How to Have Hard Conversations

Image via /Shutterstock

Without a commitment to having hard conversations, and without healthy outlets for them, disagreements can be terrifying. They can seem like the end of the world, especially in the rarified atmosphere of our churches.

Unfortunately, Christians often deal with disagreements in their congregations in one of a handful of ways. We might disagree only in public, or only in denominational forums; we might talk only to our pastor, or only to the people who agree with us; we might let our money do the talking for us; we might not say anything at all; or we might split — leave, get kicked out, break fellowship.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can create a culture of rich dialogue, even around our disagreements. We can cultivate community conversations marked by gracious space and spacious grace. This unity is possible because we are bound by a covenant 

'... A Fragile Sense of Self'

MaestroPhoto /

MaestroPhoto /

Some of you might be downright shocked to know that many clergy have to undergo a three-day battery of psych tests as part of the ordination process. If a significant issue is discovered, say, addiction or something else (perhaps the main reason these tests have become required), one's ordination process can be slowed down or halted all together. When I was going through the process, I too went through these evaluations.

The result? I have "a fragile sense of self."

What does this really mean? Well, I'm an alcoholic. It's true. I've spoken about it as part of my faith journey (read: testimony; yes, I have a testimony). I don't wave it around like some flag, but I'm not shy about telling people. And I have certainly told the congregations and other organizations I have served about my history with addiction.

Keeping this stuff secret, for me, is poisonous.

At any rate, there it was, "a fragile sense of self" on my evaluation. This caused everyone to pause. The ordination committee had a ton of questions for me. They did the obligatory background check (this is perfunctory; everyone gets one). They checked my references, etc. They did their due diligence to make sure, as best as anyone could, that I was not going to fall off the wagon.

Of course. No one can promise that. Not really.

Why I Shared My Sexuality Story

Photo: Audrey Hannah Brooks

A story penned by Jonathan Merritt goes viral. He reveals why he decided to share it now. Photo: Audrey Hannah Brooks

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability … To be alive is to be vulnerable.”

These are the words of Madeleine L’Engle, and this week I’ve been reminded of the wisdom they contain.

This weekend, Christianity Today posted an excerpt from my new book, Jesus is Better Than You Imaginedin which I share a story about childhood sexual abuse and my adult struggle to understand my sexuality. Many have asked why I would do such a thing.

This wasn’t a career move or a brazen attempt to sell more books. Being open about these experiences as an evangelical writer leaves me, like so many scarecrows, exposed. I do not plan to become a spokesman for any of the issues addressed in this article. The events shared are a part of my story, but they are not the whole of my calling. Today, I return to my job as a columnist committed to exploring the interface between faith and culture and helping foster difficult conversations that others may be unwilling to have.

The Need to Be Relevant

Homeless man, wrangler /

Homeless man, wrangler /

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to spend the night at the Metropolitan House Men’s Shelter, part of Washington, D.C.’s, Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church.

And in this experience, Henri Nouwen’s, In the Name of Jesus came to life for me. In reflecting on his own experience of transitioning from Harvard University to L’Arche, a house for mentally disabled individuals, Nouwen realized he had to rediscover his true identity. Up until that moment, Nouwen relied on his accomplishments, achievements, accolades, educational training, and social connections to legitimize his impact and reputation in ministry as a priest. However, at L’Arche none of the things he relied on seemed to matter, and he had to gain credibility with those he planned to serve — the mentally disabled. Nouwen states, “I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent simply on how I was perceived at the moment” (28). Nouwen was forced to let go of his “relevant” self. Nouwen defines relevant self as, “the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things.” Nouwen would have to allow himself to become vulnerable while suppressing his “relevant” self.

When Christmas Gets Real

Alexander Hoffmann/Shutterstock

Maybe a picture-perfect nativity scene isn't the whole story. Alexander Hoffmann/Shutterstock

Last December, I decided to run after dark and entertain myself by running through neighborhoods, looking at lighted Christmas decorations as I passed by. It was a novel twist on my regular exercise, and I enjoyed gazing at the beautiful, the creative, and the tacky alike. 

Then, I started noticing the insides of houses, too. The Christmas trees were lit and decorated; the insides of the houses seemed warm and inviting. Suddenly, instead of an independent adult on a crisp winter jog, I felt more like a homeless orphan from a George MacDonald Christmas story looking in at something I did not have and of which I could not be a part. Needless to say, the run lost its sense of adventure.

Recently, it has struck me how strange the situation was, both in what I saw Christmas to be and in my decision that I “didn’t have it.”

Breaking Down Walls and Individualism



While sitting listening to a musician pour out her heart through music at a show the intern house hosted, I was challenged. The emotions in her voice communicated her story and as I sat there pleasantly soaking in the music and admiring her vulnerability, I also realized I wouldn’t want to put myself out there like that. At that same moment, I stopped and thought, is that how I view church? Do I put up those same walls with God?

Vulnerability is difficult, when our culture thrives on individualism. Television shows, books, and movies tell us that we can create the world we desire through our own strength. This culture tells us that we are the creators of our reality, a societal standard that has seeped into the church, creating a standard of self-reliance and individualism.

Brennan Manning stated, “the church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners.” The church “hospital” should be the place where we come ready for healing and treatment. As such, people generally do not go to a hospital hiding their wounds and disease expecting to get better. This self-medication can only cover the symptoms while never combating the true source of the ailment. The truth is that in life, we are all terminally ill patients with different pains in desperate need of a doctor. In this, we are not alone in the fight.


Tell The Story of Who You Are With Your Whole Heart

Being vulnerable isn’t easy. I think it would be easier to stand outside naked for a moment of mocking than to unveil the inner-self to others for a lifetime of judgment. However, I recently heard theTED Talk below by Brene Brown on her years of study on the subject of vulnerability.

What she discovered moved me to the core.

Brene states that in order for us to connect we have to allow ourselves to be SEEN. This is scary for the shy and the outspoken because we all think the same thing — “Is there something about me that if people knew they would withdraw?”.

Every soul cries: “Am I worthy of connection?” We then allow the mass public to tell us the answer to that.  Please note: that unstable analysis can never end well no matter how popular one may seem. This leads us to live in shame of who we are in which Brown describes shame as “the fear of connection.”

I believe I can state truthfully that we live in a world of people full of shame. We’re scared to death of each other!