By Eddie Pipkin

February 17, 2017

What is your ministry language?  Were you aware that you had one?

There are many in ways in which our ministries are plagued by an inability to understand one another (a frustration captured in the famous quote from the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is [a] failure to communicate”).  When there is not agreement on the terms of our dialogue, misunderstandings abound, mistakes are made, and feelings get hurt.  One of the keys to consistently successful leadership is making sure that everyone is on the same page.

Sometimes we are not even sure what the terms we use mean.  Lifelong Christians can struggle to articulate the fundamental meaning of such terms as discipleship or stewardship.  Certainly, newcomers to our worship services sometimes feel lost at sea as we are tossing around phrases like “celebrating the Eucharist,” “Holy Communion through intinction,” “prevenient grace,” or “liturgy.”  Within leadership groups, there can be hours of discussion about a “vision for missions”, without the people in the room having any consensus about exactly what the concept of missions encompasses.

Everybody reading this knows the frustration of being part of a long conversation with someone (in person or by email) only to realize that you totally misunderstood what was being said.  Wouldn’t it be great if we had a version of Star Trek’s universal translator to prevent such misunderstandings and insure that we were all on the same page?  (Actually, advances in technology are edging us closer to this outcome, at least as far as translating human languages is concerned.  heiroglyphs-002I was fascinated recently to watch a church administrator who spoke no Spanish carry on a conversation with a man who walked in speaking only Spanish.  She did this by using a translation app on her iPhone, and quickly discerned that the man was just looking for a place to pray.  All churches should be using technology so creatively.)

Establishing a culture of accessible, agreed-upon language is not a happy accident, any more than the development of human communication was or is.  Babies don’t just spontaneously spout language.  That was the idea that provoked this blog, having seen a question on Quora about two babies stranded on a desert island.  Would two such isolated infants (assuming they somehow survived) naturally generate their own spoken language?  The answer, emphatically, is no, they would not.  Similarly, if we want to foster a ministry environment in which good things happen because we all understand one another, then we need to be purposeful in making that happen.  Here’s what that looks like:

  • Define terms clearly and frequently. We can’t assume that people know what we mean.  In worship services, take time to explain terminology.  Not only does it make newcomers feel more comfortable, but it also reinforces key language for people who have long been a part of the faith community.  Use your communications outlets to explain theological concepts and ministry language.  In leadership meetings, take time to make sure everyone in the room understands the terms you are using (budget terms, ministry terms, logistical terms).  Don’t assume that people know what you are talking about.
  • Ask questions as a method of being sure that people aren’t just nodding their heads in agreement when they really don’t have a clue. People don’t like to feel ignorant or uninformed.  They will often be too shy to admit that they aren’t sure what you’re talking about, and this can lead to the absurd condition in which a room is full of people who are lost but unwilling to admit it, because they assume they are the only one.  By giving opportunities for feedback or asking good questions at the right moment, you can create an environment in which people feel free to ask for clarification.
  • Create opportunities for people to express themselves. This is another version of the previous suggestion, but one that really builds a sense of ownership and vision.  Challenge people to articulate their own beliefs and share their own versions of your ministry vision.  By doing so, you will have a very clear sense of how closely their understanding aligns with yours.
  • Avoid the use of jargon. Every area of human endeavor has its own jargon: specialized language unique to that specialty.  Of course, one person’s jargon is another person’s gibberish. This has been brought home to me lately as I ask my daughter about her studies at pharmacy school, and she rolls into a discussion filled with drug-related and medical terms that just leave me nodding my head in oblivious agreement (see earlier bullet point).  Simplify when you can; use everyday language when you can; be clear when the jargon is useful and expedient that everybody knows what you’re talking about.
  • Talk to people, not at them. One of the best ways to guarantee misunderstandings is to talk at folks: lecturing, pontificating, expounding, or otherwise bombarding them with information.  One of the best ways to guarantee understanding is to practice the art of conversation.  And this applies to one-on-one interactions, as well as communicating to entire congregations.  As always, when looking for examples of how to do this well, start with the Gospels.  (The Gospels are the first four books of the New Testament in the Bible, those books which portray Jesus’ life and ministry.  See what I did there?).

As you think about ways to communicate effectively, the materials at the emc3 website can help.  One of the things our books like Shift and Membership to Discipleship do very well is define ministry terms in simple-to-grasp language.  That’s always a first step to great strategic leadership.  If you have more ideas about successful communication or challenges for which you’d like assistance, we’d love to help.