People Skills & the Pastor

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

I was talking to a young pastor recently, and after our lengthy conversation I commented on his wisdom and warmth. I told him many pastors fail in regards to dealing with people (something we often refer to as people skills). When I said this, the young pastor was surprised and asked me to elaborate further. So I provided him some specific sad examples of ungracious pastors and their interpersonal blunders. At the close of our conversation, he said something quite profound: “That’s so strange. Why would you become a pastor if you don’t love people?”

That young pastor asked a great question which summarizes the basis of pastoral interpersonal skills…love. Love is the bottom-line way to define people skills. And the pastor’s life must be characterized by love in the same way that Jesus’ life was characterized by love.

The pastor needs the ability to interact with people in a friendly way and with courtesy, compassion, and empathy. He needs to be “others oriented” as opposed to being self-absorbed or task driven. He needs to notice people (without looking past them) and look them in the eye and smile. He needs to be able to call the people of his congregation by name like Jesus said a good shepherd does (John 10:3). The pastor must interact with people and ask sincere questions demonstrating concern, communicating both verbally and non-verbally in ways that demonstrate courtesy and love. The pastor needs to be able to listen effectively, handle difficult conversations, discipline his anger, and help resolve conflict. And if he fails at much of the above his ministry is hindered and he may even be fired from his church!

This is serious, because people expect personal interactions with their pastor to be loving and kind. And for good reason, because Christ was the living embodiment of love and grace. He exemplified courtesy and concern for others. He valued people, welcomed them, conversed with them, ate with them. So is it wrong for people to expect their pastors to reflect Christlikeness in such basic ways as kindness and personal care? If that’s not a wrong expectation, then I would like to ask: what do Christlike interpersonal relationship skills look like?

The Bible’s answer

The Bible clearly addresses the question of interpersonal relations. Note just a few passages. “You shall not bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18). “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1). The New Testament commands us to “be kind to one another” (Ephesians 4:32). Paul commanded Titus to “to be uncontentious, gentle, showing every consideration for all men” (Titus 3:2).

The pastor is to reflect Christ’s love in his personal interactions, and love is described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.

Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Scripture teaches that the natural works of the flesh lead to terrible human relationships filled with hatred, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions (Galatians 5:20). But when we walk in the Spirit, the fruit demonstrated in our lives will be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). If a pastor loves Christ and walks in the Spirit, his people skills will grow! That’s why our congregations expect pastors to deal with people in love and wisdom…and that is not an unreasonable expectation.

The simple truth is that pastors and their wives want to be loved by their congregations. But I say to pastors and pastors wives: if you want to be loved by your flock, then you must first love them. Know them. Serve them. Respect them. Laugh with them. Cry with them. If you want to be loved, you have to love others first.

Pastors need to understand the power of building relationships among the people of their church, skillfully developing and utilizing the process of inter-relationships. Connecting with people, in person-to-person relationships, is the way of the wise pastor. Because the pastor’s effectiveness in ministry is determined by his relationships with people, an hour of personal time with someone in your congregation can have more impact than a dozen sermons. And one hour of personal time most definitely will have an impact on that person’s attention the next Sunday when the pastor is preaching.

Ministry takes place in the context of relationships. We do not minister to pews and bricks and books. We minister to people who desperately need to be changed into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. And what changes people is the truth of God’s Word in the context of relationship.

The world’s answer

The leaders of the world know the value of interpersonal skills. The book How to Win Friends and Influence People was written by Dale Carnegie and first published in 1936. Tens of millions of copies have been sold world-wide and the book’s title has become a familiar catch-word. Carnegie’s premise was that if you want to influence people, then you must win friends.

Although the pastor may chafe at taking advice from Dale Carnegie (“What does that man have to say to me?!”), I think many pastors could learn a few things from what Carnegie taught. I am committed to the sufficiency of Scripture to counsel pastors in their interpersonal skills. And I know Carnegie was not inspired nor did he attempt to teach from the Bible, and I agree that he was just a man, sharing practical tips from his own experience and at times he seemed to advocate techniques that may seem manipulative. But from what I have experienced and observed in churches, parsonages, seminaries and Bible colleges, many pastors could use a little advice from Carnegie if they filter his advice through their own Scriptural worldview.

Below are the four main components of How to Win Friends and Influence People, with the subsections listed. Look these over and consider your interpersonal skills.

Fundamental techniques in handling people

  1. Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.
  2. Give honest and sincere appreciation.
  3. Arouse in the other person an eager want.

Six ways to make people like you

  1. Become genuinely interested in other people.
  2. Smile.
  3. Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
  4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
  5. Talk in terms of the other person’s interest.
  6. Make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely.

Twelve ways to win people to your way of thinking

  1. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
  2. Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re Wrong.”
  3. If you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
  4. Begin in a friendly way.
  5. Start with questions to which the other person will answer yes.
  6. Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
  7. Let the other person feel the idea is his or hers.
  8. Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
  9. Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.
  10. Appeal to the nobler motives.
  11. Dramatize your ideas.
  12. Throw down a challenge.

Be a leader: how to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment

  1. Begin with praise and honest appreciation.
  2. Call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly.
  3. Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.
  4. Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
  5. Let the other person save face.
  6. Praise every improvement.
  7. Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.
  8. Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct.
  9. Make the other person happy about doing what you suggest.

Conclusion

I challenge you to re-read the Bible passages above and consider your own people skills, or lack thereof. Ask your wife to read this article and then tell you the points you need to work on. And since so many of the pastor’s interpersonal problems come from his wife’s own relationships at church, after carefully listening to your wife’s input regarding this article…graciously offer to your wife the points she can work on. See if there is anything both of you can learn from the revealed Word of God and the uninspired advice from Dale Carnegie.

The pastor needs the ability to interact with people in a friendly way and with courtesy, compassion, and empathy. He needs to be “others oriented” as opposed to being self-absorbed or task driven. The pastor must interact with people and ask sincere questions demonstrating concern, communicating both verbally and non-verbally in ways that demonstrate courtesy and love. If he fails at much of the above his ministry is hindered and he may even be fired from his church!

No pastor wants that. This is serious.

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There are 5 Comments

jimfrank's picture

Les Lofquist quoted a young pastor with good people skills:

At the close of our conversation, he said something quite profound: “That’s so strange. Why would you become a pastor if you don’t love people?”

Indeed!

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I see his point, but it's really not that simple. In Scripture, love is a commitment to helping others--and doesn't always correlate to a high level of intuitive ability in interacting with people and leading them or a natural enjoyment of hanging out with them. In short, you can love people and not like people.

Of if that sounds unbelievable, try this: you can love people and be shy.

In my experience, the latter is far more common among pastors than the classic "extrovert" types realize. If we removed them all from ministry, we'd have an extreme shortage of leaders. And being a natural people-person is not among the biblical qualifications.

So what that means is that many good pastors or potentially good pastors need a whole lot of help with people skills. They are superb students of the Word, and all the time they spending reflecting on life and the implications of Scripture for life, deepens their teaching. But they are not confident when it comes to the kinds of things Les talks about in this piece. They don't have a knack for winning friends and influencing people.

But there is another category.... guys in the pastorate who are not shy/reserved/socially awkward; they simply do not care about people. So these are aggressive, pushy, abrasive, brutish. These are the kind that never should have become pastors. You can learn people skills. You can't really "learn" to care about people (though you can choose).

Steven Thomas's picture

Let me begin with the obligatory disclaimers:  every pastor should love his people; every pastor should speak the truth in love; every pastor should be involved in people’s lives.  Having gotten that out of the way, let me offer three observations in ascending order of importance.

First, it seems to me that this article sets up a false dichotomy between the pastor who possesses highly polished people skills versus the pastor who is “self-absorbed or task driven.”  There are many other options.  Pastors possess a wide variety of personality traits.  Aaron mentioned some who are shy.  Others are naturally introverted.  We all need to work with what we have and do our best for God's glory.  The people skills the author describes strike me as a bit of a caricature found in very few men.  I am sure that author does not mean to force every pastor into the same mold, but unfortunately, too many church members use this kind of description as a litmus test.  Let me suggest that this flows into the unhealthy assumption that pastors occupy a different tier of Christian experience, that they must be exceptional.  In reality, the qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy 3 are simply descriptions of the normal Christian life (with the exception of “able to teach”).  In other words, a pastor must be a man who exhibits Christian character.  Did you notice that not a single passage of Scripture quoted in this article has anything to say specifically to pastors?  They all contain general instructions incumbent on all of God’s people.  So let’s all be kind and loving to each other.

Second, I think this takes us in the direction of philosophy of ministry that could become problematic.  If a church member’s spiritual vitality depends on a personal relationship with the pastor, what does that mean for a large church pastor?  It is impossible for him to spend time with each member individually.  If his solution is to invest time in the lives of a few whom he trains to minister to others (as seems both reasonable and biblical), why would that not be acceptable in a smaller church setting?  It seems consistent with Ephesians 4:11-12.  Frankly, if we create the expectation that the pastor’s role is primarily relational, I don’t know how that can fail to devalue the public preaching/teaching of the Scriptures and crowd out the time necessary to do it justice. 

Finally, my deepest concern stems from the fact that Dale Carnegie’s book plays so prominent a role in this article.  Self-help books resonate with wide audiences because they do describe our common human problems.  They also frequently provide some helpful suggestions.  This is a matter of common grace.  However, this book and many other relational instruction guides find their philosophical mooring in the idolatry that Jesus described, “For even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32).  For a good review of a similar kind of work, see Dave Powlison’s article, “Love Speaks Many Languages Fluently” in The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Fall 2002.  For that matter, his book, Speaking Truth in Love, would provide far better guidance than Carnegie. 

I am always amused by books and articles that try to make Jesus the quintessential example of all things warm and fuzzy.  The author challenges us to ask, “What do Christlike interpersonal relationship skills look like?”  But he doesn’t deal with passages where Jesus says things such as, “Let the dead bury their dead; woe to you, hypocrites; you brood of snakes and vipers; get behind me, Satan; are you so dull of understanding,” etc., etc., etc.  This is the same Jesus who overturned tables, used a whip, and spoke words so offensive that thousands of followers deserted him in a single day.  Please do not misunderstand; I am not advocating that we follow his example—and that is the point.  Let’s follow the instructions that we have in the epistles given specifically to pastors.  One wonders how Paul would have fared if evaluated by the litmus test of Carnegie’s principles. 

Steven Thomas

AJWhit's picture

Thanks, Les.  You outline simple yet profound ways for Christians, whether as pastors or lay persons (I agree with Thomas that an application beyond pastors can be made here; the verses mentioned seemed to be geared at believers in general), to express love and care towards others.  For many of us, including myself, we find it dangerously easy to hide behind our walls of "it is not my personality" or "I am just not a natural people-person."  God certainly creates every personality uniquely, but by allowing Scripture to mold our lives and by following practical suggestions of those with greater strength in this area, we as Christians can all become more "others-centered."  And this will play out differently in all of us!  Good thoughts.  

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

To Steve.... I think you have some valid concerns there. But Les' article is actually introductory in that particular issue of Voice. Most of the others shift to a "how to..." emphasis, with some really helpful stuff for pastors who are not naturally strong in people skills.

The idea isn't that everything depends on winning friends and influencing people or that pastors are in a special tier, etc. (Their work clearly is in special category, so...). There is no question that both Jesus and the apostles excelled in "working with people" and those in pastoral ministry should aim to do the same.

As for passages, the article may not quote many, but they do exist and most are pretty familiar...

1Tim 6:11 speaks of gentleness, as does 2 Tim. 2:25. Another fine example of the importance of people skills for pastors:

Titus 3:2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.

Then we have the titles of Elder and Shepherd. Both of these are people-skill terms loaded with implications.

We'll be posting more from that issue of Voice soon--probably later this week.

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