May 2011
Caring for Each Other

No More Parking Lot Conversations

Working with congregations as a bishop’s staff member involved in congregational development, one of the persistent behaviors Mary MacGregor, (the canon for evangelism and congregational development in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.), has witnessed among vestry members is their reluctance to speak up about lingering concerns in the course of their meetings.

While there are many reasons for this reluctance, including not wanting to rock the boat or appear disrespectful, this silence forces issues to go underground only to surface in parking lot conversations.

Clandestine meetings, parking lot conversations, closely guarded incendiary emails are always destructive.

Earlier this year ECF Vital Practices invited Mary to share strategies congregational leaders can use to encourage a culture of respect and transparency. During her VP Talk she held up the ‘Fruit of the Spirit’ as a model of behavior to replace side or ‘parking lot’ conversations that can foster mistrust and mean-spiritedness in our interactions with one another.

Drawing on her experience working with over 80 vestries and bishop’s committees, Mary notes a direct correlation between highly functioning and fruitful vestries and a group culture of respect, caring, and transparency with sensitivity, all grounded in a foundation of understanding that vestries are faith groups that are unique.

Mary believes, “Vestries are groups of people who feel called to support and lead Christian communities. Central to the purpose of Christian communities is the gathering of people to worship and serve God and to live as Jesus taught us to live. These teachings call for behavior that is sometimes very challenging for us. I think they are best expressed in what Paul referred to in Galatians as ‘Fruit of the Spirit’.”

Understanding Fruit of the Spirit as the manifestation of the Holy Spirit expressed in how we live and interact with others, Mary believes people in faith communities have unspoken expectations that their leaders will model the this behavior, which Paul defines as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

“There is an old saying, ‘as the leader goes so goes the group,’” shares Mary. “Another is, ‘the behavior of the group will never rise to a higher standard than the behavior of its leaders’. Churches have a responsibility to model Christ like behaviors and when we don’t, we pay a heavy price. The Fruit of the Spirit is often counter to our human nature. It is much easier to be impatient, unloving, demanding, insensitive, and fearful. Church leaders are called to a very high standard of interaction with each other. This must be intentional work with a high degree of mutual accountability.”

Many times, people participating in these ‘parking lot’ behaviors are unaware of how harmful they can be. Mary explains, “Our church leaders need to be sensitive to how they communicate and the power of their words in our faith community contexts. Like families, we are relational systems. Relationships can be fragile. People can be built up or torn down with words.

“We are called to be sensitive and thoughtful. That doesn’t mean we can’t speak the truth. It is in how we go about doing it. I think one of the reasons why conversations go out to parking lots or become clandestine is because we haven’t learned how to be sensitive and thoughtful in sharing our opinions.”

Creating a safe environment for members to openly share ideas and concerns is critical in building a culture of mutual respect. Often this means leaders need to learn to cede control and embrace a culture of shared decision making.

For many leaders control is a human need. Being afraid of what shared decision making might lead to, they create a system where decisions are made by a few. This can lead to behind the scenes meetings, teaming up on others, and strategic collusion.

These behaviors represent not only poor leadership but, as Mary observes, they also “cut the legs off, pull the rug out from under others who thought they were empowered to have voices in the decision making process. This is incredibly demoralizing and this kind of behavior discourages really good leaders from being a part of vestries and other decision making groups.” It can also create a level of anxiety in a group so high that people don’t want to speak up because they feel they won’t be heard or will be disrespected. This can create a vicious circle of behavior, driving the good leaders away and into parking lot conversations.

What can congregational leaders do to encourage healthy patterns of communication?

  • First, recognize that as leaders in Christian community, we are called to teach and model a higher standard of communication. 
  • Call out unhealthy behaviors when you see it or experience it as a leader in a congregation, taking the time to do so in a caring way. 
  • Establish a culture of listening and caring through the use of covenants, norms, clear ministry descriptions, and holding people accountable. 
  • Take the time to learn together how to be a faithful leader, which might include Bible study, prayer, and sharing appreciations and regrets. 
  • Evaluate your congregation’s health using 12 Marks of Healthy Church Behavior and its related assessment tool.
  • Recognize and empower healthy spiritual leaders by placing them in positions of authority and influence. 
  • Practice patience and persistence, allowing time for new behaviors to become the norm.

Our responsibility as congregational leaders includes modeling an expectation of healthy behavior and respect for both the individual and the community, no matter what the circumstance. God has called us into leadership and has empowered us to act in a manner befitting that call.

Nancy Davidge is the editor of ECF Vital Practices. This article is based on the transcript of the January 25, 2011 VP Talk, “No More Parking Lot Conversations” with Mary MacGregor, Director of Leadership Development in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.


Leader Development Resources:
This article is part of the May 2011 Vestry Papers issue on Caring for Each Other