Long ago, I sat with 30 colleagues chosen to participate in “open conversation” training.
An external corporate communications expert had been retained to make presentations, moderate discussions, and empower attendees to speak freely about ideas that could improve employee morale and stimulate creative problem-solving.
For two very full days, we listened to short lectures and met in working groups, slowly warming to the idea that our employing organization actually wanted us to talk openly about the challenges we perceived—and propose possible solutions. In the final four hours, the conversation began to richly hum. The moderator moved from group to group, encouraging us to listen attentively to each other, speak clearly, and search for action steps.
Hearts began appearing on my colleagues’ sleeves: some of what was shared was painful, honest, raw. Even while telling difficult workplace stories, there was an unmistakable sense of hope and promise in the room.
“We oscillate between the church that is and the one we’re willing to describe.”
The final scheduled event was to be a sharing circle in which each participant identified some experience or truth they had learned.
Dazzled by two days of seeming safety, we never saw it coming. When the first person to whom the microphone was handed said, “Well, I just feel very fortunate to work in an organization that doesn’t have the kind of problems other companies do,” the hope, the light began to fade. One by one, participants surrendered to the growing expectation that only sweetly positive things could be shared. Gone were the difficult anecdotes of feeling marginalized or undervalued—the candid stories inhaled like fresh oxygen by those not used to corporate honesty.
When it came my turn to talk, I mumbled something platitudinous about the value of listening to each other, and quickly passed the microphone along.
I had been closely watching the moderator as the microphone progressed around the circle—and as the conversation regressed to earlier levels. She seemed more sad with each dull speech: it looked as though she was sinking into the floor, anticipating the failure of her efforts.
When at last the microphone reached her, she looked searchingly at each face in turn, and then said somber words: “I hope you remember your pain. Have a good afternoon.”
We were dismissed. More important, we missed a rare opportunity for honest conversation in our workplace. Creativity slid back between the covers of the three-ring binders. Candor sensed the atmosphere was not as safe as seemed, and camped beneath a chilly rainspout.
If that had been my only such sorrow, I wouldn’t be writing these words. But in a thousand church board meetings, in living rooms, in drear committee boardrooms, we oscillate between the church that is and the one we’re willing to describe.
Each time we skip the chance for careful and constructive candor, we illustrate our actual theology: The Holy Spirit may not move except at our direction. The preservation of our “corporate image”—our preferred way of seeing ourselves and our organizations—takes precedence over the Spirit’s call to listen attentively to each other, speak clearly, and search for action steps.
For a movement grounded—founded—on reform, this is a curious and unhistorical phenomenon. The first generations of Seventh-day Adventists spoke and wrote with a rigor their descendants now find troubling. The columns of this magazine in its first decade were alight with strong denunciations of slavery and the government that tolerated it, debates about the integrity of even such key church leaders as James and Ellen White, and biblical discussions about when the weekly Sabbath ought to begin—at sunset Friday, or at 6:00 p.m. No merit was attached to preserving a positive corporate image, for in fact, there was no structured organization yet. The underlying assumption in hundreds of clear-eyed, candid articles was that this journal and this movement would draw those unafraid to ask good questions, undismayed at discovering new answers, and undeterred in building a “more perfect union.”
We need—deserve—such clear, constructive candor in this fellowship today, even as we have become a complex, multi-layered, global movement. We owe each other thoughtful, prayerful honesty about our structures, policies, and practices.
Allegiance to the Spirit’s work will not let us do otherwise.