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“Nice” is not a biblical word

Rev. Margaret Marcuson

October 17, 2019

Christian leaders can be too nice. We’ve internalized the message, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” However, sometimes leadership requires more than being nice. In fact, as far as I’m able to tell, the word “nice” does not appear in the Bible.

Episcopal priest Charles LaFond has developed what he calls a “mathematical formula” for leadership. Here it is: “Effective – Nice + Kind.” LaFond says, “Nice is a veneer, and it distracts and it obscures, and sometimes even leads to untruth.” He adds, “It is kind to tell people the truth.” Similarly, Brené Brown says, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” (“Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts,” Random House, 2018, p. 48)

Why aren’t we clear? We fudge difficult conversations to make ourselves more comfortable. Christian leaders (myself included), are afflicted with terminal niceness, which gets in the way of the church’s mission.

Many church leaders, male and female, clergy and lay, were socialized to be nice. You may find it hard to have candid conversations about difficult issues. You are not alone. But there’s a cost. Our niceness gets in the way of ministry. The least mature members run roughshod over the real leaders because no one can take a stand with them about their behavior. An employee can underperform or act out on the job—sometimes for years. 

Christian leaders can be too nice. We’ve internalized the message, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” However, sometimes leadership requires more than being nice. In fact, as far as I’m able to tell, the word “nice” does not appear in the Bible.

I cringe when I think about the tough conversations I’ve avoided in my ministry. I remember one pastor I was consulting with who was brave enough to say to me, “How we are working together isn’t working for me. I need more from you.” He needed more clarity on the process we were in together and for me to be more present with him as we worked. After the first twinge (or two or three…), I thanked him for being so honest with me. If he hadn’t been clear, it would have jeopardized our effort together. I haven’t always been as brave as he was.

I’ve worked over time to lean into hard conversations rather than avoid them. I don’t always succeed, but when I can do it, both the work and the relationships go better. What has helped me when I needed to be kind but not “nice,” when I needed to take a difficult stand with an individual or a group, is to consider what is really in the long-term best interests of the individuals involved and the whole group. This longer perspective helps me address issues that in my heart of hearts I just want to let go and wish away. 

Reality check: If you start being somewhat clearer and tougher, you may get accused of being a leader who is bossy, authoritarian, or mean. (To be honest, some church leaders are just that.) But for many church leaders, you are never going to go too far. You are so far this side of nice that you have years to go before you ever get to the point of being truly mean.

In the church acting in ways we feel are “not nice” makes us feel vulnerable. When you have to have a hard conversation, and have to be clear with someone about what’s not working, you put yourself out on the edge, and it feels risky. Your heart pounds. You start to sweat. 

Yet leadership requires backbone. Standing up and saying what is important to you is an essential part of leadership. So is giving people difficult feedback to help them grow. 

In some cases, you can’t do this alone. You need allies who also are clear and have backbone, to help you deal with the fallout that can come when you stand up to someone who makes a big fuss about how “mean” you have been. In some churches, the mean people expect everyone else to be kind to them, and squawk loudly if someone challenges them. The reason they get away with it is because everyone lets them get away with it.

We follow Jesus, who did not hesitate to say a hard word when necessary to individuals and to groups. Of course, you are not Jesus, and neither am I, which means we need a grain of humility in the middle of hard conversations. But when you are facing up to a member of your group who is wreaking havoc by their lack of boundaries and lack of filter, you can’t be too humble. Or too nice. You have to say, in concert with others, “You can’t act like that here, and if you can’t stop, you will have to …” You have to be able to say to employees who are not measuring up, “Your job is in jeopardy.” (I’m grateful to Dwight Robarts for this useful phrase.)

Here’s the good news: When you relate to people with candor and kindness, you let people know, we have a leader who can take the heat and keep going. We can trust this leader not to cave in to bullying and inappropriate pressure. Many will see this as good news, and feel relieved.

Where might you be called to bring the kindness of clarity to your leadership?

The Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without wearing out or burning out, through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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