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Tapping Into Difficult Conversations

Our Stewarding Difficult Conversations series continues this week with a post from Keith Anderson, a pastor at a diverse congregation who embraced the challenge of hosting conversations with those of differing political convictions. Not only did the participants keep speaking to one another, the experience broadened into a multi-week venture.

Yours truly,

Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders


Tapping Into Difficult Conversations

Rev. Keith Anderson

It has been difficult for many ministry leaders in the days since the presidential election to navigate the political polarization and division within our public life and the tension that it can create within our congregations.

I have frequently found myself second guessing my choice of words, sermon analogies, and even checking myself in casual conversation, for not wanting to inflame already raw emotions, or cause unnecessary conflict -- while at the same time wanting to speak for justice, mercy, and the vulnerable. As whatever middle ground that once existed seems to evaporate from under our feet, we struggle to maintain a sense of unity and community among parishioners who hold differing political convictions.

In the days following the election one of the common themes that arose among people of very different political persuasions in my church was the pain they described regarding a brokenness in their relationships with families and friends. They just could not talk together about the presidential campaign, the election, and their feelings about them. People said to me, “We just can’t talk about it.” “I’m not sure if I can ever look at them in the same way again.” “I’m not sure I want to spend the holidays with my family.”

It was a source of acute pain and sadness. It was also something that people who were divided on any number of issues held in common. It was something everyone could agree on: we loved and we missed our family and friends.

In response, we decided to talk about how to have difficult conversations at our monthly theology pub night, which we call God on Tap. It seemed natural to do it in a more relaxed environment, one in which we highly value conversation and the opportunity it provides to listen, learn, and be transformed. I asked a friend, Carly Cubit, who is trained in helping people have difficult conversations through the Penn State World in Conversation program, as our special guest. She was a neutral and non-anxious presence that put people more at ease and encouraged them to share.

Well, there was such an interest and need that one gathering eventually turned into a three-part series. We learned about conversational skills like how to frame questions without putting people on the defensive, reflective listening, and more. We were equipped to have conversations beyond the pub, but, in the process, we were also able to express our feelings and share our convictions more openly. Instead of pushing us further apart, it drew us closer as a group because we stayed open enough to listen, empathize, and understand as best as we could.

Each time we gathered again at the pub, people shared stories about how they had tried to broach difficult conversations. The techniques they learned, the support they felt, and the practice they got from our gatherings made a difference in their everyday lives.

For all that separates us, I find the things that unite us are the most core to our humanity. Among those are our need to be known and loved, and the value we place on the important relationships in our lives. Through this experience, I’ve become convinced that there is a great opportunity for ministry leaders and churches to meet a crying need in our people and to create space for equipping people to steward these difficult conversations in their own lives.

As our world becomes more polarized and people can retreat into their own digital echo chambers, the church can and should seek to help cultivate common ground and nurture community within our congregations, our neighborhoods, our country, and the world.

Read the rest of the Stewarding Difficult Conversations series here:
Breaking Our Hearts Open in the Midst of Discord by Mary Hess
Fear and Anger Unearthed Through Dialogue by Carly Cubit

For More Information

Rev. Keith Anderson serves as Pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church near Philadelphia and is the author of The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

"Wroclaw Pub" image by Goncalo Trincao Cunha. Creative Commons licensing on Flickr.

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