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).

  • Steve

    So, you heard my sermon this Sunday! After preaching the past two weeks, I have the growing awareness that economy of words is not my strength. I must give much more attention to this in the preparation. Thank you for the great reminder!

  • David Murray

    No Steve. I heard myself ;)