Elephants are interesting things. They are big! They are obvious! They are loud. Everyone knows when they are around. Which is why "elephants in the room" issues that are big, obvious and loud are so tragically ignored by a staff or a board. Everyone knows they are around but everyone pretends they are not there. And no one is ever fooled!

Here are some real life elephants that I am aware of right now in various places:

    A staff member in a church obviously does not fit and is dragging the rest of the staff down but no one talks about it or does anything about it.

  • A board member creates regular conflict on the board to the consternation of others but no one is willing to address it.

  • A pastor has systematically alienated a long series of individuals but the board will not talk about it.

  • A team leader never wants to hear anything critical of his leadership so everyone tip toes around sensitive issues but everyone knows the score.

  • A member of a congregation leaves relational havoc in their wake but because of their influence, no one will address the issue.
The thing about elephants in the room is that they are obvious but remain unnamed, unresolved, even unspoken. It is frankly one of the sins of humanity that we allow known problems to exist without seeking to resolve them. And that starts with an acknowledgement that they are there.

OK, there is a reason that elephants remain unnamed. The main reason is that there is not permission in the group to engage in real, honest dialogue. The unspoken rule is, "don't go there" or "if you go there the rest of us will be silent" which leaves any brave soul hanging out in the cold - very alone.
There is one description for such a situation: cowardice! And it happens all the time in many situations. And, it is wrong.

There is a very important descriptor of Jesus given by the Apostle John in John 1:14. It says that Jesus came full of grace and truth.

As one reads the gospels it is evident that Jesus was always willing to put his finger on the truth, but he did it with grace. The woman at the well was an adulterer and Jesus got at that truth but He did it with grace. Jesus did not shirk the truth - indeed He spoke it always - but he treated people with grace.

This is the example that needs to guide us when we name the elephants in the room which good and courageous people do. Once it is named it is no longer an elephant - it is now an issue to be discussed and resolved. Done only with truth it can be harsh. Done only with grace it probably won't happen but done with grace and truth it can be powerful.

I have resolved that I will not live with elephants in the room because life is too short and I am not willing to compromise opportunity and effectiveness for the sake of sweeping issues under the rug. If I cannot name the elephants where they exist or if those on my team cannot do the same, I am in the wrong place or on the wrong board. 

 I have actually left teams and boards where that was not possible. But I have also resolved to deal with them with equal measures of grace and truth. Truth to name the issue and grace to seek to resolve the issue. If I cannot address the issue with both grace and truth I wait until my heart is right so that I can.

I was once in a contentious meeting where individuals said their were many elephants in the room. I asked them to name them, and they did. Here is the interesting thing. Once expressed, they were no longer elephants but issues to be discussed and resolved to the best of our ability.

None of us do this perfectly but I have tried very hard to adopt an attitude of "Nothing to prove, nothing to lose" and in that spirit encourage all of my staff to dialogue openly with any issue that is on their heart - as long as it is done with grace and without a hidden agenda. 

All leaders struggle with the risk of doing that. I do. But it is a great blessing to be free of the need to be right, or perfect, or have all the answers, or to pretend that the elephants are not there. Sometimes they are and I want to be courageous to hear them and when necessary to name them. Do we have that courage?

With grace and with truth.
  • Apr 16, 2013
  • Category: News
  • Comments: 0
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