Relational skills

I found a seat in the sanctuary on a recent Sunday morning and was reading the bulletin when I overhead 2 couples extolling their pastor.  “Don’t you just love Pastor Joe?  He officiated at my brother’s wedding recently and made it so personal.”  “We have such a large congregation, yet he knows my name.”  “And don’t you think his sermons are amazing?  Every time he preaches it seems as if he is speaking just to me.”

This is appointment season in the West Michigan Conference.  Bishop Keaton and the 6 district superintendents spend much time in prayer and discernment as we determine the appointment of pastors to churches.  As part of the consultation process, I meet with Staff Parish Relations Committees of district churches whose current pastor is retiring, seeking another status, or has been reappointed.  My primary question is, “What kind of pastor does your congregation need in order to fulfill its mission and vision?  What skills are you are looking for in your new pastor?” 

You can probably guess the top answers, which usually include preaching, administration, pastoral care, teaching, and empowering laity to use their spiritual gifts.  However, many SPRC’s mention another quality which undergirds all the others, “Our new pastor needs to be able to relate to people of all ages.  It is critical for our pastor to connect with us and for us to connect with him/her.”

Clergy may be among the most intelligent and well read people in their congregations.  However, if they are not able to build trusting relationships or comfortably interact with a wide variety of people, they may not be able to lead effectively or communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ in ways that are compelling, transformative, and speak to the heart.  After all, the essence of Christianity is found in relationship: our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  It is painful to hear Staff Parish Relations Committees lament pastors who:

  • retreat to their office after church rather than greet people at coffee hour, which is arguably the most important hour of the week for connecting with parishioners
  • are uncomfortable visiting people in hospitals and nursing homes
  • don’t know how to interface with children and youth in the congregation
  • talk about themselves constantly and don’t listen well
  • seem so withdrawn that parishioners cannot get to know them through their preaching or personal conversations
  • are not able to pick up on social cues

Sometimes we confuse social skills with introversion and extroversion.  Studies have shown that most churches view their ideal pastor as an extrovert, someone with wit, charm, charisma, and a magnetic personality.  The perfect pastor not only takes the initiative to talk with every person in the congregation every Sunday but stops and chats for 10 minutes with every parishioner he/she meets in the grocery, school or post office.  He/she will even twitter the congregation at least once a day!

After all, don’t pastors represent churches, which by their very nature should be extroverted?  We are called to reach out beyond the walls of the church to minister to the needs of our communities.  We constantly remind people to greet visitors, display gracious hospitality, and participate in group activities.  Our churches claim to be the body of Christ, which is not a private club just for some but a place for all to belong.

Here’s the rub.  While most people may prefer their pastor to be an extrovert, studies have also shown that most clergy are introverts.  This does not have to be discouraging news, however, if we understand the nature of introversion and extroversion.  Simply put, introverts gain energy by being alone, and extroverts gain energy by being with other people. 

Introverts are usually good listeners, are reflective, think before they speak, and do not seek to be the center of attention.  They are often more comfortable with one on one rather than large group interactions.  On the other hand, extroverts are often the first to speak, think things through out loud, love being around groups of people, and can be the life of the party.

After mingling with dozens of people for 30 minutes in the fellowship hall after worship, the introvert says, “Why are you still here?  It’s time to go home!”   The extrovert says, “Hey, why is everybody going home?  We’re just getting started!”  Introverts are reluctant to share details of their personal life in group settings, whereas extroverts are more outwardly expressive.  An introvert prefers to use the time before worship to be quiet and meditate, while the extrovert is busy greeting his/her friends in the pews.

It’s no secret that I am a classic introvert.  To restore my energy, I need to spend time alone.  At the same time, over the years I have learned the importance of making myself available, connecting with people, and taking the initiative in conversations.  I can be an extrovert when I need to be.  However, by the time Friday comes around (my day off), I am usually so depleted from a week of non-stop interaction with individuals and groups that I love to simply hole up and be quiet.

The reality is that both introverts and extroverts can be outstanding pastors if they have highly developed relational skills.  We do a disservice to ourselves and others when we assume that all introverts are shy and have a low social IQ, and that only extroverts can successfully lead.  Most introverts are well aware of social nuances, customs, and mannerisms when relating to people of vastly different personalities.  In fact, Jim Collins claims in his bestseller Good to Great that it’s not the flashy, charismatic people who can best lead their companies to greatness.  It’s humble, low key leaders who do not let their ego needs get in the way of the mission of the organization.

Was Jesus an extrovert or an introvert?  In his 2009 book, Introverts in the Church: Finding our Place in an Extroverted Culture, Adam McHugh writes that when  students at a Christian college were asked to rate Jesus according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, 97% rated Jesus as an extrovert, although only half the class were extroverts.

On the other hand, the gospels give us clues that Jesus may have been an introvert.  I can just imagine Jesus giving himself totally to his ministry: teaching, preaching, healing, consoling, challenging, and listening.  He felt comfortable around all kinds of people in many different situations.  At the same time, Jesus was quite aware of his own energy level and would withdraw to a quiet place when he felt the need to reconnect with himself and God.  In the lectionary gospel lesson for the upcoming first Sunday of Lent (the temptation of Jesus in Luke 4:1-13), did you notice who sent Jesus into the wilderness?  It was the Spirit, not the devil.  Jesus needed to spend that time alone with God in order to wrestle with his call, discern the course of his ministry, and prepare himself for the journey ahead.

The key to social skills is self-awareness.  We need to know who we are, what makes our personality tick, and how we can best relate to our congregation.  We have to constantly check ourselves to determine if we are acting out of our own needs or the needs of others.

If we are an introvert, we have to learn how to actively engage individuals and groups.  Rather than sit in our office all day, we have to be intentional about socializing and interact with others.  If we are an extrovert, we have to be careful to listen to others rather than always share our view, our opinions, and our story.  We also have to recognize when we are seeking attention from others rather than offering our attention to others.

I wholeheartedly agree with Staff Parish Relations Committees who understand the importance of relational skills in their pastoral and lay leadership. 

  • What matters for any leader in the church is not where we get our energy.  What matters is that we love people.
  • What matters is not that we are a warm fuzzy but simply that we are warm.
  • What matters is not that we have a bubbly personality but that we are authentic, put others at ease, listen well, and connect with others heart to heart.
  • What matters is not that the church is pastor-dependent and revolves around our personality.  What matters is that we know our parishioners well enough to help them discover and use their gifts to further the vision, mission, and strategic goals of the church and make a positive difference in the world.

Now, about that coffee hour.  Which side of the room is for the introverts?

Blessings, Laurie

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