Hard Questions: “Do That and I’m Leaving” (the Sequel)

I am a leader in my worship community who deals with many volunteers. Occasionally I run into someone who says, “If we go in this direction, I’ll have no choice but to leave.” How can I deal with this situation? Is there a dialogic way to do so?

A while back, I posted this question, invited you to respond, and told you I’d share how I answered it. (My apologies to anyone who was waiting eagerly. No excuses; life simply got in the way.)

I am here now to tell you that I answered it wrong.

For some reason, the question hit an emotional trigger with me. I could feel myself seethe a bit as I called the statement like this “emotional blackmail” and suggested that the questioner just let the person leave. Yikes. Down, boy.

I wasn’t entirely wrong. Some people do use this tactic as emotional blackmail.  But many others come to “I’m leaving” from an entirely different place.

Often that place involves deeply held convictions. People on both sides of the debate over same-sex marriage may find themselves in worship communities that do not support them. A business leader may see her organization headed in one direction and her heart (or her calling) in another. A woman who is committed to raising children suddenly discovers that her life partner has decided he doesn’t want them. People in situations like these, I think, do well by themselves and others by being clear and upfront: “If we go in this direction, I’ll have no choice but to leave.”

If you’re on the receiving end of that statement, however, what do you do?

The better angels of my nature suggest the use of “gentle questions”: inquiries that empower the person to tell her story, explain the nuances behind her convictions, and explore next steps—all asked with honor and reverence for her integrity. These questions should carry the sense of “Wow. That’s fascinating. Tell me how you got there”: questions like what in your life brought you to that idea? What has made it so fundamental to you? How have you been able to live with the tension until now?  

The ideal situation—and this is the hardest part—is to ask the questions with the other’s welfare uppermost in one’s mind and heart. In some cases, like the couple with fundamental differences about children, this may be well nigh impossible. In others, though, there’s a temptation to hold on to that person for personal or organizational reasons: the church needs your leadership and spiritual depth, the organization can’t go forward without you.

This, I think, is part of the value of dialogue as a habit of the heart: the inner transformation that we do in the “work of the soul” allows us to relax our grip on these people and their contributions.

It’s possible that the conversation may turn up a third path—a way in which the person can maintain her integrity and yet continue to live into the situation. Wonderful.  The mistake, however, is to try steering the conversation that way.

Does all this make sense to you? How would you approach it differently? Please let me know, either here or on Facebook. I’d love to hear from you.

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