Shoot the elephant
I don’t know about you, but I’m not a huge fan of confrontation. My natural inclination would be to run away from a potential conflict rather than towards one. Perhaps it’s because of my own insecurity, perhaps it’s because I don’t like upsetting people, or perhaps it’s because I really want people to like me!
Whatever it is, my default would be to let a problem go and hope that it will resolve itself, rather than to bring it up and address it.
Unfortunately though I have had to learn that this is poor - even dangerous - leadership. Over the last two years the primary leadership lesson I have had to learn (and am still learning) is how to engage in healthy conflict.
What would you do?
So let me ask you a question. What are the things in your youth ministry that everyone knows are there but no one is talking about?
These things are called ‘the elephant in the room’. It’s a problem, everyone knows it, but no one is addressing it. As the leader, it is your responsibility to shoot the elephant! And what’s more, the time that elapses between an issue arising and it being addressed is hugely significant, because it is in the gap that your culture is established.
In November 2015 I took a bunch of students from Regents Theological College and launched out a new youth club in Malvern. We decided from the outset that, because we were going to be starting from scratch and thus working largely with non-Christians, we needed to set a strong culture from the start keeping in mind what we wanted the club to eventually become.
Ultimately of course our prayer was that young people would come to faith, and that meant they needed to be hearing about Jesus! Our chosen means for this was a section within the night we called ‘The Comfy Chair’ (essentially a testimony slot with a jingle!), that would become the centre-point of the club.
It was absolutely crucial that the young people were fully attentive during this slot, and thankfully, because of some great work from the team and the goodness of God, it started off that way. However, a couple of months in one of our regular young people brought a friend with her, and when it came to the Comfy Chair slot and testimony was being shared, the new girl began chatting to her friend.
So what do you do in that situation? This girl was new, we were so glad she came, and we wanted her to come back next week! So with that in mind, would it be best to leave her to her conversation to ensure she had a great night? Or should it be confronted at the risk of offending her and putting her off from coming again? I know what I would lean towards, and I certainly know which is the easy option… but was is easy and what is best are very rarely the same. Here’s what happened.
Almost immediately one of our team who was sitting at their table leaned over and gently asked them to stop talking. They did, and she came back again next week. What’s more, we have never had an issue with anyone talking during the Comfy Chair since. Why? Because it is in the gap between a problem arising and it being addressed that your culture is established. Our team member understood the culture we were trying to set, and because of the courage he showed in his willingness to confront the issue immediately, he protected and further established that culture.
Confrontation and culture
There is a direct correlation between confrontation and culture. The level to which you are willing to confront issues is the level to which you establish and protect your culture.
This applies equally to your team. Sure, if you address an issue with a team member you have a chance of upsetting them, but leave it unaddressed and you have a chance of upsetting the entire team!
In the early days of our club, one of our team members, who is a fantastic leader and phenomenal youth worker, got in to a habit of arriving a few minutes late to our team meetings. Everyone knew it, but no-one was saying it. Elephant alert!
Now let’s be honest, it wasn’t really that bad, and perhaps if I had left it he would have started coming on time, but I knew that it is in the gap between a problem arising and it being addressed that your culture is established. Thus had I allowed it to continue I would have been unwittingly communicating to the whole team that in our culture it’s OK to show up late.
So I rallied myself, fought against my inner-desire to avoid a confrontation and asked him for a chat. I explained that it was not OK to come late because that devalues the time of everyone who is sat in the room waiting. I explained that we anticipated good punctuality, and that on the rare occasions where it is impossible to make it on time, an apology is made on arrival. And guess what? Now he very rarely comes late, and when he does (as we all do from time to time), he is quick to apologise. Culture established.
So let me say it again. As the leader, it is your responsibility to shoot the elephant. So here are a few things I’ve learnt in the last couple of years that I hope will help you to do that well.
How to Shoot the Elephant
Encouragingly - There may be an issue, but it’s very unlikely that it’s all bad. So this one to one is a great opportunity to encourage, build up and affirm the person you are talking too. Think before you meet about some of the wonderful qualities and contributions of this individual, and be sure they leave the meeting with those things ringing in their ears!
Quickly - I’ve said it twice already, but I’m going to say it again because it really is that important! It is in the gap between a problem arising and it being addressed that your culture is established. So don’t delay that conversation you know you really need to have, don’t leave it a month or a week, have it today!
Privately - Unless an issue has to do with your entire team or youth group, do not address it publicly. This will only humiliate the person you are confronting and thus more likely lead to a breakdown in relationship than a change in behaviour. Instead, sit with them one to one so that a meaningful conversation can take place. (And remember to keep your child protection protocol in mind if addressing a young person… but you knew that!)
Gently - Confrontation doesn’t have to mean conflict. This isn’t a telling off. This isn’t about you exerting your authority. So think carefully about the tone of your voice and your use of body language. Be gentle and open handed rather than aggressive and finger-pointing! It is possible to be both firm and gentle.
Candidly - That said, don’t beat around the bush. If it’s bad, say it’s bad! Don’t water down the issue because you’re worried about upsetting them, because if you do it’s more likely to happen again.
Clearly - Be absolutely clear about what the problem is, be absolutely clear about what needs to change, and be absolutely clear about the consequences of repeated behaviour. I would even encourage you to make a mutually agreed upon written record on the conversation to avoid any room for misunderstanding later on.
Graciously - Any confrontation, even if it includes some kind of discipline, must be restorative rather than punitive. Our heart in addressing the issue is not to put someone down or make them feel guilty, it is to see them fulfil their potential and become all they can be in God! So make sure there is always a pathway for restoration available.
I pray that God gives you the courage and wisdom to graciously ‘Shoot the Elephant’. Happy hunting!
Question: How do you go about shooting the elephant in the room? What are your tips? Leave a comment below.