Journeying through misunderstanding

What should a pastor do when communication breaks down?

Alger Keough is senior pastor of the Hinsdale Seventhday Adventist Church in Hinsdale, Illinois.

The church leaders sat in my office discussing their area of ministry. Several items had been processed when the request was made. "We would like to redecorate one of the rooms, and are asking for your permission." The request was neither unusual nor new. But the church leaders who made the request considered it of high priority, while I gave it a low priority.

Normal church process required the involvement and approval of the facilities committee, finance committee, and church board. Matters could be expedited, however, if the details were handled beforehand. So I met with my leaders and suggested: "Why not prepare a proposal with details on cost, color, and carpet quality? I'll present it to the staff for approval and have it reviewed informally by some volunteers who help with decorating issues." To make everything clear, I asked the leaders three times if they understood everything involved and whether they had any further questions. I congratulated myself on a brilliant solution to what could have been a difficult matter to process. The leaders got what they wanted the redecorating of the room.

The situation

But I was in for a shock. Two weeks later I received a copy of a letter one of the leaders (call her Betty) had written to the finance committee chair. She would have no part with the renovation of the room, because I obviously did not trust her judgment. Instead I trusted others to make the final decisions.

Everything I had attempted to avoid happened. What was worse, Betty was not even willing to communicate directly with me, but sought a third-party forum. She had totally misunderstood me. I thought I had been very affirming of the abilities and judgments of my leaders. I had "empowered" them, as pastors are encouraged to do. But I discovered that "managing people is like herding cats." 1

The issues

I also discovered that my integrity was under attack. So what was I to do? Of course, there were the usual emotional responses, but they led nowhere. So I forced myself to look objectively at the issues. The result was some startling pointers.

Be accountable. I am responsible only for my words, actions, and decisions. To psychoanalyze other persons is a futile exercise. My pastoral counseling training never included that level of expertise. On the other hand, I do believe it is appropriate to take time to understand others, particularly the generational, cultural, and gender factors that affect interpersonal relationships and understanding.

Follow biblical counsel. The biblical method of relating to others is to treat others "as I would want to be treated." To me this principle is foundational, in both personal and professional relationships. Too many Christians think of this as a nice, but not practical, idea. So they tend to excuse their errors and see themselves as doing the best they can under the circumstances; they pardon their own sin.

The Bible also admonishes us to "judge not." When there is no judgment, who is at fault is not an issue. So I did not waste any energy, emotional or otherwise, on pinning down the blame for what had gone wrong. It happened. Period. I decided to follow Jesus' method outlined in Matthew 18.

Adhere to your values. In dealing with the renovation issue, I had violated two of my personal values. First, authenticity. Instead of being up-front with my ideas, I tried to be clever and political. Betty is a very intuitive person; she thought I was not being genuine. I was responsible for raising red flags in her mind. Warren Bennis states, "To be authentic is literally to be your own author ..., to discover your native energies and desires, and then to find your own way of acting on them.... When you write your own life, you play the game that is natural for you to play. You keep covenant with your own promise."2 I had broken my promise to be authentic.

Second, there is the value of compassion. By politicizing the situation, I neglected to understand the real motivation of the leaders who wanted the renovation. Betty saw it as her "duty" to work for the church and preferred a style of being on a "team." But my instincts stressed "individuality."3 We were approaching the tasks from totally different perspectives. I failed to under stand her. No wonder she misunderstood me!

Appreciate differences in perspective. Betty and other leaders were doing their honest best to accomplish their responsibilities. Their "piece of the pie" was the whole pie as they saw it. That was because they did not see the rest of the church's ministry. Instead of being authentic and bringing them on board with all that was going on in the rest of the church, I left them ignorant and isolated. I played down to them. I did not communicate effectively. I did not understand the difference in perspectives.

The resolution

What should I do? Where should I go? First I turned to the Lord. I prayed for two things: for wisdom to know how to bring about effective changes without hurting positive working relationships, and for an opportunity to speak with Betty.

The opportunity came.

As Betty and I sat in my office, I turned to the value of authenticity. I accepted my responsibility. I admitted that so far, I had not been an effective communicator. I shared with Betty what I really wanted. I let her know my dreams for the church, my hopes and desires. I painted the big picture of how I saw the church, and where it needed to be going. I gave her copies of documents on which the board of elders and church board were working. There were illustrations of how we could accomplish our goals.

Betty began to want what I wanted. The paradigms shifted, or at least focused. The values and goals were nearly the same.

Misunderstanding and conflict are in the past now. Betty and I have a healthy working relationship. Working with the pastoral staff, she is involved in a new ministry of care sending cards to the bereaved, notes of encouragement to the despondent, birthday cards, congratulations, whatever is needed to support the members of the congregation. She prepares everything, has the pastors sign the cards and add a short personal note, and then she mails them.

Effective communication skills

Most misunderstandings in pastoral relationships come as a result of poor communication. "The problem stems from two sources: one is being human; and the other is forgetting that others are human too."4 Emotions and prior experiences affect our understanding of each other. While we may guess at how a person might respond in any given interchange, let's face it: humans are unpredictable.

So how shall we improve interpersonal communications and reduce misunderstandings? Helping others express themselves is a first step.5 Guessing at what others are thinking or understanding is usually ineffective.

After a worship service the pastor's wife was in conversation with another woman. The conversation was lengthy, and the pastor had another appointment that had to be met. Not wanting to interrupt, but needing to let his wife know that he was leaving, the pastor stopped just long enough to whisper the information to his wife. He then quickly left the room. The other woman remarked that the pastor seemed indifferent to her, since he had neglected to greet her. The pastor's wife, knowing better how her husband functioned, was able to clear up the communication error. Respect for privacy had been interpreted as indifference! If the woman had never expressed herself, but had kept her thoughts to herself, the error would not have been corrected.

The second step is to encourage people to be aware of their own feelings.6 During a premarital counseling session one young woman was placing her future husband high on a pedestal. Discussion revealed why. Her mother was always critical of her father. The young woman was unconsciously reacting to her parents' relationship and allowed her feelings to alter her perceptions of her future husband. Identifying her own feelings helped her gain perspective and accept her man for what he really was.

Step three is to accept emotions without being critical of them.7 Once a person has expressed emotions, to give any judgment, criticism, or snide comment would instantly be interpreted as an attack, causing the person to retreat.

This is a time to graciously apply the golden rule.

1 Warren Bennis, Managing People Is Like
Herding Cats
(Provo, Utah: Executive
Excellence Publishing, 1997).

2 Ibid.,p. 9.


3 J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman,
Rocking the Ages (New York: Harper Business,
1997), p. 9.


4 Jesse S. Nirenberg, Getting Through to
People
(Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall,
Inc., 1963), p. 1.


5 Ibid.,p. 53.

6 Ibid., p. 56.

7 Ibid., p. 59.

 

 

Continuing education exercise

Reflection exercises:


1. Make a short list of your personal values. Focus. Be succinct. Authenticity
includes individuality as well as honesty.

2. Spend an hour watching two of your favorite television situation, comedies.
Videotape the hour. Then watch the episodes a second and third time,
analyzing the nonverbal communication (tone, body language, etc.).

3. Take an hour with your spouse. No interruptions. Ask him or her to critique
lovingly your communication style. Express yourself. Accept yourself. Make a
list of no more than three areas in which you will make a conscious effort to
improve your communication skills. Journal the experiences that follow.

4. Make a list of scriptural texts that define how we should relate to one
another. Choose three that speak to your personal interactions, with others.
Consciously live by the principles each day.

5. Attend a board meeting that another person is chairing. Take notes. Observe
the participation by the various age groups present. How  did the perspectives
of each generation differ? What are the common values? How are the
outcomes of the meeting affected by the representation level from each age
group?

 

Suggested reading:

Bennis, Warren. Managing People Is Like Herding Cats. Proro, Utah: Executive
Excellence Publishing, 1997- An excellent look at leadership issues, with
implications for pastoral leadership and communication.

Nirenberg, Jesse S. Getting Through to People. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-
Hall, Inc., 1963. Detailed and practical guide for effective communication.
Smith, J. Walker, and Ann Clurman. Rocking the Ages. New York: Harper
Business, 1997. Fascinating descriptions of generational distinctions and
how they affect communication.


Tannen, Deborah. That's Not What I Meant! New York: Ballantine Books, 1986.
Easy reading on how conversational style makes or breaks relationships.


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Alger Keough is senior pastor of the Hinsdale Seventhday Adventist Church in Hinsdale, Illinois.

October 1997

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