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When You Have to "Speak the Truth in Love"

Wouldn't it be great if everyone just got along? It's not a perfect world and sometimes you need to say hard things to people-even in ministry. Here are tips for having difficult conversations at church.

Wouldn't it be great if everyone just got along, no one ever got mad, and children and adults did exactly what you wanted? Well, dream on.

It's not a perfect world, and as a leader in an imperfect world you sometimes have to say hard things to people. How do you do that?

To help you "speak the truth in love," Children's Ministry Magazine identified eight of the toughest situations face. Then we asked top ministry leaders-Carmen Kamrath, Debi Nixon, and Larry Shallenberger-to give us expert tips in dealing with each issue.

Keep in mind that the goal of saying any hard thing is to leave the person you're talking with "whole" after the conversation. No matter what the situation, the people you're talking with are your sisters and brothers in Christ. Treat them with God's love and gentleness.

To discover more about your personal leadership style, check out Larry Schallenberger's book " Lead the Way God Made You."

It's important before speaking in any difficult situation that you first commit yourself to prayer and continue praying as you seek God's guidance. Always schedule time to meet privately with the person either at the church or a coffee shop.

FIRING a Volunteer

Ideally, every volunteer in your ministry is perfectly matched according to gifts and passions. That's ideal. The truth is that sometimes, even with the best intentions, some people don't fit...and need to be asked to leave a ministry. Experts recommend that you have some kind of evaluation system in place ahead of time so volunteers know where they're at and a "firing" doesn't come as a big surprise.

What to Say

  • Listen actively and gather information. Listen for places of frustration you can use to back up why this isn't a good fit for this volunteer. Listen for places of great joy to help you suggest a better ministry position.
  • Confidently, but with gentleness, share your observations and the need for a change.
  • Ask how you can best support and care for the person during this transition time. It's important to help the volunteer move on with dignity.
  • You may want to assume some of the blame for allowing the person to be in a place that didn't match his or her gifts. It's possible you didn't provide the adequate support, training, or job-description clarity.

What NOT to Say

  • Don't share information directly with the volunteer that's hearsay. It's important that you strive to share your actual observations. It may be possible that the only information you have is what has been shared to you by a third party. If that's the case, allow time for the volunteer to present his or her perspective.
  • Don't belittle, condescend, or attack the volunteer.

LATE Parent Pickup

Let volunteers know that if a parent is more than 15 minutes late after a class ends, they should bring the child to you so they aren't put in a position that would deal with confronting the parent. As the director, you can take the child directly to the parent (usually they're busy socializing). You'll still need to have a direct conversation with the parent, though.

What to Say

  • Talk with the parent in a place away from other parents, volunteers, and children.
  • Actively listen to make discoveries as to why the parent isn't able to pick up the child on time. You may find that the person is serving in another area, has multiple children to pick up, or didn't know the pickup time.
  • Offer alternatives. If the person is serving in another area, suggest a friend who might be able to pick up the children. If the parent has multiple children, offer to take all the children to one of the children's rooms for pickup. If the parent simply wants to stay after a service or program to enjoy a few minutes of fellowship and coffee with others, invite the parent to pick up the children first and take them to the fellowship area too.

What NOT to Say

  • Don't convey that the parent's behavior is selfish.
  • Be cautious not to embarrass the child or the parent. Assume that it's possible the parent may not know the time or the impact the lateness is causing.

DISCIPLINE and an Uncooperative Parent

When there's a discipline challenge with a child in a classroom, the ideal situation is teachers and parents working together to be successful at discovering the most effective way of handling the child's behavior. But if a parent refuses to be a part of the process, the child's growth is delayed.

What to Say

  • Share the observed behavior and why it's disruptive.
  • Explain what you've done to try to redirect the behavior and the results.
  • Ask that the parent join you in the classroom for the next few weeks not only to observe the behavior but also to help in redirecting the child. If the parent refuses to help, let him or her know that the child isn't able to come back to the room until the behavior is under control.
  • Commit to praying together that the behavior will change.
  • Reinforce how important the partnership between parents and teachers is to the success of the classroom-and how much this particular child is valued and loved.

What NOT to Say

  • Don't tell parents that they're not good at their parental roles. Instead, continue to offer support, resources, and the discipline that the child needs.
  • Don't use words or comments that may lead the parent to believe you don't care deeply for the child.
  • Don't use words that are inflammatory, such as "We have attempted to talk with you but see that you haven't done anything about the situation."
  • Don't share that other children may not like this particular child because of his or her behavior.
  • Don't imply that something might be wrong with the child, unless you're trained in this area.

RESPONDING to Bad Advice

People want to give you advice, almost without fail, because they care. The last thing you want to say is, "I don't know how to say this. This is a bad, bad idea. Frankly, I'm not sure where to start with what's wrong with it." Not only will this person never give you input again, but neither will anyone else once the word gets out about how you respond to input.

What to Say

  • Let people know you appreciate their comments and ideas.
  • Affirm the time the person took to provide you with the idea or advice.
  • Be honest and specific as to what you'll do to review the idea.
  • Relate the specific areas where the idea isn't consistent with your ministry purpose.
  • Say, "That's an option. Let me think about it some more."

What NOT to Say

  • Don't tell the person that the idea is bad.
  • Don't tell the person the idea is good and then do nothing with it because you know it's a bad idea.
  • Don't tell the person to contact someone else just to get her "off your back"-unless you think the idea might have some merit for the other ministry area.

KICKING a Child Out of Class

Most children's ministers admit they're not big advocates of kicking a child out of class. Instead, they prefer to find a way to make it work for the difficult child, whether it means having a one-on-one situation, asking the parent to stay, or whatever it takes. And yet, there are those times that the child may need a brief break from class to redirect his or her behavior.

What to Say

  • Only initiate this when there's a safety concern or after exhausting your discipline policy.
  • Meet with the parent and the child in a private area away from others.
  • Share the specific behavior and action that has created this drastic measure. Report the specific outcome as a result of the behavior and the next steps needed.
  • Affirm to the child and parent how much the child is loved and how valuable the child is to the class. Highlight some of the child's positive behavior.
  • Send a personal note to the child after a week to let the child know that you miss him or her. Pray for the child.
  • Follow up with the child and parent in two weeks to let them know that you're hopeful the child will be rejoining the class. Let them know you've missed the child.

What NOT to Say

  • Avoid venting on the child or labeling him or her as "bad."
  • Don't belittle the child, but instead focus on the specific and factual behavior.
  • Don't let the child feel like God doesn't love him or her because of the behavior.
  • Don't use overgeneralizations, such as "You always do this," "No one in the class can stand to be around you," or "You never..."

CLOSING a Full Classroom

When teacher/student ratios are exceeded in a classroom, kids aren't safe anymore-and volunteers aren't happy. Let parents know that for the safety of children and to ensure quality in the classroom, your numbers have reached capacity and the classroom needs to be closed.

What to Say

  • Be at the door to meet parents in person. Don't put up a sign and walk away. Be empathetic.
  • Let parents know your team is working on opening more classrooms as soon as space and volunteers allow for it. Share what you're doing to rectify the situation.
  • Let the child know that the room is very full and you hope that you'll see him or her next week.
  • Give parents an activity bag with coloring sheets, crayons, and fruit snacks for the child to use in a worship setting or adult classroom.
  • Provide contact information if the parents want to talk about it further.

What NOT to Say

  • Don't dump your pent-up frustrations on the parent. Whining won't attract volunteers!
  • Don't blame your children's council, elder board, or anyone else for developing such a "ridiculous and strict" policy. Uphold and support why this policy is important for the safety of children.
  • Don't blame the parents for not volunteering their time if the room is closed due to volunteer/child ratio. Gently invite them to be part of the solution so it doesn't happen again.

DISAGREEING With Leadership

It's important to let your church leadership know if you don't agree with something, especially if it directly impacts the ministry you have leadership over. In a healthy environment, opinions should be able to be shared. Your approach to sharing dissenting views can open up or shut down communication.

What to Say

  • Schedule time to talk one on one with the person.
  • State what you're feeling and why.
  • Share the specific implications and how you or your ministry area are affected by this situation.
  • Ask for permission to offer alternatives.
  • Reaffirm your commitment to be supportive of the decisions that are made and your desire to be a team player.

What Not to Say

  • Don't share your frustrations with others.
  • Don't directly attack the leader or leaders. Assume from the beginning that they wouldn't purposely make a decision that would negatively affect you; assume the best.
  • Don't offer ultimatums if leaders don't agree with you.

DEALING With an Irate Parent

Stay calm! If you start getting a hot head, then you become part of the problem and you open yourself up to speak out of emotion and anger.

What to Say

  • Validate the person by listening.
  • If a parent is out of control and yelling, let him or her know you don't want to discuss the issue until he or she has calmed down.
  • Should emotions escalate, have someone else with you for your protection and support.
  • Gather the facts, sorting out the emotion.
  • Share the reason you've instituted the particular policy or structure that's in question. Many times parents become frustrated when they don't understand the "why," but they become partners with you when they can see the whole picture.
  • If a situation has been handled inappropriately, empathize with the parent about the situation. It's okay to be honest and admit that a mistake has been made. However, it's imperative that you remain supportive of any volunteer or staff that may've been involved.
  • If the parent is still upset, ask what else you can do.
  • Be careful not to make any promises, but assure the parent that you'll do the best you can.
  • Pray with the parent before leaving.
  • Follow up with the parent with a phone call or note during the week.

What NOT to Say

  • Don't "scold" the parent for his or her emotions.
  • Don't make any promises unless you're certain you have all the facts.
  • Don't criticize a volunteer, staff member, or policy in front of the parent.
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