One Question Every Church Leader Should Ask

What is it like to be someone else in your church?people3.jpg

I’m convinced that some people never wonder. These are the people who sometimes make awkward statements to others. These are the people who sometimes sound smug as they talk about people who have various problems. They seem to have no appreciation for how tough life has become for some people.

My friend sat in an assembly one Sunday morning. The minister began his sermon by referring to his “extraordinarily difficult week.” Then he explained that he had a fender-bender in a car last week. He went on to talk about trials and tribulations that people face.

Meanwhile, my friend listened, amazed that he would talk about a fender-bender using language like “trial and tribulation.” After all, for the last several months, my friend had spent his days sitting beside his wife’s hospital bed while she was dying of cancer. That morning, he left her bedside to be a part of this assembly. My friend decided this preacher really had no idea what it was like to sit beside the bed of a loved one and watch her die.

John Killinger, in one of his books, suggested that ministers need to realize that people in churches find themselves in a variety of circumstances on any given Sunday morning. He suggested an exercise in which a minister reflects on some of these situations. (Actually, this exercise would probably be useful for anyone.)

What would it be like to:

  • Have just experienced divorce?
  • Have an adult child in jail?

  • Be living on government assistance?


  • Be a new parent for the first time?


  • Have just learned you have cancer?


  • Know you are having major surgery tomorrow?


  • Be told by your wife, “I’m moving out. I’ve found someone else I love.”

  • Be told by your employer, “We won’t be needing you anymore.”

  • Live alone for many years?


  • Live in an abusive home?


  • Be single?


  • Want children and yet be unable to have children?


  • Face a move to a new community in a state where you’ve never been?


  • Experience severe depression?


  • Realize you are in serious trouble financially?


  • Grieve over your mother’s death?


  • Feel old and useless?

  • Care for aged parents while you try to be attentive to your children and grandchildren?

What thoughts, feelings, experiences, names, situations, places, etc. come to mind? There are times when I ask myself as I prepare to teach or preach, “How would a person in one of these situations hear this message?”  

Far too often, we see life only from our point of view.

Perhaps there are some people whom I will never totally be able to identify with. However, I can try. I can at least ask the questions. I can consider what it might be like to be another.   


Question:

What can church leaders do that might help them better understand the experiences of the people they interact with?

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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  • http://thinkingtoodeeply.blogspot.com Karin

    Lots of good stuff to think about in this post! Not quite sure how to express my thoughts. Of course, a fender-bender is not the same as holding a vigil besides one’s beloved, dying spouse. Not knowing more info on the fender-bender, not knowing what difficulties the pastor has or is facing in his life, I find it hard to assess whether or not the pastor was sensitive in his choice of words to other people’s trials and tribulations. Each person’s load allowed by the Lord is unique, as is each person’s ability to carry and cope. Comparisons are not a good idea. Don’t you just hate it when sharing with someone your most difficult challenge, they minimize your pain, and share their story that’s MORE difficult than yours? It’s a good exercise for all of us to learn empathy and how best to express love and compassion.

    • Jim Martin

      Good point, Karin. A preacher may have had a difficult week. However, I think he has to be very careful about the language that is used in sermons. One never knows what people in churches have experienced. I remember a minister who used to occasionally tell jokes about a drunk person. He then realized there were children and adults present who grew up in homes where mom or dad got drunk and there was nothing funny about this painful experience. When this preacher learned about this, he immediately ceased telling these kinds jokes.

  • http://benneeley.com Benjamin Neeley

    A lack of understanding when it comes to the members of one’s church seems to be the most glaring surface wound of a leadership (ministers & elders) that is not involved in the lives of its congregants. Know your audience is a larger task for a preacher than it is for other types of speakers. The preacher’s knowledge of his audience must go beyond awareness to empathy.

    Great post

    • Jim Martin

      Benjamin, great point! That is so true. When leaders are not involved in people’s lives the end result is a lack of understanding. You make a great point about empathy. A preacher may not know how someone feels (for example, the father whose son is serving time in jail.) However, the preacher listen to people and learn how what they are saying about the experience.

  • http://kingdomseeking.com K. Rex Butts

    Those are great questions. One of the things I try to do each week is to go over to the community center where our church gathers for worship on Sunday’s (the place has a supermarket, several restaurants, and other retail shops as well) and walk around praying and reflecting on the passage I’ll be preaching that coming Sunday. As I do that I try to ask how the particular text I am speaking on needs to speak both to the church I’ll be preaching unto and to the anonymous people walking around the shopping complex who, while all having anonymous struggles, are people God loves and seeks to redeem. I hope that helps keep my sermons being real rather than just an academic exercise or something disconnected from real life.

    Grace and Peace,

    Rex

    • Jim Martin

      Rex,
      What an excellent practice! Good for you! Even though the particular struggles of the people who you walk by in the shopping complex may be unknown to you, looking at these people and reflecting on what you say has to flavor what you will be doing on Sunday. Thanks.

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  • http://browardemergent.blogspot.com/ Steve

    Jim: Great post. I’ll go one further though and suggest that the premise is flawed. Is it reasonable to expect any group of preachers to not only relate to what everyone in their congregation is going through, but to share that burden and have meaningful relationships with them? Having a distinct “clergy class” itself reinforces the separation. It also makes it more difficult for the preacher to be vulnerable with the congregants. Burden sharing should be a two-way street. What if, on the other hand, preachers set their main focus on equipping and empowering congregants to connect with each other in meaningful ways, and thereby lessen dependence of the head pastor? Far more people will have their needs met, and feel understood, if the congregation itself becomes the “force multiplier,” than anything a church leader can do to better understand them IMO.

    • Jim Martin

      Steve, thanks very much. Of course you are right, no preacher can completely relate or comprehend what every person in a congregation is going through.

      However, I do see value (particularly as a person prepares messages, sermons, classes, etc. to at least ask these questions regarding the experiences of others. For example, as a married person with two children (now adults), I think it is a good practice to occasionally ask, “What is it like to be my wife? How might she hear this sermon?” Or, as I talk with my adult children, I might occasionally think about what it might be like to be them.

      I really think it “flavors” a sermon or message if we at least think about these questions.

      Thanks so much.

  • John W Frye

    Provocative post, Jim. Thank you!

    • Jim Martin

      John, thanks so much! Hope you are doing well.

  • Phillip

    Good post! I am going to share this with our ministry students. This caution is important for all who preach or teach in the church, even moreso if the preacher/teacher is new to the church or a guest at another church.

    • Jim Martin

      Hi Phillip, I am glad this is useful and hope it blesses your ministry students. I remember some occasions when it would have served me well (and probably the congregation) if I had thought more about how others might hear a particular message given some of their life experiences.

      Thanks.

  • Matt W.

    As a new pastor, I’ve made a similar mistake, until I visited 2 on the same day dying with cancer. One recently diagnosed, the other nearing the end. My “trials” pale in comparison. I think the best way to avoid this is to be out among the people. Visitation can become a routine that blesses our congregation and greatly enhances our preaching because we can better understand the reality of our congregation. Instead of spending an hour in the study for every minute in he pulpit, maybe we could spend some of that time studying people in their real lives. To see them at work, to visit their homes, etc.

    • Jim Martin

      Matt, you make a great point. Getting out among people can be incredibly helpful with this. Having coffee or lunch with people can help a person get to know a church. Showing up at ball games, school events, can be helpful. Simply paying attention to people wherever you are during the day can be so enlightening.

      Thanks so much. I wish you the very best in your ministry, Matt.