How to disagree well as public leaders

14 April 2022  |  Insights
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From the disciples bickering about where they would sit in heaven to huge schisms within denominations, arguments between Christian leaders are nothing new.

But the rise of high-profile Christian influencers, and the ability of the hurt or angry to instantly air their frustrations on social media, mean those arguments are now played out in real time before global audiences. This can cause huge damage, not just to the individuals involved, but to their cause.

As a leader or communicator caught up in a row, your initial reaction may be to jump in with all tweets blazing to assert your position. But that’s rarely a good idea. Disagreements are amplified; emotions are heightened. For those at the front line, the situation can quickly get out of hand and any possibility of reconciliation is torn to shreds. For observers, it can lead to a real shaking of faith, or a confirmation of their view that Christians are nasty or hypocritical.

Or you might be tempted to keep quiet in the hope that it will all just go away.

But usually it doesn’t – and it’s not always the right solution, either. While in many cases it would be better to deal with problems in private, there are times when issues need to be addressed head on and in public.

So how do we do it? How on earth do leaders and communicators hold the precarious balance of grace and truth in a soundbite culture, where arguments online exhibit all the drama and intrigue of a soap opera?

It’s incredibly hard to navigate these choppy waters well. But Pete Greig, author and founder of 24-7 Prayer, demonstrated how to do it in this recent statement. Greig, a former board member of Anaheim Vineyard, was responding to the furore caused by the church’s decision to leave the denomination. The move led to significant criticism online and numerous requests for him as a high-profile Christian leader to explain his role in the church’s exit and his subsequent resignation from the board.

Here’s what we can learn from Greig’s response:

Don’t rush in

“I’ve been holding my peace, but now it’s time to speak,” Greig said, as he shared his statement with his 38.6k Twitter followers. When an issue blows up in public, there can be a lot of pressure to comment immediately – but while speed is important, it’s also vital not to wade in so quickly that you say something you regret.

It was clear from both the length of Greig’s statement and the thoughtful reflection within it that he spent considerable time thinking about what to say, when and how to say it.

Be transparent

Greig went into detail about his decision-making, his relationships and his feelings. By doing so, he showed integrity and accountability as a leader.

It’s important to note that full transparency isn’t always possible in contentious situations, for legal, safeguarding or other reasons – but this can also be handled well. In this case, Greig acknowledged and explained the boundaries of what he felt able to comment on by saying: “this statement fails to address certain questions which can only be answered by the two respective Boards.”

Be humble

In public statements, how you say something is just as – if not more – important than what you say. Leaders can often come across as arrogant or defensive during public disputes. In contrast, Greig spoke with humility, acknowledging and apologising for any pain and confusion his choices had made.

Challenge clearly – but with love

Challenging wrongdoing is a difficult, but important part of public leadership. Greig called out where he felt the situation was handled badly and the inappropriate language used on social media as a response. But he did this in the context of showing love for those involved and understanding the hurt that caused people to lash out. His tone was gracious and loving.

Remember what, and who, you represent

Leaders don’t just speak for themselves. They represent the charity or church they are working for and, in the case of Christians, the God they are meant to reflect. Greig showed throughout his statement that his motivation in speaking was a desire for unity, that would reflect “the fullness of Christ”.

Public statements aren’t easy to get right, especially when emotions are running high. Leaders can always expect some backlash, as hard as they try to do the right thing; while many responded on Twitter with appreciation to Greig’s statement, not everyone was happy.

But by aspiring to speak with courage and compassion, integrity and love, Christian leaders can model a different way of handling division that is so needed in our public platforms.

Blessed are the peacemakers indeed.

Written by Charis Gibson, Director of Communications, Jersey Road PR.

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