visualize where I am headed. I have a picture, perhaps idealized and incomplete but a picture nonetheless, of where I am going to end up. Setting a vision for your life, your ministry, or your business can be a lot like planning a vacation. You have to know where you want to end up before you can make meaningful progress towards the future.

Vision, the ability to imagine a positive future, is as much a spiritual strength as love and gratitude and kindness. This ability to dream, to imagine, and to plan is part of what separates us from other animals. While some folks seem to be better able to tap into a vast spiritual wellspring of creativity, optimism and purpose, each of us has the ability to visualize a future, and like all spiritual strengths, it grows and gains strength each time we intentionally exercise it.

The first step to positive visualization of the future is an honest assessment of where you are right now. What does your life/ministry/community look like right now? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What resources do you have? Who are your allies and companions? What is working and what is not working? Right now!

Then let the dreaming begin! Where do you want to be three months from now? A year? Five years? Use your imagination and creativity to see that future. Who is there with you? What will it feel like to be there?

The next step is to create a pathway or a roadmap (and remember this process is not a quick one. It may take weeks or months to create a vision for the future) How are you going to get there? Again, creativity and imagination are important now. What has been tried before? What worked, what didn’t? What additional resources do you need? Who will your allies be? And, importantly, what obstacles and stumbling blocks do you foresee? What will you do when you hit a wall? And how will you know you’ve arrived?

Once you, or your leadership team, have a clear vision, you can begin to paint a picture for others, to create the travel guide that will get them excited about the destination too. Great visionaries bring others along with them and provide a road map for others behind them to follow. But being a great visionary doesn’t mean we have to be Martin Luther King Jr., preaching from the highest places in the land with a voice and influence that stretches worldwide. Not all visionaries are larger than life figures with a global stage. In fact, most visionaries are the ordinary folks who are living out their seemingly ordinary lives, but in a way that connects and inspires others.

Phil Pugh and Mike Petross are just such ordinary visionaries. Well into their seventies, Phil and Mike might well be rarities in their West side Detroit neighborhood, a long-term committed Black gay couple. Together for over 50 years, they have been described as “vital” to the Black gay community by those who know them.

Phil and Mike have been through and seen a lot in their long tenure in their Detroit neighborhood. Phil tells a story that still haunts him and still inspires the two to mentor gay youth. In the weeks after they opened a neighborhood restaurant in the 1980s, a group of eight gay teenagers came in every Sunday. But after a while the friends eventually stopped showing up. Months later, Phil ran into one of the young men while grocery shopping and discovered why. “They went to one particular church in Detroit and one day the minister had singled that group out,” he says. “He talked about them so badly in the church, saying horrible things about homosexuality. One of them ended up committing suicide two weeks later.”

Simply by being themselves and sharing their stories with gay youth through organizations such as LGBT Detroit, Phil and Mike provide a vision of what committed love looks and acts like to younger members of that community who may feel hopeless in a culture that more often defines manhood in terms of aggression and power. For youth who cannot envision a future, Phil and Mike are there to show them a positive, happy and fulfilling one. When told of what an impact their example has made for others, Phil explains “That’s all I’ve wanted in my life,” he says. “We’ve dedicated our lives to making sure younger gay Black people know that they can grow old, and that they’ll have something to live for.”1

What is truly inspiring about people like Mike and Phil is that they know, and can clearly state, the “why” for their vision – so that young gay Black people know that they have something to live for. The “why” is the key to the whole shebang. What is “the why” for your vision? Why do you want to achieve this goal? Why is it so important?

God is in the vision business. And visions are to be shared. From the vision of Abraham to lead his family across the desert, to the vision of Joan of Arc to lead her people against a tyrannical foreign adversary, to  the vision of young people like Greta Thunberg of shared responsibility and mutual cooperation to combat climate change, vision is a spiritual strength that enables us to achieve more, to love more and to be more than we ever thought we could.


Resiliency: Bounce Back Better

Every year in high school, our marching band took a week-long trip to participate in a competition somewhere in the US. It was a fun and exciting time. But just imagine 50 adolescents stuck in a bus together, with minimal adult supervision, for 15 hours and you can get an idea of the chaos and drama than usually ensued. On one particular trip, my friend, Stacy, broke up with her boyfriend on the first day. Of course, she cried and I spent most of the night at the hotel consoling and commiserating with her. The next morning, when it was time to leave, she was still in bed, blankets over her head, ignoring my pleas to get up. “Go away”, Stacy told me miserably, “I just want to stay here and wallow a while longer.”

Isn’t that the temptation that we all have when things go horribly wrong? We just want to wallow a while. But we know that we have to somehow pick ourselves us, dust ourselves off and keep moving forward. Psychologists have labelled this ability to recover, adapt and move through adversity, as resiliency.

Often when something negative happens to us, we start playing it in a loop inside our heads. We review it over and over, asking “what if” and “why did I do/say that”, a process called rumination. We become stuck on past events which cannot change, instead of focusing on our own reactions to the events, which can change.

We are all resilient to one extent or another, but studies have shown that people with higher resiliency are more successful, happier and even healthier than those with a greater tendency to wallow.

The good news is, while some people may naturally be more resilient than others, we can consciously increase and cultivate greater resiliency in our lives. These exercises may be able to help.


Instead of replaying the negative event over and over in your head, asking “why” or “what if”, focus on your feelings about the event. Take 20 minutes to write, stream of consciousness-style, about the situation and think about your feelings before, during and after. Be sure to label each feeling. Think about how your emotions have changed over time.

Once you have a better understanding of how your feelings about the situation, start to address each one. Tell yourself (silently or out loud):

  • I am feeling ______ because of ____________
  • Everyone feels __________ sometimes. It’s a normal human emotion.
  • It’s OK for me to feel ____________.


Start to separate what has actually happened from what might happen, ie. “My boss was really unhappy with my presentation and yelled at me.” versus “My boss was really unhappy with my presentation and he’s going to fire me, and I won’t be able to find a new job, and I’ll lose my house, and …”

Ask yourself:

  • What is the worst thing that could happen?
  • If that happens, what can I do in response to it?
  • What is the most likely thing that could happen?
  • If that happens, what can I do in response to it?
  • What is one step that I can take today that will prepare myself for the most likely situation?


Self-compassion is always a good strategy, but it is especially important to boost resiliency in the face of a stressful situation.

  • Remind yourself of things that make you feel better – exercise, calling a friend, walking the dog, taking a long bath.
  • Set aside time for mindfulness, meditation and prayer.
  • Imagine placing the stressful situation or person in a soap bubble and blowing it away gently.
  • Place your hand over your heart and breathe deeply.
  • Write a list of all of your positive qualities.
  • Cultivate forgiveness – for other and for yourself. Living with resentment and guilt not only creates psychological stress but real physiological stress as well and can damage your physical health.

There is no guarantee in life that stressful or negative situations won’t occur. In fact, it’s almost a guarantee that they will occur. We are only faced with two options – give up or move forward. Purposefully cultivating increased resiliency when the stakes are low, can definitely help us move through those high-stakes crises that are inevitable in every life. With resiliency, and the strength of God, we can all thrive.

Journaling for Health and Insight

Whether it’s a spiritual journal, a personal diary, or prompted writing exercises, journaling has been found to have benefits ranging from improved communication skills, to getting a better night’s sleep, to even boosting our immune systems. Psychologists and spiritual directors have long advocated journaling as a way to process our thoughts and feelings, and have advanced the practice as an important part of self-care.

Research conducted by James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, has found that even a one-time 15-to-30-minute session of focused journaling can be beneficial. Journaling helps us organize our thoughts and make sense of our emotions in a very non-threatening manner, without having to expose ourselves to others. Putting down events on paper, says Pennebaker, often considered the pioneer of writing therapy, can improve our working memory as it frees us from having to process an experience over and over in our minds. This kind of journaling right before bed can often improve our sleep as our “monkey minds” are freed from ruminating and reliving events.

Often people say to me, “I gave up journaling because I couldn’t do it everyday.” But every day journaling isn’t necessary to receiving the benefits of it. Give yourself a break and try journaling whenever you have the time and inclination. Or, set aside 30 minutes a week on a schedule to explore the events of the past week, and analyze your feelings about them. There is no prescriptive amount of journaling that works or doesn’t work, it’s whatever works for you.

What do I write about? Julia Cameron, the author of “The Artist’s Way”, advocates a stream-of-consciousness technique to really discover what is going on in your inner life. Some people prefer prompted writing to help them explore areas that they would normally shy away from. There are a number of prompted journals on the market, including a companion to Michele Obama’s book, Becoming, which helps you create a legacy journal.

For me, journaling is, maybe counter-intuitively, a way for me to get outside of my own head. Instead of letting thoughts swirl around, half-formed, and returning over and over to capture part of my attention, I try to make a habit of setting down my thoughts on paper (or actually in Word). This is not writing that anyone will see but me. But once I write it down, I can step back and see patterns and themes. I start to see what is really going on – whether it’s why I have writer’s block, or my anxiety about my family.

I also keep a spiritual journal, just for me. A couple times a week, I read a passage of scripture, or a chapter from a book, and then just record my musings and wanderings. Sometimes, it’s obvious stuff, or as I wrote recently about a particular Psalm – “This is terrible theology.” But often, in my rambling, I gain insights into my relationship and connection with God. I can be honest about my thoughts, instead of “preacherly.” I express my doubts, my grievances, and my heresies. In a spiritual journal, I can explore what I keep hidden in my heart, my truest beliefs about life and God, without feeling judged or scrutinized my others. I truly believe that it has been my journaling which has led me to grow in faith in the last ten years.  And it is often during journaling when I hear God speaking to me most clearly. For this introvert, journaling is my tent revival.