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Which Is Better For Addressing Problematic Behavior: Calling In Or Calling Out?

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about which approaches we should use to address problematic behavior and oppressive systems and beliefs in our churches, schools, institutions, government, and especially in our online communities – and two options people have come up with are calling in and calling out. Let’s take a look at each approach and how they can be used.

What Is Calling In?

 Calling in has long been a phrase in the English language. Over time it has morphed into various usages, such as, “calling in to service,” or “calling in sick” or a “calling in to a radio program.” Today, in social justice circles calling in refers to the act of privately and respectfully checking your peers and getting them to change problematic behavior by explaining their misstep with understanding and guidance. In business circles, calling in refers to personally calling the person to higher ground. The tone is empowerment, collaboration, and coaching rather than scolding, shaming, or blaming. In Christian circles calling in might involve taking people aside and addressing them privately in a loving, compassionate, patient, and caring way to help them grow in Christ like responses.

What Is Calling Out?

Like calling in, calling out is a phrase with a long history. In the 1700’s it meant to challenge someone to a fight or duel. Later, calling out took on the meaning of personally challenging someone on bad language or behavior. Today, calling someone out is a popular way, especially on social media, of issuing a direct challenge to something they’ve said or done, or failed to say or do. Usually, it is a public figure, institution, or organization such as a preacher, politician, writer, leader, church, school, or business. And usually with the intent of exposing the person’s or organization’s perceived wrongdoing to others. Unlike calling in, calling out generally does not feature private, patient, respectful, and empathetic dialogue.

We Live In A Call Out Culture

Calling people out has spread thanks to social media, which allows people to amplify their message and mobilize for change like never before. Black Lives Matter, fighting police violence against black people, and the Me-Too Movement, fighting sexual violence against women, largely took off as hashtag campaigns calling out offending people and institutions.

While the call-out culture can be an effective way to speak truth to power, it can have a darker side as well. The impersonal and anonymous nature of social media can turn call-outs into malicious attacks, sometimes based on false information or personal ego centered agendas. When call-outs go viral, they can encourage people ganging up on a target. Too frequently call outs are fight reactions to emotional triggers and become attempts to deflect rather than address our own pain and wounds. And, to state the obvious, using oppressive tactics such as shaming, blaming, name calling, judging, i.e. calling out in all its myriad forms—is just using oppression to fight oppression. Ironically, through the act of calling out the oppressed become the oppressor. Rarely does calling out result in healing, but more likely, hurt, anger, shame, and retribution. It’s no wonder we fall into the trap of simply calling someone out, but if we are going to end oppression we’re going to have to come from an altogether different paradigm. 

So, Which Approach Is Better?

As always, I find Jesus is the best guide for forming my own personal approaches to pointing out an offense to another. Scripture clearly points out that Jesus both called people in and called people out.

It is obvious that Jesus, who is God in flesh, the great loving teacher, said some pretty harsh things to people.  He called them hypocrites, fools, blind people, blind guides, whitewashed tombs, lawless, of their father the devil, and liars to name a few. But, it should be noted that these comments were almost exclusively directed toward the most influential people in Jewish culture, the religious leaders of the day and the oppressive system they guarded. And further, his calling out of religious leaders was always accompanied by a calling in to a right way, God’s way, which they adamantly and publically rejected. Why was Jesus so harsh with the Scribes and Pharisees? Because He was overtly opposed to those who pridefully rebelled against God and hindered others from receiving the good news. And, most especially because of a desire for people to know truth and find life and peace in Him.

Yet, Scripture shows that every time someone recognized their sinfulness and entered Jesus’ presence with humility and contriteness his response was one of compassion, love, and forgiveness. The more humble the person was, the gentler and softer Jesus was in his words and approach. However, the more prideful and arrogant a person was, the more direct Jesus was in his message. Jesus’ language with the Pharisees was harsh precisely because they were filled with pride. Conversely, the sinners who knew they were flawed received more of a gentle, mild response from Jesus. When people honestly questioned Jesus he responded with kindness, truth, and wisdom. And, when people acted out from a place of wounded-ness he was respectful, compassionate, and understanding. This form of calling in, an invitation to healing and lasting peace, offered from a place of love, compassion, understanding, and acceptance appears to work best when presented to an open mind and heart and a humble and contrite spirit. Jesus sensed none of these attributes in the Scribes and Pharisees he so harshly called out. So, it appears Jesus never called someone out without also calling them in. And, he had the wisdom to know when calling out was the best alternative.

Personally, I’ve witnessed the power of respectfully calling people out and compassionately calling them in within the microcosm of my own life and leadership. It is essential for a leader to practice calling out to draw much needed attention to abusive behavior and oppressive systems and beliefs. Calling in though is essential for educating and for understanding problematic behaviors, mistakes, and oppressive systems and for transforming behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes. There is a learned art to doing both effectively and with the right words and energy. But, my experience suggests that when we have the presence of mind to do both well and in harmony with each other, we are much more effective at bringing someone over to mutual understanding, respect, and unity. The important thing is not to be silent. Whether calling in or out, leaders have to speak up.





Posted on September 8, 2020

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5