So Pastor, what’s your point?

Dennis Prutow recently wrote a great book on preaching called So, Pastor, What’s Your Point. His point was that we can preach for 40 minutes plus and leave people none the wiser. “What was all that about?” people ask each other as they leave. There may have been lots of good ideas but no real point to what was being said.

And that’s not only true of preaching, it’s true of all our communications: emails, announcements, comments at elder’s meetings, etc.

Here are five suggestions to help improve pastoral communication:

1. Cut the words
We can confuse our hearers by saying too little, by not explaining enough. Sometimes we assume too much; we think that everyone knows the background as we do. Sometimes we don’t trust people enough; we think they will misunderstand or that they shouldn’t really know this anyway. Whether over-assuming or under-trusting, the end result is that people are left scratching their heads…or shaking them!

However, by far the most common problem for pastors is at the other end of the scale. They confuse and bamboozle by verbosity. It is one of the hardest yet most essential skills a pastor can acquire – to summarize and simplify. Can I shorten this sentence? Can I use smaller words? Can I be less abstract and more concrete? Can I illustrate? Do I need to say the same thing three times? Do I need to say this at all?

2. Consider the purpose
What are you trying to achieve with this message? When you ask such questions you start thinking about more than just the words; you consider body-language, clothing, environment, etc. If you are wanting to show care to a lonely single mother, you don’t do that by dressing like a teenager and visiting her late at night alone. If you want to persuade a young woman not to marry a non-Christian guy, then you don’t address that with her in front of the Youth Group. If you want to comfort a man on the loss of his wife, then you don’t do that in a restaurant with the possibility of him breaking down in public.

3. Create the hearing scenario in your mind
The Indian proverb says, “Try to walk a mile in another person’s moccasins.” A skillful communicator is able to sympathize and empathize with those he is communicating with. He is able to imagine what it is like to live their life and be in their situation. He looks at the background, the history, the pressures, the stresses, the health issues, the job situation, etc., and tries to live in that world by imagination. And then he tries to hear/read his message as if living their life. We have to ask not just, “How am I going to say this?” but also, “How is this going to be heard?”

4. Consult with others
Some preachers run their sermons past their elders, and some even do the same with their wives! I’ve never done that and I don’t recommend it. That can become a bondage and unduly influence what God has given us to say. The only exception I would make is if you are dealing with a particularly sensitive issue. Then it might be worth passing it by someone.

And that’s where I believe consultation comes in most – when dealing with sensitive issues. If the elders ask you to address the congregation on a potentially controversial or divisive issue, then make sure every elder signs off on the statement before it is issued. Give enough time for feedback and incorporate as much as you can before sending it out to them again for final approval.

If you are dealing with criticism, then ask a trusted person or two to review your response if written, or to consult with you beforehand and then come with you if you are going to be face-to-face with the person.

If you blog, tweet, Facebook, or publish congregational newsletters, again it is worth having one or two people who will keep you accountable and who will give you feedback about the impression you are giving.

5. Check motivation

If our motivation is wrong, then our communication is also bound to go wrong in tone or content. Why am I writing this or saying this? Is it to make myself look good? Is it to attack someone and prove them wrong? Is it to keep a person or family in the church at all costs?

Isn’t it appropriate that the Epistle dealing most with communication, begins with a promise: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).

Pastors and communication: 4 questions

The pastor is in the communication business. Whatever else he is, he is a communicator. Everything he does is about communication. Communication is his “product” or “service.” Whether he is preaching, counseling, chairing a board of elders, emailing, blogging, facebooking, writing newsletters, evangelizing, meeting someone on the street, or even just standing in a public place – he is communicating; he is communicating a message. His words, his expressions, his tone of voice, his body language, and even his clothes are communicating a message. An awareness of this continuous communication mode is the first step we take in becoming good communicators. There is no point in being a skillful preacher, if our person-to-person communication skills are poor. The one will undermine the other. We can be as eloquent as Cicero, but if we spell like an infant in our emails then our credibility and reliability will be undermined. So, here are four preliminary questions to consider in all pastoral communication.

1. What is my message?
Whether we are preaching, leading a Bible study, visiting a sick person, or writing a report, we need a clear statement of purpose. What do I want to get across here? And can I sum it up in a simple sentence? 

2. Is my message accurate?
Is this true? Am I telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? We hope that spiritual leaders would never intentionally tell a lie. However, it can be very tempting to tell the truth, but not the whole truth, especially when we are facing problems in a congregation or in a personal relationship. We may hold back something that does not present ourselves in the best possible light.

3. Is my message appropriate?
We can be clear and truthful about our message and yet fail to communicate because our message may use words that are too big, or sentences that are too long. Alternatively, if we are addressing educated and mature Christians, we must not come across as condescending and demeaning.

And what about the tone of the message? If dealing with hurt and wounded people, am I communicating like a sympathetic friend, or like a math teacher dealing with statistics? If communicating with critics, am I addressing them as an angry opponent out to win an argument, or as a gentle peacemaker out to win them over. If dealing with serious sin, am I communicating the gravity of the situation, or am I trying to sweeten the bitter pill with lashings of comedy?

4. Is this the right medium?

The pastor has many vehicles for his words today. On top of sermons, he has bible studies, fellowship meetings, counseling sessions, family visitation, private conversation, email, private letters, congregational newsletters, pulpit announcements, telephone, letters to newspapers, blogs, podcasts, etc. The medium is part of the message and has to be chosen wisely if we do not want to damage the message itself.

Connected Kingdom: Q&A

Download here.

In this week’s episode of The Connected Kingdom, Tim and I answer some questions asked by you, the people who listen in. We answer (or attempt to answer):

  • Is there any value in critiquing a book like Rob Bell’s Love Wins or are we just giving him press?
  • Should Bible translations be copyrighted?
  • What is the importance of church membership?
  • Should members of churches have privileges that non-members do not?
  • How can I help my teens become self-directing in their use of technology?
  • Why do you believe what you believe about baptism?

Sorry this is a day late. Tim decided to post a book review of Rob Bell’s new book, and just about brought the worldwide web to a halt.

If you want to give us feedback or join in the discussion, go ahead and look up our Facebook Group or leave a comment right here. You will always be able to find the most recent episode here on the blog. If you would like to subscribe via iTunes, you can do that here or if you want to subscribe with another audio player, you can try this RSS link.

5 questions to ask a depressed person

When I start counseling a depressed person, I’m looking for answers to five questions at an early stage in the conversation. I don’t ask them in a checklist or condemning manner, but I try to probe sympathetically to get a sense of where they are at.

1. Do you accept you have a problem?
Don’t assume that just because a person has come for counseling, that he accepts he has a problem. Family pressure rather than personal choice may have put him there. It is very common for a depressed person to be in denial about the existence, the nature, or the extent of the problem. Sometimes this denial is wilful pride, but sometimes it is because depression can creep over a person so slowly that they do not realize that it has happened. And, of course, part of depression is an inability to see oneself in a true and realistic light.

2. Are you willing to explore all the possible dimensions of this problem?

Once a person has accepted that he has a problem, I want to know how open they are to looking at the problem from a number of angles. Some people will only want to look at the spiritual dimension, and are looking for bible verses; others only want to talk about the physical dimension, and are looking for a pill; still others are only interested in looking back to find all the people and events that have contributed to their problems. But, unless a person is willing to explore all the possible dimensions of depression – physical, spiritual, mental, social, etc., – most counseling effort will be frustratingly handicapped. 

3. Do you want to be made whole?

This was the question Jesus asked of the lame man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:6). At first glance it may seem like a silly question. Surely every sick person wants to be made whole! Surely everyone with problems wants them solved! However, Christ’s challenging question seems to imply that this man had settled into the role of “victim” and no longer wanted to get better. Sometimes a depressed person can also adopt this mindset. Perhaps they are frightened of all the responsibilities of life that might come upon them should they be viewed as well again. Perhaps they would miss the attention and sympathy that being ill often generates. So, we gently ask, “Do you really want to be made whole?” And that leads us to the next question.

4. Are you willing to do what you can to contribute to the healing process
Doctors and pastors are often faced with the frustrating situation of people who need their help, yet are not taking the steps required to benefit from this help: practical suggestions are not followed through, Scripture is not read, necessary medication is not taken, friendships are shunned, etc. Depressed people often need to be encouraged out of passivity and into taking some responsibility.

5. Do you trust me when I tell you that you have good hope of recovery?
As hope is such an important part of recovering from depression, I’d like to ask “Do you have hope of getting better?” However, as depression usually involves a general sense of hopelessness, initially I ask them to trust me that there is hope, rather than have that hope themselves. I encourage them with statistics (the vast majority of depressed people do eventually recover), and with stories of other people I’ve seen get better. After a few meetings I usually see people beginning to adopt the hope themselves, and that is such an accelerator of healing.

Again, I want to emphasize that this questioning is to be done in a caring and compassionate way. And I’m not saying, “Unless you get the right answers right away, you might as well not even start.” However, I’ve found that these questions usually reveal enough to indicate how fruitful any future counseling will be.

Christians get depressed too at Reformation Heritage Books, Ligonier, and Amazon.