Brief Encounters

“Hi Laurie!  Hi Gary!”  Gary and I were eating lunch in a downtown Grand Rapids restaurant on a recent Friday when a woman at the next table recognized my voice.  The person was vaguely familiar, but I just couldn’t place her. 

Was she from First Church?  I have a pretty good memory for names and faces, but two years after leaving First Church, I’ve forgotten a few names of those who were not real active.  Or was she from a previous church I served?  Then again, was she from one of the 70 churches in the Grand Rapids District? 

One glance at Gary revealed that he, too, was baffled.  After working together for 13 years, we’ve developed a system of sorts.  If one of us knows the name of the person in question, we say it right away so the other can get on track.  Since he was quiet, I had to go fishing.

The person looked a bit like Janet, from First Church, but not really.  Should I risk calling her Janet, should I just confess that I didn’t remember her name, or should I engage her in conversation, hoping she might reveal some clues as to her identity?  All the while I’m thinking, I don’t need this stress on my day off.  I just want a quiet lunch with my husband!

Knowing that Janet had some medical health issues, I decided to ask how her health was.  She looked a bit puzzled.  Well, I guess it’s not Janet, I thought.  Finally, she mentioned her husband’s name, and the pieces fit together.  It was Joanna, a young woman from First Church I hadn’t seen in about five years. 

One of the most important aspects of ministry is what I like to call the “brief encounter.”  Most pastors equate brief encounters with the greeting line after worship.  This is the one time of the week when we have the most concentrated contact with the most number of people.  It’s incredible how much ministry can happen in 30 second conversations before and after worship.    

Mingling at coffee hour is another crucial opportunity for both evangelism and pastoral care.  Church shoppers will often give a church only one chance to positively affect them before heading to another church the next Sunday.  First-time visitors will not forget their initial impressions of you as you ask their names and express gratitude for their visit. 

Brief encounters also happen numerous times during the week because pastors are public figures.  Many people in our community know who we.  Everywhere we go, whether at church, at school, at the store, or in the football stands, we come in contact with people who know us, even though we may not know them well, if at all.  How can we interact with people during these brief encounters in a way that witnesses to the grace and hope of the gospel? 

Here are a few helpful hints I’ve learned over the years, some the hard way!

1.         Convey warmth and genuine concern by giving people your full attention.  Make eye contact.  Smile.  Let your face and body convey openness.  Tell them know how very glad you are to meet them.  When my pastor in high school shook hands after church, he actually guided each person’s hand out the door, thus making room for the next person.  The message he conveyed was that he was rushing us along.  I felt as if I were on an assembly line.  You’d be amazed at how much ministry can be done in 30 seconds when people know you are fully present to them.

2.         Calling parishioners and visitors by name makes up for many other pastoral deficiencies.  If you’ve just been appointed to a new church, memorize the faces and names in the church directory.  Keep a pen and paper in your pocket so you can write down names you want to remember.  More than once I’ve boldly ventured a name that was wrong.  It’s embarrassing, but people are always gracious – and it does help me to never forget that particular name again!

3.         Listen actively.  If people know you are really listening, they will tell you amazing things in brief encounters.  Even from virtual strangers, you will learn about divorces, deaths, domestic violence, depression and hospitalizations if you listen actively.  Many times you’ll need to follow up later with an extended conversation.  Remembering that follow-up is another reason to always carry a pad of paper.

4.         Introduce yourself to people you don’t know, even though they most likely already know your name.  That way they will be prompted to give you their name, which they might not otherwise do.  It reminds me of the times people call on the phone, saying, “Hi, it’s Debbie,” then begin talking a mile a minute.  All the time I’m thinking, “Debbie who?  I know 15 different Debbies in 15 different churches.”  Then there are the people who call, say “Hi” and begin talking without telling me their first name at all!  Finally, I have to say, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’m not sure who you are.  Can you tell me your name?”  I often start a conversation with, “Hi, my name is Laurie Haller.”  It works every time. 

5.         Do not neglect children, youth and the elderly when “working the crowd.”  Intentionally seek out those who are in the corners or who may not ever come to you.  Remember, you are a pastor to all. 

One time a seminarian heard Desmond Tutu speak.  The student remarked, “Today I met a holy man.”  When asked to elaborate, the seminarian said that in Tutu’s presence he was able to experience Christ in his own life.  In 30 seconds, it is possible to be a vessel of God’s grace and a window to Christ for another.  Most people will probably remember little of what you’ve preached, but they will never forget that you care about them. 

I don’t know if Joanna realized that I didn’t remember her name.  But I do hope she felt a touch of holiness and grace from our brief encounter.  I can’t say that I’ll recognize her the next time we meet, but if we do, I think I’ll just introduce myself first. 



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