You Heard What? Unhealthy Communications


By Fred Koenig

Many congregations fall into bad communication habits – they aren’t bad people, it’s a strategy toward wholeness gone awry. We develop strategies that don’t work, but we keep trying them. 
Healthy communications build up community and enhance relationships. Healthy communication rejoices in the right, spreads good news, and provides positive gossip. Dr. Karen McClintock spent Saturday, February 22 discussing these issues with Missouri Conference local church leaders at Fairview UMC in Columbia. To achieve healthy communication, it helps to consider what unhealthy communication looks like. 

Unhealthy Communication

  • Presumes too much intimacy
  • Spreads rumors or gossip
  • Leads to mistrust
  • Opens secrets without forethought
  • Invades privacy
  • Is about power rather than mutuality and respect 
McClintock counsels to be wary of indirect communication, such as someone asking another person to take a complaint to the pastor. People may express their complaint with an, “Everybody feels that…” because they don’t think they have a voice as an individual. In this situation, she suggests taking the person to the pastor, so they can address their concern with the pastor directly. She discourages allowing any form of anonymous feedback, and finds that indirect communication usually just causes confusion. 
“It’s either important enough to share directly or drop it in favor of positive comments,” McClintock said.   

Passing the Ball

During a break, McClintock distributed tennis balls to the tables, and had people stand in a circle. They were instructed to call out someone’s name, and then throw that person the ball. Soon multiple balls were added. When the groups came back together, McClintock asked them to share analogies from the exercise.

These were some learnings:
  • Make sure someone hears you before you throw something at them
  • You can’t control everything
  • What’s it like when everything is thrown at one person? They drop the ball
  • Multitasking – productivity goes down
  • Ball passes back and forth more often between people who know each other well
  • Lobbing a ball in from outside the circle is very disruptive


Gossip is a symptom of real communication not happening. It is not a problem in itself, it is a symptom of a problem, McClintock said. The intent of spreading gossip is to excite or titillate as well as establish power. Sometimes spreading gossip relieves tension, while providing feelings of intimacy, although it’s false intimacy. It’s a sign that people aren’t aware of overt power opportunities, and they are using covert power by spreading news. Gossip gets everyone off track.
How do you know if it’s gossip? Is it private or secret, yours to share, do you have permission to share, will there be unexpected concerns that it raises? Is it shaming? How does it help? Does it uplift or build up anyone? 
McClintock suggests launching a positive gossip campaign. Encourage everyone to say four wonderful things about their church each week to someone outside of the church. It could be their mechanic, waiter, neighbor – anyone they interact with during the week.  

Five Types of Information

  1. Private
  2. Confidential (shared by two)
  3. Limited access (small group or time)
  4. Open (congregation)
  5. Public (everyone in town)

The Downside of Social Media

McClintock recognized that social media is a large part communication today, but warned against the following social media pitfalls:
  • Clergy going overtime online (spending too much time in social media conversation)
  • Over-disclosure online (saying more about yourself than you would in face-to-face conversation)
  • Saying things while reacting without the cool down time necessary for a better response
  • Anonymous internet feedback – it is just as harmful as rumors and gossip 

Old Secrets

Many congregations have an old secret that they would be embarrassed to tell a new person about their congregation (infidelity, embezzlement, borrowing, rapid turnover, conflicts). McClintock said she has found that about one in three churches have a secret about a sexual boundary being violated in its history. The problem with secrets is that they create insider and outsider groups, and they can interfere with current programs and relationships. 

Making the Change

Creating a change in communication in a church can be challenging. “Sometimes ‘You have to change’ is heard as ‘Who you are is not OK’, and shame sets in,” McClintock said. “Trying to get people to change with an underlying message of shame is not going to be effective. People are disempowered by shame.”
People in the church who are at the source of communication problems may be saying consider us, listen to our feelings, don’t leave us out. “Remember, good people get into bad habitats,” McClintock said. “Trust the goodness of their souls and intentions.” 

In Grace-full Relationships

  • People take responsibility for themselves, thoughts, feeling and behaviors
  • Speak truth with love
  • Don’t label or judge others
  • Welcome everyone