It’s nice when people ask questions; whether they are atheists or mature Christians. We all like the feeling of being asked, or the opportunity to “give an answer for the hope we have”.
But, before you answer, just ponder whether they are asking to understand or just asking to make a point.
It could be as simple as saying, “Yeah, that’s something I’ve put some thought into. If I tell you what I think, is there really much chance it will change your mind?”
This is particularly true when chatting to non-Christians. They may have many presenting questions… But they aren’t real questions; they’re just gap fillers, questions to ask to appear didactic. If you said to them, “if I answer that question adequately, will it really make a difference to you?” And if they say “no” (as many I’ve spoken to have), then all of a sudden the conversation had shifted from abstract hypothetical barriers to the gospel, to real personal barriers to the gospel. You can ask, “ok, then what is your real question? What would it take for you to really consider Jesus’ claims?”
Satan loves it when we keep the conversation abstract and impersonal, so don’t go there unless its really the issue they’re dealing with.
When it comes to leading people, it’s helpful to think about two aspects of every leadership conversation…
First, there’s the (horizontal) aspect; who makes the decision at the end of this conversation? Is the final decision way over on your side as the leader, or is it way over on the team member’s side? Or do you want the decision to be somewhere in between?
Second, there’s the (vertical) aspect; how much discussion takes place between you and the team member? You might have heaps of discussion about an idea or option, or you might have very little discussion at all.
The diagram below presents four possible alternatives when leading. We call them the four leadership styles. They follow a particular path where the more you want a mutual decision, the more discussion is required.
If you’re in that situation when someone talking to you starts to “vent” about someone else… it usually starts small about how hard things are at the moment… but in order to explain how they’re feeling, they feel the need to share how this person has wronged them and that person was mean to them… and before long you’re hearing things that you ought not to hear… what should one do?
It’s a difficult moment, because you’re hoping that at any moment they’re going to recognise what they’re doing, you’re hoping they’re going to realise they didn’t mean to go into all that, and stop all by themselves. But… I think that’s very rare.
You should politely ask them to stop. Maybe…
“Can I stop you there for a second? I wonder if you’ve started talking about people in a way you wouldn’t like people talking about you?”
“Can we just press pause on this conversation for a minute? It sounds like you’ve got a lot of feelings rolling around at the moment and you might not have thought hard about what you should and shouldn’t say?”
But stopping it is only part of the response. Ideally, you want to help this person work out WHY they came to you in the first place… Did they really just want vengeance (and thought you knowing might help)? Are they simply trying to process what happened to them and their feelings and facts are getting all muddled up? Do they want you to go and fix their problem? Have they already had the same conversation with 5 other people (who didn’t tell them to stop) and now their just in the habit of talking that way?
Once again… it’s very rare that the presenting issue is the real issue. So try and treat the cause, not the symptoms.
Venting is that thing people (like me) do when something bad or annoying has happened. It usually involves someone else and how they made your life much harder and now all these things are going wrong (read “not like I wanted them to go”). And it normally coincides with some other significant life event and feels too much.
So you go and “get it off your chest”, or “vent”. You might even call it “processing”.
But what you’re really doing is either grumbling against God, slander or gossiping. Possibly all three.
Do you really need to get it off your chest? Really?
Well, have your tried telling God how you feel? Actually how you feel? No? Might it be because what you want to say isn’t very godly?
If you wouldn’t say it to God, don’t say it to anyone.
Paul sets a pattern of pastoral ministry for Timothy that includes “teach, correct, rebuke and encourage” from the word of God. So there will be times when we are to lovingly and encouragingly rebuke people’s actions and decisions.
Sometimes, we know those people and we can be quite confident they will take it well – some people I know love a good rebuke!
But if you’re not sure how someone’s going to take it, it’s probably better starting with that conversation before you raise the sin with them… the conversation that goes like, “Hey, how do you reckon you’d respond if I challenged you from the bible about an area of your life?”
Now, sure… that’s going to ruffle some feathers. But it’s still an hypothetical discussion. You can still talk about it and talk about how God shapes us and challenges us through other people spurring us towards Christlikeness.
If that conversation goes well, there’s a much better chance the following conversation will go well too. If that conversation goes bad… well… you’ve raised an even deeper issue to work through. :)
If you’re going to ask someone to take on a responsibility, make it short. Not the responsibility… but the “ask”.
If you make the “ask” long and wordy, it will communicate that this task you’re offering them is so huge, so massive, so immense, that you have to take a long time to ask them. Instead, make it short.
“Hey Bill, could you lead a growth group night in a few weeks?”
Don’t say anything else. Just stop there. Let them answer. If they say no, that’s fine, all the words in the world probably wouldn’t have changed their mind anyway.
If they say, “Maybe” you can ask them what their concerns are, and you can address those concerns.
If they say yes, you can then go through the details they need to know.
If you make the ask BIG, then you’ll only freak them out by the apparent BIGNESS of the task.
People cite all sorts of reasons why our culture is resistant to the gospel, individualism, consumerism, sexual-ethics, so on. But for the day-to-day Christian hoping to talk to their friend, these are rarely the stumbling block.
Rather, the reality is that most people like living on the surface. They like talking about the game, about work, about surface things. Just chit-chat until we’re too drunk to know what we’re talking about. And if you run out of surface things to chat about, you can always turn to gossiping about people.
But the gospel sits beneath the surface. It is, by nature, deep. It’s about you and God, you and guilt, you and shame.
So what might we do?
How about training our Christians to own the deepness of the gospel?
Saying, “Hey I know we usually chat about pretty surface things, but I wanted to ask you guys a deeper question… What do you really reckon about this idea that Jesus will judge us?”
Welcome people well by telling them what their next step “in” would look like.
You know your church. Your regulars know your church. But the new person doesn’t. So, you can’t just assume they’re going to find their way in to the community and life of the church. In fact, not telling them is quite unloving.
So it might be worth describing it for them, help them picture the type of thing they’d choose to do next to step into the church family.
It might look something like, “Look, we’d love you to make this your church, but that can be a really vague decision, can’t it. Most people either stumble into church families, or they don’t. If you wanted to start making that decision yourself, I reckon the next step for you would be to sign up, and come along to…”
At one level, I think we all need to get better at giving specific, regular, behaviour based, feedback. But, we need to be careful that on doing so, we don’t undermine our peers, by encouraging their people to do things that they’re not meant to do.
So, instead, it might look something like… “Hey, I really appreciated when you [describe the ACTION you observed]. Is that what Ben (your manager) wanted you to do?”
They might say, “Yeah!” So you can say, “Great,”
They might say, “Actually, no… I think he wanted something different.” So you can say, “Well, it would be worth going back to Ben and making sure you understand WHY he wanted something different.”
They might say, “Actually, I don’t know.” So you can say, “Well, there were certainly some positives there, but it would be worth getting some specific feedback from Ben, heh?”
So, there… Feedback and keeping your team members first.
When it’s clear someone has a concern, the longer it takes to get the concern out of them, the more likely there is that there’s other concerns still sitting behind that one.
Once you’ve started digging, and they’re opening up about the issue they have with you, or church, or whatever… squeeze the pus. Keep creating space to let them get it all out. Keep thanking them for their opinion, thanking them for having the guts to come and talk to you, keep asking if there’s anything else.
It might even be worth getting to a certain point and writing it down; “So you’ve raised a few issues… first it was X, then you raised A, B and C. I’m really glad I got to hear those. Is there anything else?”
When you need to have a difficult conversation, one of the keys is to de-personalise it. You want to avoid them feeling attacked by you. You want to avoid it turning into a “relational issue” (simply because this is an easy way to get you off their back).
So grab a pen and paper, or a white board and a marker and write down the thing you want to talk about. This will take some planning on your behalf. For example it might be, “I want to have a discussion with you about how you can love your wife better.” Or, “I really want to talk to you about how you’re going to put your porn addiction behind you.” Or, “Lets talk about how you responded to Bob last week.”
And you write down “How can Tom love Tara better?”, “How can Tom put porn behind him?”, “How you responded to Bob last week.”
I know it seems a bit odd, but now it’s not YOU asking them this question, its the paper. The piece of paper becomes the “antagonist” and you and the person can work together to answer the antagonist piece of paper. It’s the 3rd party in your conversation.
And so when they go off on tangents or try to change the topic, you can redirect them back to the paper, “Tom, we still have this question in front of us… I’m on your team… What are we going to do?”
As pastors, we have (I hope) a natural bent towards helping people. When people come with issues in their Christian life (sin, spiritual questions, etc) we want to help them through it. But that’s the key… through it, as in out of it, or dealing with it.
There will be some people who don’t want to be pastored through it. They want want to go over the same things over and over again. You have the same conversation, with little variance. They come with a “new” issue, but it’s really just the same issue in different words. Beware. What starts so innocently, can become a big issue. See 2Timothy 2:14-17…
Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarrelling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene.
So, some helpful questions…
- Who else have you chatted through this issue with?
- How many times have you and I had this conversation?
- What did I tell you last time?
- Why haven’t you taken my/other people’s advice?
- I think we’ve reached the point where talking about this issue any more is of no value.
- I’m concerned you’re more interested in talking than changing. That’s ungodly. Stop it and drop it.
They arrive, join in, seem to settle in well. They smile when you talk to them, they nod when you say Christian stuff. They talk about their last church in favourable terms.
There’s two opposing things you need to assume:
- Assume they’re Christian if they’re giving that impression.
Most people who are “seeking” or checking out Jesus will give some indication of that. If they don’t they either don’t want you to know or they are Christian and just haven’t said, “Oh… and just so you know… I’m a Christian”.
- Assume they’re not a Christian until they’ve made it clear
Just because they can go-with-the-flow and talk the talk doesn’t mean they’ve given themselves to Jesus. They might have been in churches for years! They might have hung around Christians and picked up the lingo. You just can’t tell.
The danger is assuming one over the other. Rather, there’s a tension there to manage. Again and again I’ve been suprised by new people at church… everyone else thinks they’re Christian… they come to so much stuff! But then you just ask them how they decided to first become a Christian… we’ve had people come straight out and say, “Oh, I’m not a Christian!”
So, don’t assume they’re all non-Christians, and don’t assume they’re all Christians either.
It’s worth being aware of the many reasons we Christians (myself included) come up with to justify being all “I love JESUS!” with our mouths, but all “I can’t give money”. You’ve probably heard the line, “the last part of a man to be converted is his wallet”.
Here’s some reasons that might going on in people’s hearts…
- “I don’t feel led to give at the moment”
= being obedient to Jesus isn’t enough for me, I want him to make me feel good about it too, OR
= I’m not a christian, OR
= My church hasn’t worked hard enough to prove to me why I should give them my money, OR
= I think my money is mine, not God’s.
- “I don’t have much money to give at the moment”
= Jesus won’t be pleased with me unless I can give lots, OR
= I won’t be pleased with myself unless I can give lots, OR
= I’m waiting for God to give me more money, because he wouldn’t want me to part with any of this, OR
= I’m actually starving, I have no money, and I don’t know where I’m going to get money from in the next month.
- “I give to other things, rather than my church”
= I want to disassociate myself from this group of people; I’ll attend, but that’s all, OR
= I don’t see why my church needs my money, I think it’s operating fine without mine, OR
= Other people can give to my church, and no-one will know I don’t, OR
= Other churches/ministries need it more than my church, even though the bible says I should give to my church (i.e. I disagree with God).
I can’t remember where we got this idea but it’s brilliant… our staff team has this phrase “umbrella of mercy”. It’s what we say before we say something that could be taken the wrong way, or something that might be offensive or touchy for other people in the conversation.
When one of us says, “umbrella of mercy”, we’re asking the other people to prepare their hearts and minds to hear something graciously… mercifully… ready to assume the best… ready to ask clarifying questions rather than make accusations.
It’s a little bit like saying “with all due respect”, instead it’s not a declaration like that. Rather it’s a request… “Please hear this as best as you can, because I’m not trying to hurt your feelings or attack your baby.”
I seem to use it a lot.
If you’re in Christian leadership, its your job, your responsibility, to keep asking and encouraging people to give their time and effort to ministry. So much so, that it can feel like every interaction and phone call is a request.
On one hand, you have to be ok with that. If you don’t call people to step up to do the good works God has prepared them to do, there’s a good chance they won’t. Thank God for your role of getting people on the ministry field.
On the other hand, it gives you a great opportunity to surprise people with the opposite. Just call to say hi. Chat. When they ask what you’ve called them about (as they probably will) just say, “No reason. I realised that almost every time we’ve chatted has been about something that needs doing, so I just thought I’d call and say hi. That ok?”
It’s really not a great question, is it? It’s intention is wonderful… but it’s execution is poor. How about…
“Hey, that talk we just heard, help me think through it for a second… I think he was saying…”
“I reckon I need to think a bit more about some of that talk, do you feel like that too?”
“Don’t take this the wrong way. But I couldn’t help wondering if you found some of that talk a bit challenging… Was it?”
We all love getting a bit of attention, some people love a lot of attention. But sometimes, people give poisonous attention.
Poisonous attention is when someone pays attention to you, but always seems to end up asking/digging into your discontentment. They say things like,
“How’s that issue going? Haven’t they sorted it out yet? You must be feeling so frustrated with them, yeah?”
“I just get so upset when I think about what you must be going through. You’ve had to deal with so much. You can tell me how you really feel.”
“Whatever’s wrong (with your circumstance), you can tell me… I’ll understand”
They are people who seek out discontentment, but not in order to help people take it to God and trust him with joy. Instead, it leads people to ever more discontentment.
And here’s why it’s so dangerous… It’s addictive.
Once you’ve been given that type of attention time and time again, you get used to it. You feel like that’s what “good conversations” are meant to feel like. You dislike them idea of being told you’re wrong, or called to repent.
Just say, “You know, I think talking about it might make it worse. Let’s talk about something else.”
There’s a fine line, it seems, between talking about your feelings and emotional manipulation.
See, if I tell you that something you’re about to do is making me feel sad, unworthy, hurt… is it just a simple observation of the facts, or am I being emotionally manipulative?
There are two types of questions to ask… internal (or heart) questions and external (or action) questions.
The internal questions are, “Am I trying to leverage my feelings to change thing person’s actions?” If “yes”, then you’re emotionally manipulating. “Am I making this person overly significant to my self-perception?” (i.e. If you’re allowing someone to tell you how much you’re ‘worth’, then you’re giving them the place of God over you. It’s a form of idolatry.) If “yes”, there’s a good chance you’re going to use emotional manipulation.
The external questions are, “Have I made it clear that, whatever they choose, I will not take it personally?”, “Have I given them permission to make the decision despite my potential feelings?”
In the end, you have to ask yourself “Why” you would bring your emotions into the discussion. And if you are going to, what else do you need to say so its clear you’re not manipulating them?
A passive helper will wait for you to ask them to help, and then they’ll do their best.
An aggressive helper will suggest themselves for certain roles (or just do them and tell you later on)
A passive-aggressive helper will either a) tell you they can help, but only if it’s on their thing and in their way, or b) wait for you to ask them to help and then say, “I knew you were going to ask me to do that.”
Love your passive helpers by being bold enough to ask them. Love your aggressive helpers by telling them the vision and principles clearly and letting them make mistakes. Love your passive-aggressive helpers by… Asking them what they think they should do for the kingdom, and why they haven’t done it.