Why is it so hard to get people to open up? I asked Pastor Andy Farmer of Covenant Fellowship Church in Glen Mills, PA, to answer that question. He said the reasons why people are tight-lipped often have more to do with us than the people we’re trying to help. We should consider first how others view their relationship with you.
Pastors presume they have a relationship with someone based on the fact that that person is in their church. But church attendance doesn’t usually create a relationship: it just helps people understand your role. You know their kids. You know a whole lot of information about them anecdotally, but you don’t have a relationship with them that makes sense for them to open up their lives to you.
So, I think you have to first create relationships and not presume relationships based on the role you play. Our role creates opportunities for relationships.
Even though relationships are important, there isn’t always time to build them before we have to help someone. So, Andy suggested making sure that you don’t limit your data gathering to the person’s problem:
When pastors are counseling somebody, the tendency we all have is to focus on the problem. The hardest thing to do is to step back and look at the person as a whole person and see that the problem he’s facing is part of the larger context of his life. You can miss a lot of important aspects of how the problem is functioning.
I remind myself to address people, not problems.
In reality, you’re trying to help people grab hold of the resources God has for them. In doing that, people lose sight of the bigger picture. They lose sight of who they are in Christ.
So how does Andy’s suggestion differ from other approaches to data gathering? He explained further.
In counseling, before we ever talk about the problem, I ask, “Tell me about yourself.” But even that data gathering can be geared toward how the problem plays out in life. I want to help people talk about themselves without the problem in focus.
If a man says that his wife doesn’t trust him, I don’t start with, “Tell me the various ways she doesn’t trust you.” I start with getting to know who he is in his life, how he understands himself. By getting to know him a bit, I’ve created the ability to go into the micro level of the problem and then the macro level of life in general.
Andy pointed out another major barrier to connecting with people in our congregations and communities. This barrier is especially hard to overcome when ministering in a multicultural context or to people who are biblically illiterate.
These days, when we stand and say, “I’m a pastor,” we have no idea how people understand that. There’s no common “what it means to be a pastor,” so people are constantly trying to figure out who we are.
For example, a couple was trying to get to know the church better, so I said to them, “Let me come your house.” And they agreed. Once I got there, they said, “We’ve never had a pastor come to our house. Frankly, we were worried about why you were coming.”
If we’re effectively drawing in people from our communities, we should never assume that they understand our role. Everybody’s got a different experience, and they’re bringing that experience to you as a pastor. So, when you sit down with someone, you’ve got to help them understand who you really are.