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Effective Communication Skills for Christian Leaders
By Garry Genser
Until Jesus comes again and we are able to see clearly, scripture[1] tells us we only have a distorted view of what is really going on.  In a church setting this means that we don’t always understand ourselves or understand others perfectly.  God’s enabling Spirit empowers us to move forward despite misunderstandings, but here are some things that we can do to communicate with better understanding.
As church leaders it is our job to communicate a vision and to encourage and facilitate its fulfillment. This is true whether one is a pastor, who hopefully casts and shapes the vision, or one of the many other leaders in the congregation who may each have different areas of concern or emphasis: We need to get more people in our Sabbath School Class; we need to balance our church budget; we need to be more involved in our worship.  Every leader or team member has something they want to accomplish, even if it is just to plod on and get the job done.
Some people have such dynamic personalities that people tend to follow them as a matter of course.   People seem to get carried away in their wake and it seems like such leaders can hardly do anything wrong, until things go terribly wrong!  Even charismatic leaders need to be able to communicate well, if for no other reason than to be able to encourage people to continue giving them the feedback they may need to hear even more than do other types of leaders.   So it is wise for all of us to improve our communication skills.
Let’s examine our attitudes and our practices of communication and see how we might improve.  Without considering first how our spiritual attitudes influence the effectiveness of our communication, any discussion might become just a shallow barrage of cheap fixes.  God wants more from us!
Although I myself constantly fall short, I want my attitude to resemble that of Jesus, who wandered among the people as one who desired their good.[2]  When I am successful in remembering this attitude, and my constant need for God’s grace to both forgive my failings and to empower me to move forward, I am able to communicate better.  Humility keeps me more in touch with God’s Spirit and keeps me in a better position to both understand and to be understood.
Without this humility, leadership or even committee participation becomes more a matter of control than of serving others.  Even from the business world progressive, enlightened thinking considers control an archaic, ineffective model.[3]  Healthy people do not like to be controlled and we risk losing their enthusiastic contribution to the mission.
All this being said, the best-intentioned people with the most Christ-like attitudes can still misunderstand people and be misunderstood.  Our caring must include a willingness to review and improve upon our communication skills.
Here are three areas of good communication practices I have learned through past failures and successes:
  1. Timing Issues
  2. The Need for Rebooting
  3. Being Direct
1.  It’s important to consider the issue of timing for good communication.  It is better to turn down the temperature on the stove before something is burnt then afterwards.  A stitch in time saves nine.  Don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today.  You get the idea.  Time matters in communication as much as it does in cooking, sewing or in accomplishing to-do lists!
Respond to people quickly.  The devil is ready to fill in empty spaces.[4]  To take a long time to return a call or respond to a communication gives the impression that the person is not very important to you.  That might not be the case, but that is the impression that it gives.
Better to answer an email when you read it.  If it truly is complex and you don’t have the time to answer it as fully as it deserves, how about: “Thanks for your email.  Let me think and pray about that and I’ll get back to you.”    If it is something that is truly complex how about a return email saying, “Let’s get together and talk and pray about this.  What’s a good time for you?” or “Are you free tomorrow morning?”  Don’t be tricked into spending a lot of time on an email if someone is not truly interested in a dialogue, but is using email as a convenient method of one-way communication, aka arguing.  Don’t dismiss a very negative email as “hate-mail” that should be ignored, but try always to give people the benefit of the doubt.
Another issue regarding timing for chairpersons:  respect the time of busy people, including your self!  In meetings that you lead, have an agenda.  Let people know that something that they might want to discuss can be put on the next meeting’s agenda, but don’t let others set the agenda.  There are things that need to be decided first.  Often it may be just a spontaneous thought not worthy of hijacking people’s time.   It might be something that can be worked out without needing to be discussed at a meeting or it might be an emotionally charged issue that is best dealt with by direct communication between those concerned.
If you don’t chair a particular meeting, let the leader lead it, even if you are used to leading other meetings. If the Chairperson doesn’t do it well, you can always talk to him or her in private and offer to share some tips on how to lead it more effectively.  Don’t interfere publicly with his leadership; it sets a tone of discouragement and criticism and hinders the creativity of the group, as well as the morale of the leader.  If it needs to be addressed, then surely it is important enough to have a short meeting with the leader so he sees your concerns in an environment more conducive to allowing appropriate attention to them.
Another matter of timing: keep your communications short and to the point.  People are turned off when we appear to be enjoying OUR end of the conversation too much!
If someone is carried away with a subject, perhaps talking too much or being unproductively emotional about it, do not challenge him at that moment.  Biologically, when someone is clearly feeling emotional, the blood flow is restricted from the cerebral cortex creating   poor reasoning abilities.  Choose another time to influence them and focus only on being a calming influence. This last comment on timing serves as a good transition to the idea of rebooting.
2.  Rebooting can solve a lot of problems.  There was a silly but yet very funny TV show in England a few years ago, about an IT team that was very lazy.  One of the running jokes in the series was that when someone would call asking for help they would hold the phone away from their ear, not listening at all to what the problem was, while they continued interacting with their peers.  When the person on the phone would finally fall silent, they would then return the phone to a normal speaking position and ask them if they tried rebooting, turning the computer on and off again.  They would then put the phone away from their face until the caller rebooted their computer after which the eccentric technician would end the call by saying, “I’m glad it solved the problem; we’re always glad to help”.
Rebooting, just starting all over again, really does help sometimes, whether it’s a confused computer or a conversation that has gotten out of control.    Sometimes even the most brilliant of authors struggle with a convoluted sentence and after struggling for a while to fix it, realizes he needs to scrap it and start over, approaching the thought from a different angle. 
The most loving husband and wife may sometimes find themselves going back and forth over something without getting any closer to an understanding.   Sometimes just letting it go for now before it turns into an argument prevents problems.  Going back to the subject later, allows us time to explore creative solutions.
Sometimes we think something needs to be cleared up now but it is just not the right time.
Many years ago I struggled with an oppositional church member who just refused to understand a direction I was trying to take the church.  After years of fighting me at every turn when the subject came up, I overheard him telling a Sabbath school class that God showed him something in a dream the night before.  He then proceeded to share what I had been trying to years to help him see.  He didn’t connect his nocturnal enlightenment with anything I had ever said.  But he got it.  In God’s own time he got it.  Be willing to reboot can mean trusting in God’s timing more than in our own will power.
3.  Being Direct is more Important than We Imagine.  What a let-down it is to get a form letter in response to a personal communication, a text in response to a phone call, or to hear someone talk about a problem with you instead of them talking directly to you.  Direct communication is so important that the Bible actually lists it as a requirement in conflict resolution.[5] 
Sometimes we do what is easiest to do instead of what is more effective.  I once sent a musician friend a note saying that I wouldn’t be able to be in attendance at a concert I arranged for him to present.  The fact that a scheduling conflict had occurred wasn’t my fault but the fact that I chose to write him a note, even a hand-written note, instead of calling him, made him feel, he later told me, disrespected because he had only agreed to the concert out of his friendship for me.  The closer the relationship, the more direct the communications need to be.
If the above story wasn’t sufficient to convey the need for more directness, bring to mind the last time you tried to resolve any relationship issue in a text!  My most painful memory of how poorly this can turn out is perhaps a little too personal to share.  Let it suffice perhaps for us to all remember how easy it is for a something intended as humorous to be misunderstood in a text, or to a lesser degree in an email, or in a lesser degree on a phone call.  The more personal and the more important the communication, the more effective it is to be more direct and often in person.
We can improve our communication skills as church leaders, and nurture a humble attitude, by knowing we need God’s help to overcome one another’s blind spots.   We can also increase the quality of our Christian relationships by:  keeping in mind the need to practice good timing, as well as the occasional need to reboot, and by being as direct as possible.  Communicating more effectively will allow us to be more successful in the mission of our church.
Garry Genser is the Lead Pastor at Vienna Seventh-day Adventist Church in Northern Virginia.  He has been a Pastor for 30 years and is the author of A DOWN TO EARTH GOD, A Nature Lover’s Devotional (available through Amazon).
[1] 1 Corinthians 13:12
[2] “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, “Follow Me.”—The Ministry of Healing, 143.
[3] “To Be a Better Leader, Give Up Authority” by A.D. Amar, Carsten Hentrich, and Vlatka Hlupic; from HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW, December 2009.
[4] Although Matthew 12:45 is about taking care to be filled with the Holy Spirit lest the purpose of a spiritual cleansing be defeated, the principle applies to unnecessary voids in our communication too.
[5] Mathew 18:15 raises the value of direct communication in some cases above the level of improved communication skills to the level of a moral imperative.