Five Things that Haven't Worked and One that Does

“Why won’t they listen?” “Why can’t people do what they are supposed to do?” Have you ever felt that way before? 

There’s an old joke about pastoral ministry that says, “ministry would be great if it weren’t for all the people!” Yes, ministry is at its core engaging with people. We say we want to grow the church (or any organization or business) but that would only mean more people! More complainers, more troublemakers, more demands, more hurts, more tears, more…well you get the picture. It’s no wonder that we get stuck at certain sizes. There’s only so much we can do and having more people probably means there is more to do! But we know the Lord’s mandate. We know we must do better. But perhaps you feel like you are stuck. You’ve tried everything. You don’t know what else to do.

You’ve tried cajoling people: you know, playing nice and being cordial and light hearted, directing and giving people instructions in that tone. But they seem to miss it. They’re not sure what to do or they do the wrong thing. That didn’t work.

You’ve tried the serious road. Lecturing and instructing and telling people what to do in a very solemn tone. But they seemed to shrug it off. They acted afraid or dependent, seeking permission at every step. They didn’t want to take any risks and do the wrong thing. Or on the other hand they took the initiative but had their hand slapped because they didn’t go to the right gatekeepers or get the right approvals. That didn’t work.

You got stern with people. You spoke with an edge in your voice. You told them what to do. You were direct and clear. But they seemed to have cotton stuck in their ears and either they weren’t listening or didn’t care. Some even got angry at your tone. You didn’t like getting people angry either. That didn’t work.

So you reverted to giving hints. You implied one thing should be a priority. You shared your heart that a certain thing was really important. You insinuated that you thought things would really improve if you all just did a certain singular thing. But they just didn’t take the hint. That didn’t work either.

So what’s next? Perhaps you are at the end of your rope. You’ve tried your best at capitalizing on people’s motivation and interest and energy. You’ve tried to help them and direct them. You’ve tried to be winsome on the one hand and pushy on the other. But now you’re pretty exasperated. Nothing seems to get the results you are after. This is frustrating stuff! Maybe you are even discouraged and looking for an exit strategy.

Is there a secret ingredient? Is there a magic bullet? So many ministry leaders have written books and grown and seem to know the answers. But then what are they really doing because you have tried to implement some of their stuff and it doesn’t really make a difference. Is there even a secret ingredient?

In a word, Yes. But first a little theology. What all of the above instructions, advice or even “encouragement” have in common is that they all involve “telling” people what to do. How do you like being told what to do? What is the usual reaction?

When someone tells another what to do, it may often get categorized as a “command” in which the authority figure or advisor is “dictating.” Then, while perhaps any given “command” is not technically a law of God from the Scriptures, it is “law” in a general sense. We know that from our own experience. The sinful human nature explains much of these attitudes and behaviors. In Romans 7:8 the apostle Paul says, “sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire.” Our sinful pride causes us to reject or despise being bossed around. We want our own autonomy. Or we want to be subservient when it suits us to avoid accountability or responsibility. So all of those “telling” strategies have their distinct limitations.

So what is the alternative? Well, what is the opposite of “telling”? That’s right, it is asking a question instead. No, Im not talking about simply re-wording a “command” in the form of a question. I am not advocating that instead of telling someone to sit down, you say “would you please sit down?” That’s still at its core a command as it is most likely received. Instead I am advocating leading through a coaching style.

For example. Rather than tell people what is most important, ask, “What is most important?” Then as they clarify the issues and perhaps through follow up questions together you establish priorities after which you may then ask, “What will you do first?” Then as you continue to ask questions they will no doubt come to a conviction about what they should do and what they will do. And more likely than not they will in fact do it! But I’m not talking about manipulation or twisting the conversation to your preferences. I’m talking about truly asking and listening and exploring with them.

With this simple exchange you have done a 180 and approached the leadership task in a powerfully different way. Through asking you have engaged people first rather than deciding for them (and imposing your opinion on them!). You have drawn them in and tapped into their concerns and motivation. You have affirmed them and their role and even if their ideas are not ask good as yours on what and how something should be done, simply because it is their idea they will more than likely do it and work hard at making it work! Far more effective than if you told them what to do and they half heartedly slow walked their way to completing it. Yes! Yes, there is another way to lead.

Among the numerous books advocating this style of leadership is Michael Marquardt’s “Leading With Questions.” It is a detailed book that is not light reading but it is insightful and powerful for those who are “stuck” in the challenges of working with others. I simply call it “The Coaching Leader” as is the title of my podcast. If you open your mind to it and learn a bit about coaching, your life and leadership will be changed forever and it will turn around your relationships and ministry or organization dramatically. 

Let me know your story and how it has made a difference for you.

Scott specializes in leadership coaching, consulting, coach and leadership training. He is called by Lutheran Counseling Services and partners with the FL-GA District of the Lutheran Church and others as an independent contractor. Listen to The Coaching Leader podcast and contact Scott to continue the conversation or experience a free sample coaching session. or


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The Missing Ingredient

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