If it weren’t for the people, church ministry would be easy. That’s the problem with being called to be a shepherd—you’ve got to learn to like the sheep. Most of the time, that’s easier than you’d imagine. But sometimes, only the grace of God gets us through, just as in all human relationships.
After 30 years of working in denominational journalism and local church ministry, three pieces of advice have stuck with me about dealing with people. These gems have proved true again and again.
“Everyone sees the world through his own knothole.” That was the mantra of Bobby Sunderland, one of my former colleagues at the old SBC Home Mission Board. Bobby was a likeable evangelist who knew how to relate to all kinds of people. The secret, he said, was to understand that not everyone starts from the same vantage point. Looking out from the tree of life, some of us have a view one direction, while others peer out a knothole on the other side of the tree. Before you try to correct a person or get angry with him or her, consider that person’s view of the world.
“People expect you to behave the way they would act.” This one is from my friend and colleague Marv Knox. We learned this together through years of newspaper editing. Often, we would receive angry phone calls or letters opposing things we had written in the newspaper. When encouraged to submit a letter to the editor expressing the opposing viewpoint, the protestor often would say, “I know you never would print this.” That assumption was wrong. We especially wanted to print opposing views. But what we figured out through the years is that if that person were in charge, dissenting views would not be published. Often, people who are critical of you make assumptions about you that actually say more about them than about you.
“People can’t help but tell their own story.” Time has washed away the memory of who first coined this one, but I think it was a chaplain friend. The point is, if you give people enough time, they’ll inevitably talk about themselves. Whether they intend to or not, they’ll tell you where they’ve come from, what their concerns are, what their fears are. You just have to learn to listen. Often, the flaws people believe they see in you actually are reflections of what they fear in themselves.
The moral to this story? The best way to deal with people is to remember it’s not all about you.