How do you deliver bad news? That's a tough question. My friend, Chris Colvin, and I did a short phone interview this week about just that topic. Chris was asking me to share some thoughts about how I went about sharing some bad news several years ago with my church. Years ago, and another lifetime ago, I was a church planter. I started a brand new church from scratch back in 2010. Well, a few months into 2012 I knew I was done. I had to face a few hard facts. I was not good in the role of lead pastor, things were going the wrong direction, and most importantly to my decision, serving as the pastor of that church was killing me and killing my family. I had to get very real about the commitments I had made. While a number of people were counting on me, as their pastor, I had taken an oath to just one person. That person was my wife, Sara. When I boiled it down to that, it was the right decision to leave that church.
However, just because a decision is right, that does not make it easy to deliver the news of that decision. Here are a few thoughts I shared with Chris about how to deliver "bad news", based on my experience leaving that church and letting people know what was happening. I hope this helps you in your situation today.
2. Do it in person. If you're delivering any kind of significant news, especially that which could be perceived as "bad news", don't take the coward's way out and do it in an email or text message. Pastors, don't do it in a video to be played to your church. If you care about the people you're sharing your news with, you owe it to them to be present. They need to see your body language. They need to see your eyes. They need to be able to ask you questions to begin processing. Don't make the mistake of communicating your news when you're not present.
3. Start at the top. When you do determine that you have to share this news - good, bad or just surprising, start with those who are very closest to you because these are the ones who will be most affected. In my case, the decision to leave the church I started was shared in concentric circles. First, I shared with my wife. Now, she was not shocked. We had talked and prayed about it for several months beforehand. But when the decision was made, she was the first to know. My boys were very young at the time but had they been older and able to process it, I would have told them together with my wife. Next, I met personally with my closest leader in the church, Josh. He was my number two guy and I wanted him to know where it was and where it was going. I told him I was leaving and actually gave him the option to take on the leadership of the church himself or help me build a plan to close the church. He chose to by my successor, although that's fairly irrelevant to this particular article. Next, I shared the news with my leadership team at my church. Since we were a small startup, I didn't have a paid staff, but for all intents and purposes, these people were our church staff. Finally, and only after the closest people had been briefed, I shared the news with our church publicly. Don't make the mistake of skipping key people before you make the big announcement.
4. Communicate the why behind the what. As I shared my news with each concentric circle in my world, I not only communicated "I'm leaving" but also why I had come to that decision. You will be amazed at how much more understanding people will be about news they don't particularly like if they understand why you made the decision. And don't underestimate the other side of the coin, either. If you don't give people the why they will make it up. In my case, if I had not clearly communicated "I'm not cut out for this and I need to put my family first", it probably would have turned into "Pastor Jason is stepping down because he had an affair . . . with another man." Nothing squashes the old rumor mill like the truth. Share as much of that truth as possible. Don't make the mistake of keeping the why to yourself, even in emotionally charged decisions.
5. Communicate the news with a plan. Imagine that I got up in front of my church and just said, "I'm stepping down as your pastor and here's why." What would be the natural question every person would be asking. "So, what does that mean?" So, what comes next?" Be a friend. Be a leader. Answer that question for the people you're delivering your news to. In my case, the plan was my exit strategy and the transfer of leadership and authority to Josh. I'm not saying the plan will make everyone like the news you're sharing, but at least it will be clear. Don't make the mistake of sharing the news without telling those you share it with what comes next.
Well, I hope this was helpful to you. I'm sure that whatever Chris releases on his website will be much better than this, but I wanted to share it with you today. Who knows who needs this exact information today? I would love to hear your stories of how you've gone about sharing "bad news", whether you did a great job or left a little to be desired.