Thriving churches pay attention to fostering genuine connections
by the Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish | Special to Presbyterian News Service
“He never follows through,” the church member complained.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“He’ll call and say he’s going to drop by the hospital, or check up on us later, or send us something, but he never does. I think that’s why we’re all wondering if we called the right pastor,” she replied.
I’m hearing more and more complaints like this about pastors from members of struggling churches. It’s not just griping about failing to follow through. It’s critiques that increasingly pastors aren’t doing the small things that make a big difference.
Pastors have similar laments: “The members don’t seem to like me or trust me.”
We’ll talk about the big factors that may be causing this — are their sermons relatable, are they empowering others, do they have a compelling vision, are they communicating well enough? But maybe a big problem is that pastors are so overwhelmed with big things that they’ve forgotten just how big a difference the small things make.
Over the past two years I’ve been collecting a list of small things I’ve noticed that struggling pastors and declining churches perhaps don’t pay enough attention to.
See if rethinking these may help you either as a pastor or a church:
What always stands out in all the churches I visit is how well they welcome people. Do the greeters seem happy that I’m there, or do they just hand me a bulletin? Do any members notice me when I sit in a pew? How enthusiastically does the pastor greet the congregation? Sometimes it’s alarming how bad the welcome is.
A greeter in one church welcomed me by saying, “Here! Do you have a pencil? You’ll need one during the sermon.” That was it.
In a number of churches the pastor or a church member might read a formal, almost robotic, welcome from the pulpit. Nothing says “I’m glad you’re here” like a monotone, scripted welcome. Imagine doing that at home with guests.
Meanwhile, in healthy churches often the pastor or a member authentically says (with no script), “We are so glad you are here this morning. We are so grateful for everyone here. We hope you’ll stay around afterwards for coffee and get to know each other.”
For pastors, the most effective way to encourage a congregation to become welcoming isn’t to preach a sermon on welcoming others. It’s to train them to welcome others.
As pastors, how well do we greet people, either before or after worship? Are we too busy beforehand to say hi? After worship, when shaking hands, do we enthusiastically greet people?
I visited a church several months ago and watched the pastor do a wonderful job of walking around the sanctuary before worship, placing her hand on the shoulder of members while sharing warm conversations.
After worship she shook hands, said hi to each member by name, and really demonstrated that she cared.
Meanwhile, I recently visited another church where the pastor showed up 10 minutes before worship, clinically and almost coldly shook hands afterwards, immediately went into his office, and left the church 20 minutes later.
Guess which church was struggling?
Pastor small talk
Many people who are attracted to ministry are introverts. They love studying theology and other disciplines. They love preaching. They love spending time alone in deeper thinking. The problem for introverts is that they are serving in a field that requires engagement and relationships — that requires extroversion as well.
In essence, pastors need to be ambiverts — people who are comfortable being both introverted and extroverted.
Many pastors hate engaging in small talk because they don’t know what to say. The secret to small talk is simply finding what interests people and listening and sharing. Once we’ve engaged them, the conversation builds a relationship, and that relationship helps them like and trust us.
Responding to e-mails and texts
This is so simple that it feels almost too simple to say. Still, a huge complaint is that pastors don’t respond quickly (or at all) to texts and emails. I have an eight-hour rule. I have to respond within at least eight hours. Even if I don’t have an answer or need more time, I let them know when I’ll be able to get back to them. And then I follow the next suggestion…
Too often I hear members complain that a pastor will say, “I’ll be there,” or “I’ll call you,” or “I’ll get back to you,” and she or he doesn’t. I’ve been guilty of this myself way too many times. There are so many legitimate reasons why. But follow through anyway because it builds trust.
I’m amazed at how many churches clear out within 10 minutes of the end of a worship service. In declining churches the skedaddle happens quickly. Enthusiastically inviting people to stay for coffee after worship is such a simple way to help people build relationships — as long as the pastor lingers for it. Emphasizing it week after week eventually gets people to stay. In congregations where people linger, relationships grow.
Communicating “I like you”
Again, this is so simple, but I’ve talked with members of many churches who think their pastor doesn’t like them. Why? The pastor doesn’t engage with them in a way that says, “I like you.” To me this may be the most important thing a pastor can do, especially in a church where there’s some level of conflict. Often churches go where the leaders go. If they leader doesn’t remind members that they are loved, the church may respond with a lack of love.
Sometimes it is the simplest things, the smallest things, that can have the biggest, most profound impact.
This piece was originally posted in Presbyterians Today’s “Hopeful Church” blog.
A pastor for 31 years, the Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish is now executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting, where he also runs the Caring for Clergy and Congregations Program. He is the author of seven books on spirituality and congregational transformation, with a new one, “…And the Church Actually Changed,” due in Spring 2020 (www.ngrahamstandish.org).
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