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Q & A with Elizabeth Hagan

June 10, 2021 by The staff of The Upper Room

Elizabeth Hagan, author of Brave Church: Tackling Tough Topics Together

1. What led you to write Brave Church?

In 2017, I was in the process of doing talks and organization events related to the publication of my first book, Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility. I was surprised to find that in many church settings my topic was unwanted. Though the private support of my book was present in many places, in public I heard a lot of “you can’t talk about this here" from church leaders. Not wanting to give up too quickly on promoting my book, I knew I had to find another way in. I began leading “Grief We Don’t Talk About in Church” seminars at conferences and in church classrooms. I wanted to hear more about how churches relate to people experiencing grief that isn’t just about a physical death. What I heard—stories of LGTBQ kids being disowned by family members, stories of mental illness and people being shunned through misunderstanding, stories of domestic violence and the devastation of institutional racism—fueled the research behind Brave Church.

2. In the introduction, you mention that you grew up in a church that avoided talking about real struggles people face in their lives. When did you first realize that your church only skimmed the surface in conversations about what was happening in people’s lives? How did you feel when you realized that?

As a kid, I was always pretty observant. I noticed especially as a teenager how adults behaved and thought a lot about what I would do differently when I grew up. I can remember as a teen seeing how we tended to brush people’s major life issues under the rug as if they didn’t happen. Moments like when a youth minister left abruptly because of the rumors he had an affair. Or times when someone went to jail. Or a minister’s wife never attended, though there was talk that she was depressed. I felt confused and frustrated that we didn’t talk honestly about was really going on in people’s lives, especially as they related to our larger community. What the silence on these tough topics taught me was shame—I learned from my church that we didn’t talk about these things, because obviously there was something to be ashamed of, and that God didn’t want us to talk about hard things.

3. How do you go about creating an atmosphere that encourages people to share their personal struggles? (Does this require buy-in from church staff?)

Yes, it does require buy-in from staff. Brave churches are led by brave leaders. Church attendees take their cues from the leadership. If their pastors are talking about their real-life and tough topics like I write about in Brave Church, I believe the people will follow. All congregations need intentional space to do so. As social researcher Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability begets vulnerability.” One step by a brave leader can encourage another.

4. What are some of the tough topics you address in Brave Church? Which ones do you think are most urgent to address now?

I write about infertility/miscarriage, mental illness, domestic violence, racism, and sexuality. I believe all of them are important to talk about right now, but of course, a person’s context should always drive these tough conversations. Some communities have already tackled these topics and are in a regular practice of continuing their discussion, so they might want to skip over a topic in the book and spend more time elsewhere. Other communities might find there’s a topic they are not ready to fully engage with yet, but there are others they can. The most important part, I believe, is just starting to talk.

5. What settings seem best for encouraging people to talk about sensitive issues? How much planning typically is needed to prepare for these conversations?

Brave Church is about intentional conversations happening in small groups in a congregational setting. A Brave Church group needs a leader(s) and commitment from each group member to use or adapt the “Brave Church Covenant” that I share with you in the book. The covenant will be a set of rules that the group refers to throughout to foster deeper listening and a sense of belonging for all group members. To begin a Brave Church group, a leader will need to read over the material presented as well as the Leader’s Guide (included in the book) and recruit group members to be a part of the experience.

6. If some people in your congregation think talking about sensitive or controversial issues is unwise, what can others do to open space for such conversations?

If minds are closed to tough topics, I am not sure what you can do. Bravery is always a choice. It isn’t helpful to force anyone into dialogue that they don’t want to have. With that said, here’s what I think: so many people do want to have tough conversations; they just don’t know how. Brave Church is for any who have willingness to begin and want a tool to guide them. I also believe that bravery leads to bravery. Some of the bravest churches I know took baby steps to get where they are today.

7. How do you think isolation from others, as has happened during the pandemic, might affect the ability to have in-depth discussions on difficult issues?

Zoom church and coffee hours are great, but it just isn’t the same as being in the same room with people face-to-face. I know I have missed the goodness of long, lingering conversations with friends and church members, the kind of conversations that lead to deep connection and sharing. But as the world begins to open up again, it’s a great time to restart our community life in new ways—bravely tackling tough topics because we know how much we’ve missed really connecting. I’m so excited that Brave Church has come out at this moment.

8. What adaptations, if any, do you suggest that churches make for discussing Brave Church virtually (over Zoom, etc.)

I believe a Brave Church group could work on Zoom or another online platform if all participants are there. I believe it would be essential for cameras to be all on if all possible throughout the meeting because there is just something about seeing body language and facial expressions that encourages sensitivity to all group members.

9. What do you hope churches will gain from studying Brave Church?

Brave Church is a practical and encouraging guide to help you and your congregation begin to talk to one another in new ways. Brave Church will give its readers the “how to” and the confidence to begin. You’ll read examples of congregations I interviewed across the country who are doing brave ministry in the areas of infertility, mental illness, domestic violence, racism, and sexuality. Brave Church is just the beginning, and it will leave you with resources to continue conversations, depending on your setting and what you need to talk about the most. If you would like to see if Brave Church is the right book for your organization, I’d invite you to take my free quiz, “How Brave Is My Church?”

10. Anything else you’d like to tell us about Brave Church?

Yes! I’m so excited to be filling spots right now for the first cohort of Brave Church groups for the fall. These are churches that agree to have at least one small group studying and following the practices outlined in the book. One awesome benefit of ordering Brave Church through The Upper Room online store is a discount for multiple purchases. Also, for the fall cohort, I will volunteer to be a resource for your group leader if you have any questions, and I will participate virtually in one of your group sessions. If this interests you, let’s chat over at elizabethhagan.com.


Elizabeth Hagan is a graduate of Duke Divinity School and has been a pastor for 15 years, most recently at the Palisades Community Church in Washington, DC. She saw and personally experienced the isolation, loneliness, and shame that remains unspoken when Christians shy away from difficult conversations. She knew that the church could do better to foster a sense of acceptance and belonging, so she wrote Brave Church to open the door to the presence of God in difficult conversations.


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