Talk Isn’t Cheap

Three ways church leaders can improve communication

Communication: We are awash in it. From the 24-hour news cycle to social media to a plethora of devices that deliver content to us in previously unimaginable ways, we’re drowning in a sea of information.

And yet, just because communication is ubiquitous, it doesn’t mean we are communicating well ourselves. In fact, because there are so many channels of communication, we are often tempted to ignore or undervalue what it takes to communicate well.

Communication was the subject of the EFCA Southeast District conference this spring. The speakers covered three primary topics: preaching (communicating the Word to our congregations), using social media (communicating to folks inside and outside of the church), and communicating with staff and leadership teams.

The third topic, communicating as a leader, is one that the conference unpacked most thoroughly. Mike Wagner of the White Rabbit Group, a consulting firm that teaches communication and leadership formation to businesses and organizations, spoke about how leaders can communicate effectively. With years of experience in the business world and in church culture (from his seminary training and life as a Christian), Mike shared a number of principles to help us consider how to be a better leader through better communication.

Consider the following three principles as you assess how you and your fellow leaders are communicating with each other, with your teams and with your church community.

1. Know your audience.

We’re always going to communicate more effectively if we really know the person we’re talking to. This is a principle that many of us consider as public speakers, but it applies equally well to the people we are working with, especially those with whom we’re managing or leading.

How do we get to know our teams better? There are many assessments that can give insight into personality types, but one key element that is often overlooked is the simple but profound art of listening.

Here are some ways that could help us all improve our listening skills:

  • Listen for 80% of the time and speak for 20%.
  • Ask open-ended questions, allowing the person to elaborate.
  • Ask clarifying questions to draw out more details.
  • Stay “stupid” longer. Don’t be so quick to rush to a decision or offer advice. Take your time to listen and to hear the other person’s thoughts.

Too often as leaders, we are in a rush to address the issue at hand. We can miss out on opportunities to get to know our staff and fellow leaders when we fail to listen well.

2. Structure and personalize your message.

Communication between leaders and their teams is often irregular or conducted in group settings. One of the key practices Mike encouraged leaders to initiate was weekly 30-minute check-ins with anyone who directly reports to them as a supervisor.

His suggestion was to have a 10-10-10 breakdown for each session:

  • 10 minutes for the person to share any concerns with you,
  • 10 minutes for you to share any concerns you may have for them, and
  • 10 minutes to look to the future.

While this may sound like a big time investment, weekly check-ins help anticipate and avoid issues earlier. This practice also gives your team a regular opportunity to get clarity from you as well as give feedback to you. A structured, personalized standing meeting can pay tremendous dividends in unity as well as in ministry effectiveness.

3. Make feedback a regular practice.

As leaders, we can often wait too long to give constructive feedback. The longer we wait, the less effective the feedback will be—and the greater the chance the issues will fester or replicate. A healthy feedback culture is vital to our teams. Consider the following tips.

  • Never give feedback if you are angry or if the other person is distracted. Sharing your feedback in this way is respectful and effective, and it models for others how they should handle similar situations. The tone you set will reach far beyond your staff.
  • Ask the person if it’s a good time for you to share some thoughts. If it isn’t, wait. Schedule a time to talk later.
  • Always be polite and professional in giving feedback. Be positive and precise.. Avoid sarcasm or dismissive tones. Speak in a way that you wouldn’t mind others hearing you speak.
  • Address specific behaviors, not attitudes. Behaviors are tangible actions you’ve observed, but attitudes are internal and can be fuzzy. If you feel the need to address attitudes, start with the physical manifestations of an inward attitude (e.g., eye-rolling, smirks, crossed arms, audible sighs).
  • Share positive encouragement. Feedback should not always be corrective. We all receive feedback best if it contains some heartfelt affirmation.

As pastors and leaders, we can get distracted by our day-to-day demands. But by slowing down and establishing regular habits of clear, thoughtful communication with our teams, we can increase everyone’s effectiveness in ministry—and reduce the stresses that come with the territory.

How does your church leadership practice healthy, open communication? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

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