Courageous conversations: Why kindness beats niceness

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Courageous conversations have nothing to do with being nice and everything to do with being kind, gentle and loving. The Rev. Dr. Scott Hughes of The United Methodist Church’s Discipleship Ministries asserts that engaging in structured dialogues of learning – or courageous conversations – could create space for the most radical hospitality of all, a place of deeper and more welcoming community within the church.

Guest: The Rev. Dr. Scott Hughes

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This episode posted on August 4, 2023.

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Courageous conversations have nothing to do with being nice and everything to do with being kind, gentle and loving. The Rev. Dr. Scott Hughes of The United Methodist Church’s Discipleship Ministries asserts that engaging in structured dialogues of learning – or courageous conversations – could create space for the most radical hospitality of all, a place of deeper and more welcoming community within the church.


Crystal Caviness, host: Scott, welcome to “Get Your Spirit in Shape.”

Scott Hughes, guest: Thanks so much, Crystal. I'm so honored to be a part of this. So you've had such great guests on before. I'm humbled to be a part of it.

Crystal: Thank you. And I'm excited for the conversation that we're going to have. You are the Associate General Secretary of World Service at Discipleship Ministries, an agency of The United Methodist Church. Before we jump into our topic today, can you tell us a little bit about what your position at Discipleship Ministries entails?

Scott:  Yeah, it's a good question. I am honored to serve as the Associate General Secretary, which means I am the Associate General Secretary for the World Service Side Discipleship Ministries. The other half is the upper room, and so Kimberly Orr serves as the Associate general secretary and publisher for the upper room. And then I get to be the a g S for the World Service side. And our task, our mission is to, , resource and equip and challenge and support local church and annual conference leaders in their task of making disciples. And we do that through our website, through the many events that we do. We've got Youth 2023 happening. , we've got Wesley Pilgrimages, we've got all sorts of events that we do as well, training events, partnering with annual conferences, whether it's about fresh expressions or helping to train, , youth leaders or children's pastors, or just a whole host of things that we get to do to help churches and annual conferences make disciples, which is such an honor and privilege to do so. That's in a very, very small slice of, of what I get to do.

Crystal:  Well, it's a huge job. Tens of thousands of United Methodist congregations throughout the world, and the role that the agency and your role plays in that is just so vital. So thank you for your ministry with that, and thank you for the taking the time today to talk to us. You have created a curriculum. It's been, it's so a few years old now called, , courageous Conversations, and you were recently featured on Discipleship Ministries out of the Ashes webinar series that spoke about, well, that webinar series was about the season of disaffiliations that the congregation or that the denomination is going through. Correct. , and your specific, , your specific episode talked about courageous conversations in this time of, , grief and, and some, you know, divisiveness. And so I want to kind of continue that, , talking on that topic about having conver courageous conversations, how to have them, why we need to be willing to have them, and how courageous conversations or difficult conversations can be a part of welcoming or be a part of radical hospitality within the church. So to get started, how do you define courageous conversations?

Scott: Yeah, it's a great question. When I do trainings on this, I have a one sentence summary. Courageous conversations are structured dialogues for learning. And when I do training, I go through each of those words, structured and dialogue and learning. , to me it's very much about leaning in and learning from one another. When I began the Courageous Conversations Project and 2015, if you think about the world in 2015, this was well  before COVID obviously, but also the partisanship that we see now has not quite taken to this level that we see now. And so it, it very much was about me asking the question. At the time, my title was Director of Adult Discipleship, how do adults learn? And in the process of my own learning it, I came across things like questioning assumptions and how we learn in conversation with others.

And so the Courageous Conversations Project is really a toolbox of resources to help churches have meaningful learning experiences, , around a any topic. They can be social issues, but oftentimes difficult conversations are about worship services and, , difficult conversations about the pastor and SPRC staff related issues. So it can really be about anything. It, it goes to my hope and dream for churches is that they would be learning communities, communities that embody, , you asked about, , you know, how this goes with radical hospitality. My hope would be the world would look to the church and see a community that disagrees on things, yet embodies a love toward one another. Right? And, and that's the dream I have for churches, is that we could model for the world what it looks like to disagree and yet love one another. And, and, you know, I live in an ideal world, sometimes <laugh>, but that's what I, I hope and envision for the church now. And I do believe that's part of what God would have for us. So I don't think I'm making it up on the fly.

Crystal:   No. And you know, the timing of that series, it almost seems now prophetic, doesn't it? <laugh> that we were going to need it so much more than you even knew we were going to need.

Scott:  I had no idea where the world would go and what, what happened. I mean, I, I first saw it or initially being sort of a limited time project. And it has continued on, , because the need is there. It's always going to be there. In a sense. I think I've learned that more is just how much, well, how bad of listeners we are and how much we need structure to really help us to learn from one another. And lean in. I I heard in a previous episode of this, someone used a phrase that I like to use as well. And that is the posture of curiosity. How do we lean in not with, an ear for, what are you saying that's wrong? Not in a way of debate, but in a way of dialogue. What can I learn from you? What, how do you see the world differently and how might I learn from that?

Crystal:  Scott, why do you think it's difficult for us to have courageous conversations, maybe in general, but especially in the church?

Scott: I think there's a few reasons. One is just a baggage that we carry in when it comes to a difficult conversation. Perhaps we didn't learn from our families of origin how to engage conflict well, right? So we bring that with us. I think too, we often see the church as a safe place. And, and I mean that in the way I'm using it this time, it's sort of a negative sense of we're, we're nice to each other. That Christian niceness, as if being nice is one of the fruit of the spirit. And, and it's not right. Kindness is, but I would distinguish that from niceness, right? We can be kind to one another as we engage our differences. And so, , I I I would hope that, , the church would learn to lean into those differences and begin to model a different way of engagement, even when it's difficult, even when we don't want to, right?

Because one of the things I talk about in the trainings that I do is when we come across an opinion, a perspective that's different from our own, what happens to us neurologically is blood drains from our brain into our hands and our feet. We are physiologically ready to fight and to flee. We are not in position to learn. So how do we have structures that help us learn better ways of listening that sort of force us to listen? Most people think they're better than average listeners, and people also think they're better than average drivers. And, , if you've been on the streets, you know, that's just not true. And, and number one, statistically, most people can't be above average <laugh>, right? And so we need those structures to help us to really listen to the perspectives that, , are different. And we don't get this modeled for us. We, what we see on politically is debates, which are, how can I win the argent versus what can I learn from you? And dialogues are very much about what can I learn from you? How, how are, how might my assumptions be questioned? And how as and how will your assumptions be questioned in our dialogue? In our back and forth.

Crystal:  What I'm hearing you say is it needs to really be intentional because physiologically we're going our, if we just respond or react, it's going to be to get out of that situation. And I've certainly been in conversations where I'm trying to figure out my exit because this is not feeling good, you know? So I hear you talking about how we need to kind of intentionally say, I'm going to say here, I'm going to listen, I'm going to be open. , how in the world would we, where's the starting place to how we would engage in being that kind of listener?

Scott:  Yeah. So to give a little personal ad to this, I, I say that I'm a professional conflict avoider, because I've been to counseling over it. I have been to counseling over my own issues of avoiding conflict. As much as anyone that's listening to this, I completely understand the, ooh, there's conflict, I do not want to engage. You know, I probably became very good at disengagement and have had to learn how to lean in, how to take a deep breath and, and sit with it. And so for churches, what I recommend, , is several things, but in a real short version of this is how do we set up structures that force listings? So, so for example, right? As opposed to, , what I've unfortunately seen, which is kind of a town hall open mic scenario where unfortunately, what usually happens is the wrong people get the mic and say the wrong things and people get hurt and leave angry.

It's usually much more smaller conversations in twos and threes and then also times in fours and fives and sixes, and then times of larger group. But then, you know, very restrained, , you know, answering specific questions. So for example, when I've led courageous conversations at various levels, I break people into tables. I give them a little game, little plastic game timers, right? And that becomes the talking stick. And so what I'll do is I'll ask a question to the group, I give them a minute of silence so that no one can talk. , so that the first thing we're doing is just getting our minds right, taking a deep breath and then processing so that when we're then talking, we're, we're listening. We're not thinking, what am I going to say? How am I going to respond? We can be better listeners. And then when it's that little thing, like I'm about the little game timers is a, the only person with the game timer can talk, but it, it gives an end to when they can talk <laugh>, right? Some people like me will tend to say less, and there are other people who tend to say more, right? And so when we give a limit to here's how long you get to talk, and then you've got to pass that on to someone else, it reinforces listening. , so, and we, we need that, we need that reinforcement of listening. So that's one of, of many ways to, to do that.

Crystal:  I really like that because I've certainly been in small groups where as you said, people will dominate. I've been the person to dominate before as well. But what I also hear you talking about is there's a relationship element to this. Can you talk about that just a little bit? Like how, I mean we, I don't know. Can this really happen with, with strangers or do we need already have some relationship? Should there be a, some trust with one another?

Scott:  Yeah, that's a great question. So let me give two responses to that. I use the word dialogue intentionally and, and part of dialogue is a leaning into the relationship. It should be about building relationship Two, you mentioned trust, and how do we establish trust? Because you're right, it's really hard to have a difficult conversation with strangers. There's no trust there. And trust takes time to build. And so if you were to go on and look at the sample outlines that I provide for various conversations on our website, I usually try to begin with experienced based questions as opposed to knowledge-based questions so that we can build. we're all experts in our own relationships, easier to talk about that helps build relationship. The other thing I would suggest or I do suggest is churches find ways to insert play.

And when we play our, our defenses are down. So how do we play well together? And that builds, maybe that's a mission together as well, you know, so that then we can have more meaningful conversation. For example, one great way to have a difficult conversation is first watch a movie together about it. And perhaps you're able to watch it together. You just watch it on your own. That gives some common experience, some something we can share together that helps us further the relationship. , otherwise we just can tend too often we come at each other based on political ideologies, , as a, an rhetoric really, as opposed to common experience, common language in a trust filled relationship. And that's, that's one of the reasons why I suggest to church is to do courageous conversations at any time. Not just wait until there's a major crisis.

Do it at any time because it builds trust. Someone else gave me this image and I think it's really helpful. It's like a cauldron over a fire, right? And there's chemicals inside the cauldron, and once things get too heated up, boom, cauldron burst, right? Well, trust can be like the, the, the lining for the cauldron, the thicker it, it makes it able to handle more reactions, right? And so in congregations, how do we build trust so that when we come to difficult conversations, that's already established, right? So if it were me, how do we have less heated conversations at first so that we can then and build the walls of trust to then get to the deeper, more difficult conversations.

Crystal: Kind of like getting your, you know, maybe starting out with training wheels.

Scott: Exactly.

Crystal:  And then building up to where you're on the bicycle.

Scott:  Exactly.

Crystal:  Yeah. I read an article, in preparation for our conversation today. It was published by the University of Dallas, which is a Catholic school. And it listed 10 ways to improve our culture. And it kind of presented it in as if it were 10 commandments. And one was Love your enemy. Like thou shalt love your enemy. There was another one that was paraphrase of the golden rule. And then there was one that really caught my attention. It said that thou shalt listen to people who disagree with you. Yeah. I, I don't <laugh> I don't like listening to people who disagree with me. I like for people to just, yeah, you're right. I like to be in that circle. So that's already a very uncomfortable place. But, , where's the, what's the advantage to that? Where's, where's the room, I guess for, , like why would we intentionally step into a space like that?

Scott: Because we need to.  We are limited, you know, you mentioned the confirmation bias syndrome, right? We, we like those who think like us. It makes us feel good, makes us feel like we're on the right track when we we're limited, right? We're limited not just in our own experience, but then our networks usually are limited to those who think like us. And so we need the perspective of others to, to broaden not just our perspective, but our understanding of the way God has made this world. God has made a big, diverse, wonderful world and we cannot understand it well without diversity, without a bigger understanding of the world. And I think that's one of the things travel does for us is just, you know, it can be travel to a different part of our own neighborhood. Sometimes it doesn't have to be travel abroad. But it helps us to see things that otherwise we would not understand. And one of the things I try to reinforce in the training is our understanding of sin, our doctrine of sin, that it's a condition that limits us, hinders us. And I think it was St. Augustine who talked about an inward curve curvature upon ourself. We, we have to do intentional work to see the bigger, the broader perspective. And as difficult as it is, we need it. And I do think it is a discipleship practice. We become better listeners. We become more empathetic, more compassionate, more gentle, which is one of the fruit of the spirit. We become more Christ-like when we listen well, when we, when we're compassionate and gentle and all those fruit of the spirit.

Crystal: You know, we're talking about conversations, but we're talking a lot about listening

Scott:   Mm-hmm.

Crystal:  And so, you know, I think that that we have to remember that, , it's not just about, you know, putting all of our thoughts out there.

Scott:   Correct. Yeah. And the hard work of listening, right? Yeah. Which is listening when we want to respond right in self-control, another fruit of the spirit, you know, having the self-control to it says, deny our, , at that point just crave craving to jump in and let me correct you, let me tell you why you're wrong. Which gives us a boost of, of self-esteem and makes us feel good that we're in the right. I mean, that's why conspiracy theories are so problematic is they give us this sense of superiority. I know something you don't. Right. And that's the danger of it. Yeah.  I won't go down that thread. <laugh>

Crystal:  That's an interesting point I had not thought of. So for me, it seems easier, especially when meeting someone early on, , just to, I mean, people are very quick these days to share their thoughts. People seem to have no self-control about Well this is what I think Yeah. In a very, you know, confident way that sometimes can be disarming. Mm. But sometimes it feels like we're, especially at church, , where these conversations are happening too, where people are, you know, freely sharing their, not just theological beliefs, but their political beliefs. But it seems that it's polite to just stand there and, and nod, you know, smile and nod, smile and nod. What's the benefit to our churches? What's the benefit to our congregations and really to our relationships to choose to be, to have these courageous conversations?

Scott:  One of the things I think I've had to learn is what kind of community are we going to be? Where are we called to be? Are we called to be a community of niceness? Are we called to be a community that embodies true peace and love and joy and all those fruits of the spirit? And that's a much more difficult place to get to and it requires that we move past the superficial and we engage things. We don't want to, the difficult conversations. It's, we're only going to have deeper community if we're willing to engage the, the disagreements e engage the, the conversations we'd rather avoid and push past niceness to be the community god's calling us to be. That's difficult work. I I do not present courageous conversations as the solution to anything <laugh>. It is a tool. And my hope is it's a tool for churches to get to deeper community where we trust you can't really love one another unless you're willing to push past the superficial into a deeper place of understanding.

And understanding takes time and a willingness to be empathetic, to see from a different perspective. And that will not happen quickly. That's why when I talk about creative conversations, I try to say, don't pretend this is going to be a one-time conversation. This is the first of many conversations. This is just one chapter in a long book of conversation after conversation. And sometimes there will be times where you just go, okay, that's interesting. And you recognize now's not the time for you to, to give your input, but just to say, okay, that that's an interesting perspective. I'm not sure I completely agree with that. Right. Perhaps we can talk about this more later. Because oftentimes when we're having those conversations, it's not the best time. Right? We might be able in a crowd of other people and, and we know, you know what, getting into a verbal shouting match <laugh>, which might happen. That's not, this isn't the place for that. You know, if in order for me to, to really listen to you, I, I'm going to need some, some time to process this. Let, let's sch schedule another time to talk further about this. Is, is one way you can keep that door open to say, let, let's talk more about this, but now's not maybe the right time.

Crystal:  There's  an aspect of vulnerability there too. You've got to be willing, if you're going to open yourself up like that, to have some speak some truth, hear some truth. You have to be vulnerable.

Scott:     And vulnerable I think matches very well with our theology. The doctrine of the incarnation is Jesus becoming vulnerable. Right. , like a slave undo to death. Right. Philippians too. And, and I do think deeper community will have to have that element of vulnerability, a vulnerability that acknowledges I'm not only might I be wrong about this, whatever this is, I know I'm not completely right and I need someone else's perspective and I need to be vulnerable with, I could be wrong and I might be wrong and probably am wrong about some things. And I need someone else to speak into me. I need several other people to speak into me, for me to begin to understand whatever this issue is at a larger perspective and not enter into that conversation with I'm Right. Let me tell you why you're wrong,

Crystal:  But how do congregations who are engaging in this work, how does that lead to this concept of radical hospitality?

Scott:   Yeah. I think if I understand that question right, I, I think it's the transferable skills that are a part of courageous conversation. I mean, I, I do see it as a tool for disciple making and disciple equipping and primarily with listening, right? When I learn to listen better in a courageous conversation, I believe that's transferable to every other relationship I'm a part of, right? It's a skill that can be learned is, is listening. Well, I remember in my pastoral care class having to read a 300 page book on listening. And I thought, well, this has to be the world's worst writer that spend 300 pages on listening. And then I read it and it was like, oh, well maybe I don't know that much about listening <laugh>. And so the transferable skill of listening not to then in my relationships with others and then to my community, what are the community needs, right? It is transferable to how we embody a listening posture to our neighbors, to our community, to our relationships. That's why, to me, courageous conversations is a tool for discipleship individually and as a community. How do we together do this

Crystal:  Well as we finish up today, is there anything that we didn't talk on or that you wanted to maybe talk a little deeper about that we just kind of rushed past?

Scott:   You know, there's several things that ways I could go, but I'm, I think one way that I'll go is the Book of Discipline. You know, that's what we do here in Nashville is we sit around and read the Book of Discipline. That's a joke. We don't.

Crystal:  But some people do. It's true.

Scott:   <laugh>, That’s true. I can name some names <laugh> But there is a passage in the Book of Discipline, paragraph 219 on mutual responsibility. And it talks about membership and in our, our opportunities, our gifts of membership, and it includes this line, a Christian is called to speak the truth in love, always ready to confront conflict in the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. I had the privilege of serving two different appointments. Neither one of them engaged conflict with the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, at least not most of the time, some of the time. Sure. How do we embody that? Right? And, and the book of discipline is one way that we can ground this need for doing this work. It is difficult, difficult work. I don't pretend, Hey, just use these tools and you'll be fine. That is not true at all. , so I hope people will leave with a sense both of how difficult the work is, but how meaningful the work of can be and what it can do for individual discipleship and for communal discipleship. What is God doing together amongst us all? And I feel like that's a left out component of discipleship is one of how, who the community, how are we growing as a community of disciples and not just individually, how am I growing?

Crystal:  That's another episode actually, Scott <laugh>.  That's a such a great topic. And you, you said early on that you're kind of an idealist. , so I'd love, I have another question, , before last question. Okay. But, , so what is, what does The United Methodist Church look like when we're all living into this?

Scott:   You know, I think we can go back in our history to this, right? The, the beginning of the movement where the focus was on lay pastoral care, right? It was a lay led movement, , focused on how is it with your soul? How does your soul prosper, I think was the original question. And how can we get back? How can we claim, I don't want to say get back to how can we claim the best of our past to help us go forward, to be intentional with a few, or that class meeting, that band meeting, right? How can we be intentional with a few to really help us grow as disciples in a balanced understanding of discipleship, not just piety, but also acts of compassion and mercy along with developing a communal identity. And I think that's, to me, that's a missing element in what I see in churches is a communal element of growing together. And that's going to take some intentionality and changes the way we think about programming, right? It, the way we program church, especially in today's very active society with so many opportunities people can be involved in, we have to really reimagine how we think about faith formation, , in this time. And I could, you know, I'll point you to our website and, and some of our e-learning courses to help with that.

Crystal:   And we'll definitely link to those on this episode page too, so our listeners can go and quickly find them because yeah, there' are some really tremendous resources there. And you're right, I mean, John Wesley reimagined what was happening in the Anglican Church and yeah. And here we are, you know, as United Methodist all these years later. So, , thanks for, thanks for kind of bringing that around. I love thinking about that and  all the possibility of who we can be as the church. Well, I will ask you the question that we ask all of our guests on “Get Your Spirit in Shape” and that is how do you keep your own spirit in shape?

Scott:    Yeah, I'm thankful to have several ways, one of which is a covenant discipleship group, , by one of your previous participants, Steve Manskar, I, I get to, to be with him. And, and that group challenges me and has helped me tremendously. That’s one way. 'm also a part-time photographer, so I, you can see some of my pictures over there. I, I really enjoy photography because it slows me down. My mind tends to race a bit. I tend to talk too fast  because I'm thinking too much and photography slows me down. I have to think about, all right, well, what's my settings here? What am I try, what's the mood I'm trying to create? So that, that's one way and the other, , I pulled it up right here, so you can see is the Book of Common Prayer. I wish I could tell you I do this every single day.

I will confess <laugh>, I'm not there yet, but striving towards that. The Book of Common Prayer helps me to pray things that otherwise I wouldn't pray. I talked earlier about how limited our imagination can be at times. And so using the Book of Common Prayer helps me, gives me a methodical way of praying for things that otherwise I wouldn't think about praying for. So that's one that I would, that I have leaned on and has been a tremendous treasure for me to remain in prayer and to grow in a much more methodical way with God.

Crystal:   All of those are great ways to keep your spirit in shape and our conversation today left me with a lot to think about. I hope it's left our listeners with a lot to think about of just how we can move forward and, personally,  improve our ability to listen as we have conversations and how that's going to benefit all of us in the church. So thank you so much for being here.

Scott:  What a pleasure. It's such a pleasure to be with you and to do the, the work we get to do as an agency to support challenge local church leaders.

Crystal:  Thank you.


That was Scott Hughes, associate general secretary of World Service at Discipleship Ministries, discussing how courageous conversations, those structured dialogues for learning can lead us to a place of deeper and more welcoming community within the church. To learn more about this topic and the work that Scott does at Discipleship Ministries, go to and look for this episode where you will find helpful links and a transcript of our conversation. If you have questions or comments, feel free to email me at a special email address just for “Get Your Spirit in Shape” , [email protected].

If you enjoyed today’s episode, we invite you to leave a review on the podcast platform where you listen.

Thank you so much for joining us for “Get Your Spirit in Shape.” I’m Crystal Caviness and I look forward to the next time that we are together.

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