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The Next Faithful Step

Unproductive Parallel Conversations

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

Chris Argyris discovered that professionals (like ministers) use their education to fend off learning. They rationalized and explained why everyone else needs to change. But the last thing they wanted to do was admit that they themselves needed to change. Argryis observed conversations between these accomplished professionals and their bosses after things did not go well. He wondered if people would be able to acknowledge and explain the mistakes that they had made. Instead, he repeatedly heard frustrating conversations where the professionals learned little. “They talked past each other,” he found, “never finding a common language to describe what happened.” They could not even acknowledge that there was any way that their behavior could improve. Argyris distilled from these observations a stereotypical exchange that he called an unproductive parallel conversation.1 He cast the exchange so that a professional was talking to his boss. I have shifted the setting of the conversation to drive the point home for pastors, putting the conversation into a congregational setting. It goes like this:

[Pastor]: My congregation does not want to change.
[Questioner]: It is the pastor’s job to help the congregation to want to change.
[Pastor]: But the congregation won’t listen to me. They think I am wrong.
[Questioner]: Are there other ways that you might help them see your perspective?
[Pastor]: Maybe we need more meetings.
[Questioner]: How will you prepare for these meetings so that they have a different result?
[Pastor]: We need more communication with the congregation’s leadership team.
[Questioner]: I agree. How will you take the initiative to educate them?
[Pastor]: Everyone says they are too busy to get together.

An unproductive parallel conversation is a defense mechanism designed to keep the speaker (in this case, the pastor) from having to take responsibility. The pastor was quite nimble when it came to explaining how everyone else needed to change. But the agility was for a problematic purpose. The pastor wanted avoid admitting that the pastor herself needed to change.

This rationalization process prevents the pastor from going. “The problem with the [pastor’s] claims is not that they are wrong,” Argyris observed, “but that they aren’t useful. By constantly turning the focus away from their own behavior to that of others, the [pastors] bring learning to a grinding halt.” The pastor was not willing to acknowledge his own responsibility. He was not willing to see that a good pastor will find a way to communicate to a congregation, even when the congregation does not want to hear the message.


1 Argyris, “Teaching Smart People,” 8, 9.