Volunteers in pastoral care ministries are generally the most caring people in our churches. While their big hearts help support people well, they bring challenges, too.
Volunteers might be hesitant to interrupt. They may question their judgment on what situations merit interruption. Coaching your leaders on the types of circumstances to interrupt will help give them the confidence to lead strongly. Here’s a resource for what situations your leaders should look for and how to intervene.
When something is outside their jurisdiction
Church staff and leaders are famously bad at defining scope and limits of a volunteer’s role. We love to tell our volunteers whom to serve and how to serve them. We’re less inclined to tell our people whom not to serve and when something is not theirs to own. In ministering to hurting people with complicated, sensitive stories, this is especially important.
It is wise for you to collaboratively construct a list of concerns and situations that cause a topic to leave a volunteer’s jurisdiction. Decide together with your volunteers. How should they handle these situations? When should they include staff? How would you like them to include others?
Here are some concerns that will likely be on the list:
- Risk of harm to self or others
- Physical or emotional intimidation
- Abusive language
- High emotion
When something leaves a volunteer’s scope, that person needs to sensitively inform others that a transition will take place. At Willow Creek we use specific language to convey care and set a boundary at the same time. We say, “You have introduced something too heavy for us to carry alone. I need to bring someone else in to help us carry this together.” This lets the person know that your leader cares deeply, is not going away, and needs to bring in an extra person.
Over-talkers and nervous talkers suffer out loud. We all know what it is like to be in a setting with one or two of these group members.
Nervous talkers generally talk too much only in the initial stage of a group (or one-on-one relationship). The fears we all experience in new relationships manifest in an abundance of words. Chronic over-talkers, however, show a pattern of dominating a conversation over the long haul.
A chronic over-talker requires strategic and caring interruption. It will benefit everyone if your volunteers make the person aware of the dynamic and coach your volunteers in managing it.
A good strategy to teach your volunteers is to invite someone to take a “breather” or to “push pause.” It is not a punishment for saying the wrong thing. On the contrary, it is an invitation to be still (Psalm 46:10) and lean into what others are saying. Your volunteers don’t need to draw attention to what led to the request. They simply need to invite the over-talker to follow the advice of James 1:19 and be slow to speak and quick to listen. Depending on the group member and the situation, they can do this in a number of ways.
- Challenging: Jim, we have talked before about you getting yourself into trouble by talking too much. Take a few minutes to actively listen and find God in the ways unavailable when speaking.
- Encouraging: I’ve found before that taking some time to intentionally listen is when I am most receptive to God. I think there’s even more for you in this conversation if you would open yourself up in that way, Jim.
- Questions: Jim, right now are you asking more questions or speaking more statements? How would you rate your openness to God and others in this moment?
Over-talkers generally know they are over-talkers. Most of the time they respect someone telling them the truth and offering to walk alongside them to a more positive outcome. It can be a great opportunity for a volunteer to take a relationship to the next level of truth telling.
When conversation becomes harmful
We value authentic expression in care ministries, but expression is just like language itself. It can be constructive, or it can be destructive. Do your leaders watch for the health and direction of expression? Do they know when processing turns from healthy to toxic?
John Gottman, a prominent psychologist, has identified four communication patterns that predict divorce. They also lead to breakdowns in other relationships.
These behaviors turn expression into a weapon and conversation into combat. When a participant employs these dynamics, it is time for your leaders to interrupt.
Criticism: Character attacks on someone, whether they are present or not.
Defensiveness: Using avoidance or excuses to dodge personal responsibility.
Stonewalling: Withdrawing from interaction and shutting down.
Contempt: Gottman defines this as when people are “truly mean” and verbally attacking or mocking. This is an extreme and should be dealt with abruptly.
Finally, do not forget to encourage your leaders. Remind them that protecting a relationship from unhealthy conversation is one of the biggest ways to care for people. It is a way to cultivate a space for the Holy Spirit to do the work that we are all anticipating. Interrupting can feel uncomfortable, but if it encourages people to mature and makes your group experience safer and more enjoyable, it will be well worth it.