When Should Leaders Speak Out?
Commenting — or not — on controversial current events
Every day, it seems a new crisis or controversy grips the headlines. Ecclesiastes 3:7 says there is a time to keep silent — and a time to speak. But how do we know when it’s the right time to make our voices heard? And how can we determine the best response?
Leaders should never shy away from controversial topics. People look to us for guidance. Sometimes, a current event is so gripping that to say nothing about it would be a dereliction of duty.
But in today’s culture of outrage, we must also exercise wisdom and discretion. With a 24-hour news cycle and unlimited access to social media, our culture expects an instant response. People frequently become outraged by the latest controversy before moving on to the next. Adding to the noise and confusion, some become outraged when they think we’re not outraged enough. It’s a perpetuating cycle.
Good leaders learn how to find the right words in the right moments.
Responding to the outrage culture will only close off dialogue and cloud our message. Instead, we need a balanced response bathed in wisdom and the voice of the Holy Spirit. James tells us to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. Good leaders learn how to find the right words in the right moments.
When to Speak Up
So when should leaders speak up? How do you decide which current events deserve your response? Here are some questions to ask the next time you wonder whether you should speak out on a controversial issue.
Who is affected? You must first decide whether you, your congregation and your community are really affected by what’s happened. In some cases, the events on the news are playing out in real time in your neighborhood. If you were a pastor in Charlottesville, Virginia, for instance, everyone would have expected you to make some sort of statement about the recent violence between Nazis and counter-protesters in your city’s streets.
Other times, an event may affect you directly, even if you live far away. If minorities make up a large segment of your congregation, you should speak out against racism whenever it rears its ugly head. If you live near a military base or minister to military personnel and their families, speaking up about veterans’ issues or acts of war they may be involved in is always appropriate. If it directly affects your congregation and community, don’t stay silent.
Who is watching the events? Some issues are so far-reaching that they cross geographical boundaries. There are some events in our world that have the power to change everyone. To seize such moments for the sake of the gospel, you must be aware of who is watching.
Is the country taking notice? Do the politics and opinions monopolize the front page and newscasts? If so, you should probably respond. It’s OK to talk about elections, tragedies or stories that grip the entire population.
Realize that your audience may extend beyond the sanctuary. Whenever a controversial current event clashes with a Kingdom imperative, speak up. Issues that involve the church or Christianity in general often capture the attention of those outside the church. People want to know how you will respond to the next scandal or the next headline dealing with a church leader. By making your voice heard — in your weekly sermon, through a letter to the editor in your local paper, or in a Facebook video your people can share — you can bring non-attendees into your sphere of influence. But again, your response must be wise and Spirit-led.
Who is listening to you? Another element to consider is how this topic relates to what you’ve already been saying. You have an audience as a leader. People are listening to you. Your silence on certain matters can be deafening.
A sermon or teaching topic may lead to a discussion of an event or issue you wouldn’t normally address. For instance, a sermon series on family relationships may be the right time to talk about a recent court ruling on gay marriage. And a sermon on creation from Genesis would be ripe for including some words about recent debates on evolution.
You should also weigh your mission and vision against the current events. Good leaders consistently share their vision with their people. When a controversial current event directly ties to that, speak out.
When your mission reaches beyond your borders, take notice and be informed about what’s happening in that corner of the globe. Because of the mission of your church in the world, you may need to address a controversy that doesn’t reach your shores. For instance, maybe you support an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. The United States has had its share of hurricanes, but often those same storms wreak even greater havoc on Caribbean islands that are not as well prepared. Don’t fail to mention the needs within your ministry’s global reach.
We Can’t Say It All
The bottom line is that leaders need to speak out. But we can’t respond to everything. If we prepared a special response to every controversy each week, we would never get to the real work within our churches.
The how is more important than the how often. Carefully selected words in a time of tragedy and concern can bring great comfort. They don’t have to come all the time, but they should be timely. Keep your head about you and the end goal in mind. If you focus each message on how to move forward in the Kingdom, you will always be on track.