By Eddie Pipkin

A local non-profit theater group emailed me with an opportunity to join one of their executives, a director, and some performers for dinner at a local restaurant.  It was a way to more intimately connect arts supporters with the people who make the magic happen.  It’s an innovative model for building richer relationships between patrons and practicitoners.  Attendees could hear stories from behind the scenes, learn more about the artistic vision of the theater, and find out about opportunities to volunteer and increase their level of engagement.  What a great model for local churches!  In a world in which the most contact some church members have with their pastor remains that quick post-worship handshake, the process for relationship development is too often taken for granted, when it should, in reality, be a function of a thoughtful, intentional approach.

For pastors and other ministry leaders, there is a constant sense of interaction with church members, community residents, and beneficiaries of ministry, but if we take an honest, closer look how these interactions unfold on a weekly basis, many times they fall into patterns that limit the breadth and depth of these interactions:

  • The same “players” tend to take up most of the pastor or ministry leader’s time.

Sometimes this takes the form of an “inner circle” of influencers who have an oversized impact on all decisions at the church.  Sometimes this takes the form of very needy congregation members who consume an inordinate amount of our time with their ongoing crises.  Either way, when we get to the end of the day, it’s clear we’re weary the hours we’ve put in, but in retrospect (if we make a pie chart of who we spend our time with) a large part of it goes to a select group.  It is certainly good to have an inner circle of ministry partners, and it is certainly appropriate to take care of the needs of people (some who need more attention than others), but it is definitely more healthy to spread our attention in a wider circle.

People who want our attention, will come find us, will seek us out and insist upon it.  They will suck up our available time, if we let them.  There are only so many hours in a day, so discipline is required if we are serious about expanding our relational territory.

  • Pastors and ministry leaders tend to interact with people in a limited number of regularly scheduled venues/activities.

We build our weeks around central events such as worship or midweek dinners.  As a regular part of these events, we see people and interact with them.  We share brief greetings and engage in quick conversations (sometimes leading to deeper exchanges), and all of this is useful interaction, but 1) these events can be the setting for the “limited players” scenario we discussed in the first point, 2) these event-based interactions rarely move beyond surface conversations, and 3) the introverts head for the exits as soon as they get a chance, and we never get a chance to interact with them.

With an intentional approach to interaction, we follow up on brief exchanges – in fact, these quick chats provide a great opportunity for a further conversation by initiating subjects that can be naturally pursued: “Hey, on Sunday you mentioned your aunt in the hospital.  I just wanted to follow up on that.”  With an intentional approach to interaction, we can also identify those introverts who slipped out and give them a call with a “Hey, I missed you at the end of worship Sunday; let’s get together for coffee.”  But beyond these opportunities for follow-up, we can structure get-togethers that feature smaller groups that provide more opportunity for deeper exchanges.

  • The majority of our time gets devoted to “problem solving.”

Pastors and ministry leaders spend most of their time solving problems and putting out fires.  Ministry territory is ripe for energetic feedback loops in which our energy goes to addressing the freshest drama, reinforcing our tendency to spend time with the same limited group of people in the same event settings (meetings, phone calls, meetings, emails, meetings, etc.).  If we are intentional, we take steps to first be aware how much time we are spending on the nuts and bolts of problem solving and then limiting that aspect of our work lives so that we can invest more time in relationships building, vision casting, and ministry in the moment.

Freeing up our time for conversations with more people means we have to be good at delegating.  Micro-managing takes a lot of time – not to mention, as we did last week, how it crimps the leadership development of the people on our teams.  Let them lead, freeing time for us to have a conversation with someone new.

The point of all this is to keep people feeling connected, engaged, and empowered, as noted in the article “How to Connect People to Your Church” (from Church Fuel):

“A disconnected church leads to disconnected people, who will eventually fizzle out or become attenders that show up for the important holidays or once a month and aren’t seen from again.

But a church with integral members who add to the lifeblood of the church—those connections will produce church growth and health and help build the Kingdom of God. We all want these thriving people adding to the ministry of our local church.”

If we are spending all our time with a select group of influencers (or ministry consumers), we end up with a ministry in which some people feel very engaged while others don’t feel engaged at all – a scenario with ministry “haves” and “have nots” in which these two groups don’t even understand each other.  So, what do we do?

  • Set interaction goals.

Be thoughtful about this process.  Make a list of the people in your ministry and what your level of interaction is with each – score yourself on a scale of 1-5.  Note the people who take up the majority of your time and consider if you could spend less time with them and more time with someone else.  Make a list of people you’d like to get to know better, then make a schedule for making that happen.  Ask your team members for the names of people they think you should get to know better or spend more time with.

  • Be really bold: ask who wants to spend some time with you.

Put out an opportunity for people in your ministry to request a chance to spend some quality time with you.  You’d be surprised how many people think you are too busy to schedule some time with them.  Make it a point to say you’d like to get to know people better and give them a clear method for expressing their interest in being a part of that.  Note:  this can be done in small group gatherings (in a room with couches and coffee or on a hiking or kayaking trip, etc.).

  • Write things down.

When you are at those events we noted above, don’t try to remember the details of interactions.  Make notes.  Note who you spoke to and about what (especially, of course, if they asked specific questions or had specific needs or concerns).  Don’t try to be coy about doing this: let people know that you are jotting down some notes (either on your smart phone or with an old-school note pad).  They will actually feel like you are taking their needs and ideas seriously.  Then, follow up.  [Never, ever, ever give someone the impression that you are gong to follow up and then neglect to do it.  This is a relationship and credibility killer.]

  • Design groups just for interaction!

Here’s the fun part.  Design opportunities that exist solely for the purpose of people getting to know one another better in small group settings (like in the example that began this blog entry).  Have a lunch or dinner or snack time or coffee moment at which people in your congregation can meet your worship team, your outreach leaders, your office staff.  This can be a regular “getting to know you” feature that promotes unexpected connections.

Imagine a meet-and greet with the worship leadership on the stage where worship happens.  Imagine a meet-and-greet with children’s ministry leadership (for those without kids) in the nursery.  Imagine a meet-and-greet with the Trustees in the storage closet!  (Just kidding on that one, but the possibilities for creative settings are endless.)

One of my favorite all-time such gatherings was when we got a group of people together who were interested in mission and outreach, and we did it at the fire pit we had built out behind the church.  It was a far different spirit than if we had met in some concrete block-walled room with plastic tables, and as we gathered around the glowing fire, the ideas and energy flowed.

And we at Excellence in Ministry Coaching love dinner groups.  They never go out of style.  Whether getting congregation members together to meet one another, giving congregation members the chance to meet leadership, or getting leadership together for long-range planning, there is something special about gathering at someone’s home and having the intimacy of meeting without the formality of the typical meeting scenario.  Sharing a meal is such a winning strategy that it’s part of our foundational story as followers of Christ!

Just be always rethinking who is sitting at the table with you.

What are your strategies for expanding your interactions?  Are you frustrated that you end up spending most of your time with the same few people?  Do you have intentional practices that help you expand your circle of interaction?  Do you feature designated opportunities so that folks can meet and question ministry leaders?

Share your observations and ideas in the comment section!  We love hearing from you.