Learning People Skills

qboxRepublished, with permission, from Voice magazine, Mar/Apr 2013.

During the afternoon of an IFCA Regional Conference, several Regional leaders interviewed two young men who were preparing for ordination. Since I knew the young men and had recently been through that same process, I asked Dick how the interview went. Dick Schwab was a man twenty-five years my senior, a long-time IFCA member, and a member of the founding board of Northwest Independent Church Extension (NICE) with which I served. He loved details and ardently, but graciously, defended the faith. He chose his words carefully.

“I have observed,” he began in answer to my question, “That many more men fail in ministry for lack of people skills than for lack of theological training.”

I have long since forgotten the remainder of Dick’s comments in that conversation, but I often recall his assessment of the importance of people skills. Over a period of years I observed Dick defending his convictions about such often debated issues as cessationism, eschatology, and dispensationalism. I appreciated his scholarship as well as his commitment to the truth. It was his defense of those views without alienating those who disagreed, however, for which I most remember him.

My background

I grew up with four brothers. We loved to argue. Our father was a skeptical, suspicious, often bitter man who did not join our arguments but whose attitudes fueled them. Since people skills did not come naturally, I have sought to learn them by observing and emulating people like Dick. I have also watched and sought to avoid the ways of those whose caustic, abrasive words offend others. Dick is with the Lord now, as are each of the people who are mentioned by name in this account.

My course in people skills began in earnest when, just out of Bible College, I served as a Pastor in Training in a Northern California sawmill town of about 250. A troubled church, it closed two years later when the sawmill burned down and many people moved away.

Bessie, an author, pianist, song writer, Bible teacher, church treasurer, and retired school teacher, was the church matriarch. Her talent was rare, her commitment admirable. It was easy, however, for even a novice such as I to see the control she exerted in the church. I also learned that she had a reputation for being caustic, unbending, and using her writing skills to author what some described as “poison pen” letters. Almost inevitably, it was not long until something I did earned her ire.

One afternoon on the way home from a neighboring town, I made a quick stop as I often did at Frank and Bessie’s home. On this day, my reception was icy. Without inviting me to be seated, Bessie assailed me for being dishonest, lying, two-faced, uncaring, and therefore unfit for pastoral ministry. Any response I attempted was drowned in a continued torrent of words. Stunned, I beat a hasty retreat. The point of contention was my appointment of a Sunday School teacher for two pre-school age girls, the only children in the church. When Bessie objected to my choice, I agreed to present the matter to the next church business meeting. When not even one person showed up for the meeting, I assumed they just did not care. So I proceeded with the appointment without further input or consultation.

Driving home from the encounter, I began to prepare my defense. I knew that people rarely won a showdown with Bessie, but my motives were right, I reasoned, and teaching two little girls who had no Bible background was important. Besides, Bessie had hurt too many people already. I told myself I would win this, not for me but for the health and reputation of the church.

Slowly, however, the spotlight of conviction turned to my own heart. I had said I would present the matter at the business meeting. However justified I felt my actions to be (because nobody cared enough to come to the meeting), I had violated that commitment. Did I genuinely care for people or was I merely concerned to use this training time to validate my ministry? Would it be right to be as ruthless as my attacker in order to win a battle? Was there any response that would restore our relationship and strengthen the church at the same time?

With Paul’s words to Timothy running through my mind (“But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife. And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient” 2 Tim. 2:23-24) I returned to Bessie and asked her forgiveness for reneging on my word. I did the same at a church business meeting, and then together we worked through the issue. The church confirmed my appointment, but more importantly, Bessie became our friend and continued to serve faithfully in the church. Winning disputes, especially with caustic words and attitudes, alienates people and destroys ministry. The principle that Paul taught Timothy so many years ago is still important.

A second lesson

On another occasion, Henry’s wisdom and Omar’s insight taught me to wait for God to change hearts and attitudes rather than to rely on my own position or persuasiveness. Henry was a hard driving, demanding, young businessman who later became a much loved pastor and the first Director of NICE. Omar Glass, a former pastor, was chairman of the church board.

Columbia View Bible Church was a small congregation in the heart of an established residential neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. After several of years of decline, we were experiencing growth once again. One of the problems the church leaders identified was that previous pastors had not lived in the community in which the church was located because rentals were few and expensive. When they extended a call to us to serve there, they stipulated that we live in the community. The high cost of renting made purchase of a home very attractive, and such a move would ensure the pastor’s continued presence in the community. After months of informal discussion, I proposed to the church board that we purchase a home to serve as a parsonage or facilitate such a purchase by the pastor.

Three of the four board members immediately objected. Though the church had begun to grow and this proposal addressed a problem they had identified, they were unwilling to consider anything that would tap their quite comfortable cash reserves. The silence of Omar, the most influential man in the church, was most troubling. During the months of informal discussion he agreed with the need to make the purchase. I was certain that he and I together could have answered the objections. He did not object, but without his support the proposal died. I was crushed. How long could I serve a church that said they wanted to reach their community but were unwilling to do what they all agreed was needed to make that a reality?

Pastor Henry Boyd, having retired from his responsibility of Director of NICE, was serving an interim position in a small town nearby. I went to visit him to talk about what had happened and how it surprised and discouraged me. Henry had two bits of counsel for me: drop the matter of purchasing property for a while and teach Scriptural principles that would help people grow in their trust that God is at work.

Henry assured me that if the need to purchase a home was genuine and the proposal sound, it was very likely to resurface later as somebody else’s idea. He urged me not to be miffed when that happened, but to rejoice that God was at work. He also warned me that Scriptural principles needed to be taught for the purpose of changing lives, not for the purpose of changing votes. If the board members perceived that the aim of my teaching was to make them change their minds it would galvanize their opposition.

The proposal of property purchase vanished from the radar screen. We mobilized a group of eager college students to initiate an outreach ministry for children in our community. I taught principles of faith to help us persist with this ministry when it began slowly but became fruitful through perseverance. Several months passed. Then one night at a church board meeting Omar quietly said, “When are we going to go ahead and purchase that property we need?”

Almost without discussion, the other board members agreed. Very shortly thereafter we purchased a home near the church. The home had an oversized, detached garage nearly as large as the house. The garage became a meeting place for the children’s ministry we had launched.

(To be continued …)

Earl Brubaker is a vetern church planting missionary in the NW United States. He was General Director of the Northwest Independent Church Extension, located in Tacoma, WA and now serves as president of the IFCA Board of Directors.

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There are 2 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


These are the kinds of stories I needed to hear in college and seminary (and some guys I knew needed even more) and in a setting where students interact conversationally with the experienced pastor about ways to handle these things and why. Back in my school days that kind of interaction was not part of the program.... maybe schools are doing better now.

Thanks to Earl for passing these stories on, and I look forward to posting part2 next week.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

TylerR's picture


I have always tended to act decisively and quickly; very slow and deliberate contemplation doesn't usually work well with police work!

My Senior Pastor is different; he is very slow and very deliberate with ministry decisions. In most cases, he has proven me wrong. In a few cases, I believe swifter action would have been better.

I praise the Lord that being in the military taught me how to be a good follower.   

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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