Friday, November 19, 2010

The Problem of Openness

I've been fretting about this post for several days. It's about the problem of openness.

You see, many (perhaps most?) of us in parish ministry would say that "openness" or "transparency" is an important value in Christian leadership. We might encourage people to come to us and say we have an "open door" policy. That's all good and great, until people ask us inconvenient questions.

You see, in parish ministry leaders are exposed to all kinds of classified information. You might imagine the sort of dirty secrets that come up in pastoral relationships: affairs and past crimes and current vices. But actually that's not nearly as much a problem as the petty conflicts and foibles that drive a lot of decision making in parish life. People ask me about decisions that staff members or the corporation (the lay leadership of the parish) and I or even the bishop have made, and I simply can't give them the reasons. And I don't want to lie, and so I end up saying something really lame. "That person went on other opportunities" is a terrible, terrible line, but usually it's pretty much the only thing I can say when we have staff turnover. Even if the reasons for the change are quite positive, I usually can't share them.

Then, things get very complicated because people often have heard rumours or have fantasies about the decision in question. Typically they've heard or figured out enough truth to be wet their curiosity even further, but then there is usually enough falsehood mixed in there too to tempt you to correct them.

Sometimes, I really wish I could say more. I see how some people are hurt by things that have happened, and I want to sit them down and explain what happened. I'm sure they would feel better knowing the truth. But, of course, this would be bad, very bad. In fact, I knew a priest once that got sued for talking publicly about a parishioner-to-parishioner conflict happening in parish. Even if what he said was factually correct, in was also embarrassing to at least one of the people involved. I totally understand why he did it, but, yikes!

So "openness" turns out to be a great principle, but it has nothing to do with disclosing the "truth" about "what happened." What else could it mean? Is it something about the emotional honesty of the leader? Maybe. Is it about sharing as much as you can about the non-classified stuff? Of course. But this explanation doesn't help the way I feel when people ask me about important things that I can't talk about....



Daniel said...

Hmm. That would/will/does bother me too. And obviously I am not in a position of leadership in a church. But still have felt like this at times as well.
Being transparent to me is being tactfully and strategically honest. Knowing that there is the dignity of another person to respect is obviously of vital importance. There needs to be an understanding that you have a position in which you handle classified information that cannot be disclosed freely.

That is an intriguing and important post Mister Moss.

tessa said...

I think most people, in spite of their natural curiosity, appreciate that priests, of all people, are privy to information that they cannot talk about. At the same time, it is important for priests and lay leaders to know when matters DO need to be discussed, openly, transparently and respectfully. I am thinking of situations where parishioners differ about the direction they perceive the parish to be taking, or, when people act and speak with and about each other in ways that are inconsistent with a Christian community. This takes courage, skill and, often, a willingness to deal with conflict (not run from it), on the part of the parish leaders. Certainly, when these situations occur, parishioners talk about them. Our priests and lay leaders need to be able to facilitate constructive discussions about matters that DO need to be acknowledged and dealt with