People stop talking when Rachel Campbell mentions her research on church gossip — or they try to convince her they are not gossiping.
Campbell tackled the topic for her graduate project in the Master of Divinity program at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax. She wanted to find out how church gossip affects a Christian's faith or ministry — was this chatter "prophecy or profanity?"
She found out, it's both.
When the talk is positive, it can build community and create a warm environment, she said. When the gossip is malicious, it breaks down relationships.
The key is to understand the intent, she said.
Campbell's been preaching what she's been learning.
"When you have issues with someone, talk to them directly," she said.
One of the conclusions she has reached is that church leaders and committees could play a role in preventing harmful church gossip.
‘Jesus wanted people … to talk to each other’
Despite her project’s focus, Campbell didn't attend a gossipy church while growing up on P.E.I.
She did, however, hear about those types of environments from other churchgoers.
Campbell hit the books to find out what theologians, scholars and the bible had to say about the topic.
"When I started to look at the scriptures, low and behold, when you look at the book of Matthew, when you look at the book of Acts … this is what Jesus wanted people to do is talk to one another. When there was a conflict, to go with each other one-on-one at first. And if people didn't listen, then you bring in a group of others."
She spoke with seven people, from four provinces, and six Christian denominations. They were churchgoers, and ministry workers.
One woman she spoke with was part of a youth group that worked to counter gossip in her church.
"She thought this was great until she got into the church and behind her in the pew were two adults, older women, that were discussing a woman that was a pew over," said Campbell.
The woman told Campbell she struggled with this because she thought training shouldn't just be for youth. She switched denominations as a result.
Better communication key
Campbell is excited about the results of her research because it showed her that better communication is at the heart of this issue.
"The 'so what?' factor tells me when gossip is malicious — name it, deal with it, empower Christians to support each other," Campbell said during her graduate presentation earlier this week. "Then they can bring that support from these pews out into the community. Isn't that what this is about?"
Campbell is also looking toward her own future.
She will submit her written report on church gossip later this month, and graduate in the spring. She'll move on to an internship with the United Church of Canada. If all goes smoothly, she'll be ordained as a minister in the spring of 2015.
She'll then be looking for a church of her own.
When asked whether her congregation will be gossip-free, she replied, "Well, we'll be talking, but we'll be talking about how can we build our communication so that it's positive, and work together."