Editor’s note: This article is part of Dean’s Pathways to Preaching series, aimed at young men considering pastoral ministry. I believe there’s plenty here also for “not-young” men, already in ministry, perhaps as a reminder (2 Pet. 3:1).
With any vocation, a set of skills is necessary to do your work. Is this true for pastors too? Doesn’t God enable a pastor to do his work? Yes, He does. He makes you able to do what you could not do in your own knowledge and strength. But there is a human side to pastoral work as well. A pastor grows in his understanding of how to do pastoral work and in his skill at performing the work.
My focus here is not so much how to preach, how to share the Gospel, how to perform a wedding, etc. Of course you need to learn those too. What I’m talking about here are finer points of conducting yourself in your pastoral responsibilities. One of these areas is people skills.
Some people skills can be learned, but …
There must first be a genuine love for people in your heart.
I was talking with a neighbor couple recently about my work. I explained to them I am equipping a new generation of pastors. The sweet, elderly lady said, “Oh, they need to love people!” She’s right.
Love for others starts with yielding to the Holy Spirit and allowing Him to produce this fruit in your life. “The fruit of the Spirit is love …” (Galatians 5:22). You can also learn to love people by following Jesus’ example. We are to “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2). Paul gave us an idea of what love looks like in ministry: “And I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved” (2 Corinthians 12:15, NKJV).
Loving people means you don’t minister to them for what they do for you. You give yourself to and for them because you want their highest good. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be close friends with everyone in your church. But you care for each one. And you will serve and even sacrifice for them, just like Jesus did.
Develop your love for people by asking God to produce the fruit of love in your life. Read the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and observe how Jesus demonstrated love. Study the description of love in 1 Corinthians 13. Be alert to self-centeredness in your life and intentionally, with God’s help, replace it with love.
Loving others leads to developing genuine interest in people.
We naturally think a lot about our own lives—what we’re doing today, how we’re feeling, what’s going on in our family, our problems. Learn to look beyond yourself and be interested in others.
Pastors usually minister to a pretty large group of people. It takes intentional effort to learn about their families, their work, their activities, and their burdens. These life circumstances are the setting for spiritual growth. If you as a pastor wish to help your people grow spiritually, knowing about their lives is vital.
Here’s a good daily reminder from Paul:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4).
How do you show interest in other people? How do you get to know them? Through conversation.
The third people skill to learn is how to converse with people.
You may do this naturally. Or you may need to develop conversation skills. Start by asking questions. “Tell me about your family.” “What kind of work do you do?” “Where all have you lived?” “What do you do to relax or have fun?”
Don’t make it seem like an interrogation. Hopefully, the other person will ask you questions too! If not, you can tell a little about yourself, or comment on what they said, then ask another question. Ideally a conversation should be like tennis. You hit the topic “ball” back and forth to each other. If the other person asks you a question, answer it, then ask them a similar one. “I have three siblings—two brothers and a sister. How about you?”
Once you get to know people, you can move from small talk to more meaningful topics: “How did you become a Christian?” “What are some of the big lessons God has taught you?” “How can I pray for you?”
An essential step in getting to know people is doing things together.
It seems a little strange to call that a “skill.” It’s just something you do. But based on your personality you may or may not do this naturally. You might need to make an effort at it and grow in your desire for it.
Some pastors hole up in their offices and escape to their own homes and never do anything with people in their church. Some even have the idea that they shouldn’t develop friendships with their people. My answer to that is, look at Jesus. Of all the people He ministered to, He spent quality time with twelve. They hiked, ate, and had many conversations together. Just like Jesus spent time with His disciples, pastors can and should do the same with their church members.
The most basic thing you can do is visit them in their homes. But go beyond that. Invite some to your home for pizza and games. Include couples, singles, older people, and kids. Organize a bowling night or go to a ball game. Post on social media you’re going for a hike and anyone is welcome. Have a dads and kids day at the park and invite some men to come along (the moms will love this).
These times can be planned or spontaneous. Doing things together lets people know you care about them as individuals. They also have an opportunity to see you’re real and you like to have fun. You will find that investing this kind of casual time with people will develop relationships that give you opportunities for meaningful ministry in their lives.
The fifth people skill is, learn how to act in a considerate way toward others.
In other words, have good manners!
Remember that stuff your mother taught you? It’s important! If no one taught you manners, well, you can read up on it. Manners are just a way of being considerate of others. You’re not putting on a show. You’re putting others before yourself and showing that you care for the people around you.
Eat what you’re served. Chew with your mouth closed. Use eating utensils properly. Cover your cough. Dress appropriately for the occasion. Don’t be crude. Don’t be on your phone unless everyone is doing phones. Express gratitude (say “thank you,” send a thank you note if someone has you for a meal or gives you a gift). Give a firm handshake (but not a bone-cruncher!). Stand up to talk to another person who is standing up. Ladies first. Hold the door. Practice proper netiquette. (Pastors can really hurt their ministry by being rude on social media.)
Society is becoming more careless and crass. But etiquette shows you care for others. You don’t have to be stiff and formal. Just be warmly, thoughtfully polite. It reflects Christ well and enhances your relationships with others.
Sixth, learn how to relate to people who are in difficult circumstances.
We naturally feel inadequate when talking with someone experiencing the death of a loved one, loss of their job, or other hardship. If you haven’t experienced it, you hardly know what to say. This is especially true when you are young.
You can always say, “I don’t fully understand what you’re going through, but I just want you to know I care for you, and I’m praying for you.” Beyond that, you can learn by spending time with an experienced pastor. Observe how he interacts with people during a time of serious illness, accident, job loss, major surgery, family crisis, or death.
As you go through trials of your own, you will become more sympathetic with others who suffer. You will learn helpful things to say and do. You’ll experience God’s grace in your life and will be able to encourage others to trust Him for the measure of grace they need.
Experience helps, but most of all, pray for wisdom. Pastors are there for people during the most difficult of times. God will enable you to minister to others, even when you aren’t sure what to say or do. Trust Him, show love, and provide support.
Last, learn how to relate to people who are different from you.
You’re young, they’re old. Or, you’re an adult, they’re kids. You’re one ethnicity, they’re another. You’re country, they’re city. You’ve got degrees hanging on your wall, they don’t. You grew up learning verses, they barely know how to find Matthew in the Bible.
You will need to learn to bridge many gaps between yourself and others. Here are a few quick ideas on how to learn to relate to different kinds of people.
One is to look for people you don’t naturally gravitate to and initiate conversation with them. Just walk up and start talking (see above on being interested and having conversations).
Another is to expose yourself to various types of people through reading, listening to, and watching news and other sources of information. Look for programs, podcasts, and even read historical fiction that gives you a new perspective on how different kinds of people in the world live.
One more—travel. As much as you can, get out of your own geographical area and visit places where people different from you live. See the sights, eat the food, go to the shops. Sure, attend their churches too. Expose yourself to different cultures, both within your home country and internationally as much as possible. Interact with people from a vastly different culture from yours. You will grow to understand and appreciate the differences in background, perspective, and life experience. This will help you relate to the amazing diversity of people on God’s earth in a new way.
Here’s a quick review of people skills to develop:
- Love people
- Be genuinely interested in people
- Converse with people
- Do things together
- Act in a considerate way (manners!)
- Relate to people in difficult circumstances
- Relate to people different from you
Guess what: there’s no pastoring without people. You may love to study, have a passion to preach, can’t wait to lead—but churches are people. Jesus died and rose again to save, set apart for Himself, and spend eternity with people!
Your ministry is to people. Developing people skills will enable you to fulfill your ministry, follow God’s purpose, and build up the church of Jesus Christ.
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Dean Taylor has served in pastoral ministry for twenty-five years. He holds degrees from Bob Jones University and Seminary (BA, MA, MDiv) and Northland International University (DSM) and serves on the pastoral ministries faculty at Faith Baptist Bible College. His delights include his family, reading, and the great outdoors.