In a recent podcast interview, I was struck by a statement Shawn Lovejoy made. He said, “I’ve never met a leader in all my years of coaching whoever told me, ‘I think I dealt with that issue too soon.'” (Click here to listen to that podcast)

He was specifically talking about protecting the vision for the church, but I think it applies across the board of church leadership. In general, as pastors we are hesitant to get out in front of problems out of fear of losing momentum, causing relational problems, or people leaving the church.

There’s probably no area under our leadership that is more difficult to be proactive in than dealing with performance issues with a staff member or volunteer leader. We notice performance is slipping or morale on the team is running low because of a noticeable performance issue by a peer, but instead of dealing with the problem head-on we avoid it. Maybe we drop hints or assume it will get better without a hard conversation, but it never does. Problems don’t go away they grow, and a strong leader understands that.

PASTOR: When you know there's a problem, don't drop hints or assume it will get better without a hard conversation, it won't. Problems don't go away they grow. @jeremyisaacsClick To Tweet

If everyone on your team knows you won’t confront a person who is a problem, that person is no longer the problem, you are. I’m not saying it’s easy. It can potentially be painful, and in some cases, your fears of someone leaving the church may come true, but the only way for you to lead your church in the God-honoring way he is calling you to is to confront issues that need confrontation. (My brother Jason wrote more about confrontational conversations in this post)

PASTOR: If everyone on your team knows you won't confront a person who is a problem, that person is no longer the problem, you are.Click To Tweet

If I told you that right now you could confront an issue or person that has been a nagging problem on your team, and you could be confident that there would be no lingering collateral damage, who/what would you address? Unfortunately, I can’t promise you a peaceful resolution, but I can guarantee you that it won’t get better without strong leadership, so whoever you just thought of when I asked the question, is who you need to confront whether it’s easy or not.

So let’s look at 6 Keys to Having a Hard Conversation:

1. Resolve that it has to be done

The longer you wrestle with the need for it, you won’t be in the right mindset to actually have it. You need to get to the place that you believe that it is absolutely necessary for you to have the conversation. And guess what? If you are thinking about a person or situation right now…you need to have the conversation. The longer you leave it festering, the worse it will get.

2. Put yourself in their shoes

Can you be honest enough to see that their issue may have been improper or insufficient training or resourcing on your part? Are you able to step into their shoes, play out the conversation that needs to take place and hear their rationale?

The desired outcome of the impending conversation isn’t that you win, it’s that we find resolution and the problem gets solved. So the more I can see all sides before us sitting down the better prepared I am to work toward the desired outcome.

PASTOR: Are frustrated with a staff member/volunteer? Is it possible their issue may have been improper or insufficient training or resourcing on your part? Click To Tweet

3. Document the issue(s)

There may be a lot of frustration in your head, but if you can clear all of that away for a few minutes and try to document the actual issues clearly, there may only be one or two things. Be specific. Don’t write down “lazy.” Document times where they’ve been late, left early, or underperformed and didn’t meet the expectations. Include any previous conversations where these issues were discussed, and a course of action was agreed upon.

4. Pray

Ask the Lord to go before you. Ask Him to prepare the other person for the conversation. Ask for the grace to deal with the person and not the issues alone. Listen to His voice to guide you in anticipation of what you would say and not say.

5. Just do it

Schedule the meeting (maybe that should have been another point, but don’t just pop into their office or catch them in the hall after church on Sunday.) Put it on the calendar and let them know you want to discuss a few things that aren’t going as well as you’d like, or need improvement. This will help them be in the right mental, and emotional state is necessary for a productive conversation. Talk through your concerns and give them space to respond. Try to stay on topic. Don’t let the discussion get pulled into areas that aren’t relevant to the issues at hand. Make sure that the concerns you documented previously are discussed. Talk about specific corrective actions. We can’t just agree that “things will get better.” For everyone to be able to move forward, we need to leave knowing that “you will be to the office by 9am every day unless other arrangements have been made” or “she agrees to meet with her team at least once per month.”

6. Document the solution

If the issue is serious in nature or they are a paid employee, the agreed upon solutions need to be written down and each of you needs to sign it. This is the only way you are protected if a future conversation is necessary to end their employment or make a more substantial change.

If you are dealing with a volunteer, send them an email within 24 hours of the meeting. In the email spell out what you remember from the meeting and what the two of you agreed to. Ask them to respond to let you know they agree to this summary or if they have changes to make.

I realize some of this may sound like overkill or a more corporate approach than what you signed up for in ministry. But I promise these steps will help you have the hard conversations necessary to keep moving forward.

It has been said that “you are just 2-3 hard conversations away from your next level.” Who do you need to have a hard conversation with? Don’t put it off. Work these steps and allow the Lord to grow your leadership as you tackle the hard things. Your team will thank you.

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Jeremy Isaacs
Jeremy Isaacs pastors Canton Church in Canton GA, and is the author of "Toxic Soul: A Pastor's Guide To Leading Without Losing Heart." You can find more information at jeremyisaacs.org