In his exceptional biography of Francis Asbury, John Wigger describes the characteristics that made the father of American Methodism an effective communicator. These four traits were:
1. legendary piety and perseverance, rooted in a classical evangelical conversion experience.
2. ability to connect with ordinary people
3. ability to understand and use popular culture.
4. organization of the Methodist church.
This is the second post in a four-part series that considers each of the traits that made Asbury an effective leader. I will also consider whether these traits are relevant for contemporary church leaders. (You can view the previous post by clicking the first trait listed above.)
The second trait that made Asbury an effective communicator was, “his ability to connect with ordinary people” (6). John Wesley was not known for this characteristic. In fact, there are a few examples where Wesley’s interactions with people are shockingly insensitive. Asbury, however, was gifted at connecting with people he met throughout his travels, building relationships with them even during short stays.
My favorite part of this aspect of Asbury’s personality is that he was known for having a good sense of humor in a time when “Methodists didn’t generally consider joking and laughter compatible with religion” (Wigger, 6). Even better, Asbury’s sense of humor was self-effacing. Here is one particular story that Wigger relates that also shows that Asbury did not take himself too seriously:
Once, when Asbury was nearly sixty and had been a bishop for nearly two decades, he and the ‘venerable, portly’ preacher Benjaming Bidlack came to the home of a ‘respectable Methodist’ in the Genessee District of upstate New York. Seeing Asbury riding in front, the man mistook him for an assisstant and ordered him to dismount and open the gate for the bishop. Bidlack played along, and as he passed by, Asbury bowed low, offering to see to the bishop’s horse and bags. When their host realized his mistake, he was ‘mortified’ until he saw how much Asbury enjoyed the joke (6).
The way that Wigger concludes his summary of this second aspect of what made Asbury an effective communicator is particularly intriguing: “People found Asbury approachable and willing to listen to their concerns more than they found him full of inspiring ideas” (7).
Asbury was an effective communicator and leader, then, because he was able to connect with people. He could make them laugh. He could even enjoy a good laugh at his own expense. People listened to him because they liked him, largely because they sensed that he liked them.
Would this characteristic be significant for contemporary church leadership?
People will rarely follow someone they do not like or they do not believe likes them. And leaders in the contemporary church will be far more successful in leading if they are able to relate to the people in the churches to which they have been sent to provide leadership.
Here are a few quick thoughts on how church leaders can connect with ordinary people:
1. For those who are seminary, stay in contact with “normal people” (whatever that means!). Seminary is great, but it can also unintentionally become a kind of bubble, where you forget that most people would not be interested in having a three hour conversation about various theories of the atonement, the difference between imputed vs. imparted righteousness, etc. My point is not that these things are bad. In fact, they are essentially to a seminary education. But seminary can unintentionally deform you from being able to relate to the “people in the pews.” And if people who are attending seminary because they have been called to local church ministry can no longer relate to the people they will be serving when the graduate, well, that is a problem.
2. Spend time with people on their turf. When I was pastoring a church in rural Oklahoma, a significant number of men from the church would meet for coffee every morning at the co-op. Driving up to a grain elevator, walking into a room with fertilizer bags, horse troughs, and hundreds of tools I had never seen before was initially a jarring experience! But I learned to love that time. I learned more about those men sitting on folding chairs around that plastic table than I ever did within the walls of the church. I also laughed more there than any other place in that town. They are precious memories! And looking back, I am amazed at the hospitality that these men showed in welcoming me into their favorite place to spend time together.
3. Relax and don’t have an agenda. Just spend time with people because they have been created in the image of almighty God. Listen to them. Hear what they are trying to tell you. If you do this, you will be invited into people’s lives in incredible ways.
4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Leaders always win when they laugh at themselves. And they win when they share credit and build up other people.
5. Remember that more often than not people want to know whether you care and whether you can be trusted. This is a hard one for me. My instinct is to try to bowl people over by my ideas, by content. But Asbury’s example reminds us that before people can hear our ideas, they first need us to hear them – really hear them.
So what do you think? How important do you think it is for leaders in the church to be able to relate well to other people? What would you add to my list of ways that church leaders can better relate to others?
Going from preachin’ to meddlin’: This post assumes that Christian leaders do genuinely love the people God has sent them to serve. I have been surprised at how often I have encountered pastors who are not good at listening at all. It is an area where I can always find room for growth myself. Are you a good listener? Do you habitually, maybe without even realizing it, interrupt people? Before you try to get others to hear you, how can you learn to better hear them?