Episode 78: “Tackling Tough Topics in Church” featuring Elizabeth Hagan

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 78: “Tackling Tough Topics in Church” featuring Elizabeth Hagan

Do you long for church to be a place where people can discuss real-life challenges openly and honestly? Pastor and author Elizabeth Hagan shares what it takes to be a “brave church” willing to tackle tough but important subjects.

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Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel, associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, and I’m your host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. I’m talking today with Elizabeth Hagan, who most recently was pastor of Palisades Community Church in Washington, D.C. She’s also the author of a new book entitled Brave Church: Tackling Tough Topics Together. Elizabeth, thanks for being with us today and for sharing with our listeners.

Elizabeth Hagan: Thank you, Ann, for having me.

Ann Michel: Your book addresses a familiar reality of congregational life. It’s the idea that there’s kind of a “cone of silence” when it comes to discussing certain subjects that are seen as difficult or impolite or off limits. So, I wondered if you could begin by sharing a bit about what you see as the contours of this reticence and why it’s concerning to you.

Elizabeth Hagan: Well, my experience really diving deep into this topic began many years ago when I was personally struggling with infertility. So I was trying to add children to our family and finding that to be really an unsuccessful project, all while I was serving as a pastor of a local congregation. And as I was going through this very difficult, painful experience of my own, I was trying to still be there for my congregation and do my job to the best of my ability, I found it very hard to talk about my own experience of deep pain and loss and grief. And out of that came the first book that I wrote, Birth: Finding Grace through Infertility. And as I was out talking to church leaders, speaking at conferences for many years, talking about my book, as people do when they’re written a book, I was deeply shocked in that process at how hard it was to even voice the word “infertility” in several ministry settings.

And what was so fascinating to me about it was these were colleagues of mine, friends who in many cases I knew had even dealt with infertility or other really hard things in their own stories. And yet they didn’t want me to talk about it in their churches. They wanted me to maybe tone it down a little, maybe talk about grief in a general sense, but not get into the specifics of topics like infertility. And so I began to think, “Well, you know, this is not the way it should be.” Because church, I believe, is a place where all people should be welcome and all their pain and all of their stories and all of their sense of experiences of God. And I began to dream about what it would be like if we could help give tools to churches to begin to talk about things with bravery. And that’s how Brave Church was born.

Ann Michel: So I’m sure that this resonates with a lot of our listeners. Because we all know that there are certain subjects that are considered impolite to talk about in church. But I wanted to juxtapose that reticence within congregations with an attitude in our broader culture that sometimes seems to me as if almost nothing is off limits. If you walk through the grocery store aisle and look at the tabloids, or if you pay attention to social media, or if you tune into broadcast TV just about any afternoon of the week, you’re seeing talk shows where people don’t seem to mind going on national TV and talking about some pretty private, salacious stuff. And so I’m wondering, is the church just more buttoned up and old fashioned? Or do you think something else is going on?

Elizabeth Hagan: You raise some really interesting points. I think the church is designed as a “safe space.” You know, churches are created, even from the earliest churches to now, because people wanted to get together who had a sense of likeminded views, who believed the same things about God and Jesus and the Bible and about how to live out their faith. And there is this assumption in church life that it is a safe place, that we all have this common language of who we are and what we believe and what we think is important in life.

But for many, churches aren’t safe. Because even if there are some common denominators in terms of theology or life experiences, churches aren’t necessarily safe places for people to feel like they can bring their whole self to church. That’s why many people go to outside sources that are not in congregational life. Because eventually things have to be told. Eventually people feel like they have to share their stories, that they have to find community. And that part just grieves me. Because I have always believed in the church as being the family of God on earth.

It’s a beautiful experience to be around people who know and love you well. But if we’re not able to talk about what we’re dealing with, we don’t find that sense of community. It starts with really talking about what we’re dealing with, whether that be an experience of racism, whether that be an experience of not being safe in our home because we are with a partner that’s not treating us well, whether that be because we can’t have a child, or we’re struggling with mental illness. I mean, there are so many things that we all deal with in our life. And the hope is that churches take that step beyond just being first of all safe, and then as they’re safe, there’s some sense of understanding that we come together as a community, that you can move from that into a brave space where you’re able to really hear even more stories and to have even more people feel welcome and a part of the group.

Ann Michel: As I was thinking about that juxtaposition that I posed, the idea that you can talk about something with Dr. Phil that you may not talk about in church, I think maybe, that’s an indication of the fact that those topics are taboo, which is what makes it so salacious for people to watch a television show like that. It’s because there is a taboo around those subjects. And that may be just as true in our culture as it is in the churches.

Elizabeth Hagan: I was taught a lot of theology as a child. You go to church and you learn Bible stories and you learn memory verses. You learn about how to help the poor or how to help people who are dealing with difficult situations. I was a good church kid growing up, but I don’t think I was ever taught how to talk about things that happened to our neighbor, or things that happened in our home, like someone was yelling too much at dinner and how that made me feel. I mean, it was like we have to bring our best selves to church in some way. How dare we not appear fully put together because what will people think of me? Right? And that’s hard.

Ann Michel: There’s a point in your book where you talk about how this keeps lots of people away from church.  And I know from our work at the Lewis Center, for example, that one thing that keeps a lot of younger families these days away from churches — maybe it’s a single mother, maybe it’s someone who’s experienced divorce, maybe it’s an unwed mother. And they get the impression that church people are so proper and good that I couldn’t possibly be welcome there. And when everyone feels they can only show their best side at church, it creates an unwelcoming environment for anybody who’s truly struggling with problems.

Elizabeth Hagan: I totally agree. And it starts with the leadership. Your work at the Lewis Center is about training leaders to help congregations grow and thrive. I was a Lewis Fellow once upon a time, feels like a long time ago. But, I think I learned from my own experience of dealing with deep pain and loss and thinking “Well, how could I have better shared that with my congregation when I was going through it? How could I have led through the pain?” I’m a strong believer in the Nadia Bolz-Weber quote that says, “We lead from our scars, not our wounds.” And often times, you know, it is not appropriate, you know, for a pastor to be bleeding over their congregation when they’re in a really difficult place. But with time and processing, with help from outside professionals, we get to a place where we’re able to talk about things that have been hard in our lives. I just long for more leaders in the congregations that I interact with to really just talk about it and not have shame be the last story that we project to our congregants.

Ann Michel: In the last couple of years, given what’s been going on in the news, there have been a number of books written about congregations having the tough conversations around racism and political division. That’s just so much in our national consciousness these days. And you do address race and politics in the book. But for the most part, the subjects that you address are more personal. Infertility and marriage, mental illness, domestic violence, sexuality. It really struck me that you were bringing a more pastoral perspective to this. But I also wanted to ask, do you think that the same dynamics and rules are at play when it comes to discussing public issues as opposed to private issues within the church?

Elizabeth Hagan: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, if you’re speaking to racism in particular, you know we can’t talk about racism these days without talking about institutional racism, about the deep story, our deep communal story of what that looks like. And I think no matter if it’s a topic that’s very personal, something that happens to you like infertility or miscarriage, that maybe no one would ever have to know about if you didn’t utter the words, versus something that right now is a very public story, as we are deeply concerned about our Black and Brown brothers and sisters who are dealing with police brutality and persecution on a daily basis that we now see and we cannot look away from. I believe that these are things that we must talk about in church. And I believe with the tools that I outlined in Brave Church, the idea of having an intentional “brave space” where you set a different way of being together as a community, a small group, that really beautiful things can happen. I piloted this project at my own congregation, the Palisades Community Church in D.C., a couple of summers ago. And, what I found was that in just beginning to birth these conversations and to be open about them with each other, as we heard one another, it began to do some really powerful things in our congregation, things that were new that maybe otherwise would have been uncomfortable in the past.

Ann Michel: I would imagine it really strengthens relationships and trust as well, that when you really go to these vulnerable places within a group.

Elizabeth Hagan: It does. And it paves the way for other big church things that come up. Because I’ve always thought that being a pastor of a thriving congregation is about people that know and love each other well. But if you do not know each other, you cannot love each other well. And, you know, for every person that’s pastored me, because pastors still need to be pastored, it’s because I have had the vulnerable experience of them truly knowing something that’s going on in my life. And I’ve seen that in the churches I pastor as well. People really begin to show up for one another in ways that are so meaningful when stories are beginning to be birthed.

You know, when I was talking about, for example, domestic violence within my congregation, I discovered there were lots of women who had privately dealt with this and had never uttered a word. And as a result, we decided as a group that we were going to celebrate Domestic Violence Awareness Month and really help bring to the surface this often unspoken topic. And, you know, it sparked conversations. We put signs in the bathroom about how to get help and statistics and things. And, we have a preschool in the church. And preschool parents started coming up and talking to me about domestic violence. You know, that never would have happened.

Ann Michel: That’s a great example of what you point to in the book, that conversation then leads to action.

Elizabeth Hagan: It does. It does. But it has to start with saying the words — for someone in your group saying, “This has been my experience of racism.” And you’re like, “Well, how is that? We know and love you so well. You seem like you fit in and everything’s fine.” To hear it come out of their mouth, “This is what it feels like to be me.” Then those words shaping your community life together can make a huge impact.

Ann Michel: So I believe it was in the chapter on race, there was a phrase that stuck out to me. It was “commit to discomfort.” Because, you know, I think that as pastors and other leaders, some of this is going to push us into places that are uncomfortable for ourselves. And I wondered if you’d be willing to share how you’ve managed your own discomfort with certain topics.

Elizabeth Hagan: Sometimes we leaders have a vision and we know where we want to go and what this is going to look like. We can even see the outcome as we’re leading through it. But I think if you’re really tackling tough topics and you’re leading knowing that there’s going to be discomfort, that might mean you could be called out on your own bias along the way. And that might mean that the perfect answer you thought you had for a particular situation may not be the right answer. And even when you think that you are doing everything right, to be sensitive to other folks’ situations or perspectives, you may be completely missing the mark. It can be something big, you know, where you feel like, “Oh, my goodness. I need to just stop and repent. I’m so sorry.”

Or it could be something little. Like the church that I interviewed in the racism chapter, the pastor is a really great friend of mine. Rev. Dr. Jean Robinson-Casey is pastor of Martin Luther King Christian Church in Reston, Virginia. When I was the pastor of Washington Plaza Baptist Church in Reston, we had a sister church relationship, and we were planning one of many joint services. And I was in charge of doing the bulletin for that service. And, you know, normally I don’t include my title when I’m doing a bulletin. I’m just Elizabeth Hagan. And my church members who were in the service, I just put their names in the bulletin. And members of their church who were contributing to the service, I put just their names.

And the pastor called me and said, “Oh, no. This is all wrong.” And I’m like, “How could it be all wrong? Did I spell the names right? How did I mess this up?” And she said, “Our church goes by titles. You need to identify everyone by a title. Brother. Trustee. Deacon. I need to be Reverend Doctor. Because for us, we have lived in a culture that’s tried to take away our identity and our sense of self. And the church is the one place where we feel like we can be whole and we can be respected. And so could you please change all the titles?” You know, I could have been really offended in that moment, but it was like, “Oh, wow, of course! You know, I’m sorry.” I wasn’t trying to disrespect anyone. But I was just seeing it through my lens. And I think the discomfort, staying in the discomfort, means that we’re going to make mistakes. And that’s the beautiful part of learning and then being in community.

Ann Michel: Yeah, I had an experience teaching class where I called a student by the wrong name. And she told me afterwards how hurtful that was to her because out of the African-American experience and history of slavery, masters gave slaves new names. And all I knew to say was “I’m sorry.” I was so glad that she told me why it was hurtful to her. But I could never have possibly imagined that something as simple as mistake on my part would create that kind of feeling in her. Your book begins with a really helpful set of rules for having what you call “brave conversations.” We don’t have time to discuss all of them. But I found it interesting that they really call into question some of the normal ground rules that we tend to operate with when we’re talking about controversial subjects. And so I wanted to mention just a couple of attitudes or approaches that we tend to bring to difficult conversations and give you a chance to speak to why they can be problematic. So a lot of times somebody will go into a difficult situation and they’ll say, “Let’s just agree to disagree.” So what’s wrong with that approach?

Elizabeth Hagan: Well, I’ve been told that many times in my life, growing up in a family where we had very different beliefs about a lot of things. And I have a friend who really helped me understand this in a very concise way. To just say to someone that you want to “agree to disagree” it to say “I like you so much that I just I don’t want to argue with you.” Or it’s another way to say, “Could we please just be quiet?” And the problem with agreeing to disagree is it silences people. Because it says that their belief or their idea or their experience is not worth even listening to. And so, as we were talking about staying in the discomfort, if we don’t agree to disagree, but we listen to one another with respect and we give everyone a chance to be heard, we are staying in that discomfort, which I think is really important to brave conversations.

Ann Michel: So another one is, when we’re taking on a difficult issue and disagreeing with someone, we might preference our remarks by saying “Don’t take this personally …” What’s wrong with that approach?

Elizabeth Hagan: That’s another dismissive approach because it ignores the fact that I may have feelings and you might hurt my feelings. And so in brave spaces, in brave church we acknowledge our impact. We own the impact of our words and know that even if we don’t mean to be hurtful to someone, we might indeed be just that.

Ann Michel: I think that’s really helpful. You know, I say those things all the time. And I don’t think I realized how that could shut conversation down or invalidate what people are bringing to our conversations. I found that extremely, extremely helpful. So your book is a resource for a group or groups within a church that would come together to discuss some controversial topics. You provide some specific ground rules that can serve as a covenant. It seems to me this kind of presupposes a certain level of trust or a certain willingness to engage. And I think, sadly, that may not exist in all congregations. And so that leads me to ask, are there circumstances in which you think it’s inadvisable or unproductive or maybe not the right time to launch this kind of study?

Elizabeth Hagan: Well, let me tell you this. I had an early reader of the book, a dear person who is very church-oriented, who said to me, “I love this book and I love this concept. But I have to tell you, my church doesn’t even feel safe. So I don’t even imagine how it could be brave.” And so I think that is really important to recognize. So for this particular woman, she has a group of women that she connects with as well. Maybe that might be a better resource for Coffee on Tuesdays versus a Sunday school class. But, yeah, I think you’re right. You have to be aware of your circumstances. And maybe it’s not the right fit for you and your church at this time. But at the same time, I feel so excited that this is the time for this book and this is the time for these conversations, because aren’t we so tired in America right now of the division, of the separation of the church? That we don’t feel relevant to things that everybody’s talking about and that is so important to all of us? I know that Brave Church is a lot to ask of pastors and congregations. I think, you know, it calls for some bold leadership if a pastor or church leader were to take this on and say, “I want to be a brave congregation.” I know it’s a big deal. And I know it’s a big ask. But I think this moment requires us to step up to this challenge and to be brave, because the world needs us to be brave. It needs us to talk about racism. It needs us to talk about mental illness. It needs us to help people feel less alone and less ashamed of what they’re dealing with in their life. And to me, it’s good news.

Ann Michel: That’s a really good word. But just to follow up on the situation that you acknowledged of your friend, who said there church wasn’t really ready to be in this place. Are there some smaller steps or things where you could begin to lay the groundwork in a church that wasn’t yet ready to go to this brave place?

Elizabeth Hagan: Well, I wrote this book with two audiences in mind. The first is church leaders who are worried and disenfranchised with the idea of how divisive our country is and want to find a tool to help people feel more authentic in church. But I also wrote this book for individuals. And I really pushed hard with my publisher Upper Room Books to make sure that it didn’t get so group-focused that an individual couldn’t just pick this book up and have an experience with it. Because I do believe there are people who have experienced these things in their lives, who are suffering from one of these topics or others, and they would find a sense of home and refuge in the book. That hopefully as they read it, they would hear their own story, they would see someone who’s nodding their head alongside them, and they would feel less alone. And, you know, someone who recently read it said, “I feel like this book is going to be a tool of reconciliation between me and my church.” And I said, “What do you mean?” They said, “I’m really excited to take this book and give it to my pastor and say, ‘this has been my experience of racism and I want you to please read this and just take this in for a minute.’” And that kind of gave me chills. Because I thought, “Wow. It can be a gift for a person to feel more understood, to feel more heard.” And they can speak to their church leadership and say “Will you please just digest this with me? Can we have a conversation after you read this book.” That felt really powerful.

Ann Michel: I wanted to give you a chance to cast a vision of a different kind of church — what you call a “brave church” and ask this question. What would be different or better in our churches if we were able to be places of more honest and candid conversation on tough topics?

Elizabeth Hagan: I believe that it would be a place where more people feel at home and more people feel welcome. We all say that we want to be a welcoming congregation in a variety of ways. But I think if a church is brave, if a church is unwilling to say, “Okay, these topics are off limits, we can’t talk about this here. We won’t engage this here,” people will feel like they have a true spiritual community. And isn’t that what we’re all looking for? No matter if it’s in church or somewhere else? Somewhere to go where we feel like we can bring our whole selves. Maybe not every day, all the time. But you know, we all need space to process and to grieve or to find resources, in lots of different places. But to think that a church could be such a place — that’s a kind of church I want to go to. I want to go to a church where I could lift up a prayer request not just about my Aunt Milda who has cancer, but also for my neighbor whose daughter is in treatment for anorexia and she’s in another state right now. “Could you please pray for this mother? She’s really grieving.” Or I could say, “I’m really feeling like I’m not safe here because we have some real institutional strongholds of racism that we really need to address. Could we begin that conversation?” Those are those are places that are really beautiful to me. And I think that the world is longing for, too.

Ann Michel: Well, Elizabeth, thank you for sharing that vision. I think it’s one that many, many people can relate to and aspire to. So thank you for talking with us today. Again, the book is Brave Church Tackling Tough Topics Together. Elizabeth, wonderful to talk with you today.

Elizabeth Hagan: Thank you, Ann, for having me.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we speak with Lovett H. Weems Jr. and Ann A. Michel about their new book Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance.

Thank you for joining us, and don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

Brave ChurchRelated Resources


About Author

Elizabeth Evans Hagan, ordained Baptist minister, most recently served as senior minister of the Palisades Community Church in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Brave Church: Tackling Tough Topics Together (Upper Room Books, 2021) and Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility (Chalice Press, 2016). Hagan is the executive director of Our Courageous Kids, a foundation that serves young adults who grew up in international orphanages. She is an alumna of the Lewis Center’s Lewis Fellows leadership development program.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.