Communication can make or break the success of a pastor and a church. Grace & Peace Magazine invited three seasoned district superintendents (pictured L to R), David Downs (DD) of the West Texas District; Jeren Rowell (JR) of the Kansas City District; and M. Kim Smith (KS) of the Iowa District, to converse with us about the intricacies of communication in ministry.
G&P: WHY IS HEALTHY COMMUNICATION IN THE CHURCH SO VITAL?
DD: Communication is the cornerstone of good relationships. So if relationships are important in the local church, certainly communication plays a key role. This applies to staff relationships, too. The whole church should have clear communication up front from the leader, including specific expectations for a project or ministry.
KS: There is so much brokenness in people’s lives, and the temptation is to hear and process things through their own pain and their own agendas. Most often this results in misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and division. Trying to resolve those kinds of misunderstandings requires so much of a pastor’s time. Poor communication and misunderstandings can steal time away from missional focus. So, teaching people how to communicate well helps them to grow personally, spiritually, and certainly relationally in the life of the church.
JR: I agree with what’s been said. I think communicating well in the life of the church is a way of serving one another. It’s really a way of loving one another, of laying down our lives in preference for the other. And we all notice, I think, that when there’s a lack of communication people start to feel disempowered and that’s when trouble sets in.
G&P: WHAT ARE SOME CONSISTENT COMMUNICATION ISSUES YOU HAVE SEEN?
JR: Most commonly, it’s just a lack of clarity, and even a lack of repetition. I think on both sides, whether you’re talking about the pastor or layperson, it’s easy to think that if you have said something once, everybody clearly understood it. One of the challenges for pastors in particular is to accept the reality that you have to say things over and over again, clearly and concisely, so you are understood.
DD: I agree that repetition is important. If I were to pinpoint another major communication problem, it would be the avoidance of direct communication, something that Jesus emphasized very strongly in Matthew 18. When there is conflict, we are supposed to go to the person, sit down, and have a conversation. I realize that we risk being misquoted in those conversations. Many of us have been burned, and so there is a tendency to shy away from face-to-face encounters. We then substitute with communication through email, texting, or through social media. The worst form of communication is passive-aggressive communication from the pulpit. There is a major need for people to re-learn the art of sitting down and having a conversation, even difficult conversations. We are commanded by the Lord to take a direct approach in terms of resolving conflict.
KS: I think in the short time that I have served as a district pastor, I have noted that we sometimes neglect to explain the process of decision making. If we try to implement a decision without explaining the process and the reasons behind the decision, people are generally down on what they are not “up” on, so to speak. The result of that is frustration and sometimes unnecessary phone calls.
G&P: WHAT ARE SOME WARNING SIGNS THAT COMMUNICATION PATTERNS ARE BECOMING UNHEALTHY?
KS: Pastors can recognize unhealthy patterns such as withdrawal from ministry opportunities, decreasing financial support, and general lack of enthusiasm for ministry. Often, behind the scenes phone calls that express confusion and concern regarding what is happening in the church are a key sign.
DD: On the district level, people may begin to accuse the pastor of lying. Often, the pastor is not lying. More often, there is simply a communication problem. So when I hear that the “board is lying,” the “pastor is lying,” even “the district superintendent is lying,” it is almost always a matter of unhealthy or inconsistent communication. Of course, there are times when people are actually being dishonest, and that is an entirely different track of conflict resolution. But when we in the church can communicate consistently and openly with one another, we can prevent many instances of misunderstanding and promote trust.
JR: One of the things we have to be careful about as district superintendents— and this would apply to local church pastors, too—is triangulation. By triangulation I mean trying to play one side against another and placing a third party (the D.S. or the pastor) in the middle. I learned early that one of the first questions I ask is, “When you talked to your pastor about this problem, what did he or she say in response?” Often the response is that they have not spoken with the pastor, usually accompanied by all manner of reasons why. That gives me the opportunity to remind them that if we are not going to follow the Scripture here, then I really can’t help them. When word gets out that a pastor, or in our case a D.S., is going to handle a situation in that kind of healthy way, it fosters healthier relationships and stronger communication.
DD: I agree, Jeren. Very early in those kinds of calls, I say something like, “Before we go further, I want you to realize that it will probably be necessary for me to tell your pastor about this call. It is not right to have a conversation behind his or her back.” You cannot call up a pastor and give him or her a long list of complaints and then say, “but I can’t tell you who it is from.” That is just not scriptural.
G&P: WHAT HELPS FOSTER ONGOING HEALTHY COMMUNICATION IN THE CHURCH?
DD: We as leaders have to be transparent and approachable. We have to be honest about our own struggles and challenges. When I meet with pastors, I have learned not to be afraid of my own areas of weakness and difficulty. That honesty helps prevent a sense of distrust and distance between ourselves and those to whom we minister.
G&P: SO, CHRIST-LIKE VULNERABILITY IS IMPORTANT. WHAT HELPS BRIDGE PERCEIVED GAPS BETWEEN A D.S. AND A PASTOR, AND HOW CAN PASTORS MAKE THE MOST OF THAT RELATIONSHIP TO BECOME BETTER COMMUNICATORS TO THEIR OWN CONGREGATIONS?
KS: I had nine different superintendents in my pastoral ministry, and I remember always viewing them as wise, spiritually mature, and able to teach me something. I wanted be around them, but I wish I would have asked them for more coaching. I was not as proactive in using them as a resource as I could have been. Now, as a D.S., I would like for my pastors to realize that, though I haven’t experienced everything they have, in 38 of pastoral ministry I have had some experiences and have seen some things that can be helpful to them. My desire is not to simply correct them but to be their friend and speak into their lives in a helpful way.
DD: I agree that we as leaders need to be approachable, and we have to take initiative in that, to assist those who may think we are too busy or are not approachable. The district superintendents I remember most in my 40 years of ministry are those who were not afraid to take initiative, especially in my early years of ministry. In my first pastorate, my D.S. stopped by and apologized to me—I was a 24-year-old pastor—for the way an elderly pastor on the district had treated me (this minister was very critical of me for wearing a wedding ring!). The superintendent’s apology made a great impression on me, and I want to be as approachable and sensitive to those pastors now in my care.
JR: I think it is also important for pastors and district superintendents to work together in order to connect the D.S. more closely to the congregation. My last
D.S. did not come by much, though we were very close, because he really didn’t need to for any crises, etc. I could have been more proactive in connecting him with my congregation, so that they could have a stronger sense of what he was like and what a district leader does. I now invite churches under my care to do that. å
G&P: WHAT IS THE BEST “CHAIN OF COMMUNICATION” FOR PARISHIONERS, PASTORS, AND DISTRICT LEADERS?
JR: I want parishioners to feel comfortable in contacting me, but I want them to be clear that—with very few exceptions— their pastor should be involved in the communication process. If there is a complaint or accusation, as I mentioned earlier, I will ask if they have gone to the pastor. If the answer is no, then I am done until they do that first. If they are communicating with the pastor and still do not feel that they are being heard, I will get involved. But even then, the pastor will, of course, be involved as well.
KS: I agree. People who come to me expecting a two-hour meeting can find the meeting over in a matter of minutes, because my goal is to move them toward a better relationship with their pastor, instead of becoming involved in an adversarial relationship with the pastor. I always urge them to get the pastor involved in conflict resolution.
DD: If we are talking about building trust among pastors and word gets out that we are engaged in triangulation or are allowing anonymous criticism behind their backs, then it hurts us and them. And ultimately, poor communication can hurt the reputation of Christ and the Church.