By Ted Cunningham
It is not at all unusual for congregations to call my office about matters that really seem small to me but are large for congregations. Often the issues boil down to relationships within the congregation. How we react and interact is important. So is the perception of how we react, what we say and how we look when we say what we say.
Consider how people are reading you, what you are saying with your facial expression and posture!
Sunday mornings are filled with handshakes, hugs, head nods, taps on the shoulder, and many quick conversations. I catch myself rushing through some conversations and lingering in others. Recently a pastor challenged me with how others feel in my presence. He taught that there are two ways to enter a room. The first way is rooted in self and says, “Here I am.” The second is concerned about the well-being of others and says, “There you are.” When you walk into a room or conversation, do you look for ways to bless the one standing right in front of you? Even if it’s a quick encounter, the quality of that time includes both verbal and nonverbal communication.
Relationship experts teach that 7% of our communication is verbal (words) and 93% is nonverbal. Your approach, more than your words, communicates to people how much you value them. Before you speak your first word, the other person knows where they stand with you. Consider the following ways to honor someone this Sunday without using words.
Eye contact says, “I am interested and focused on what you are saying.” Looking at your watch or mobile device shows them that you would rather check the time or social media. Looking over the other person’s shoulder says, “I wonder if there is someone more interesting to talk to” or “That conversation over there looks like more fun than this one.”
The Blue Man Group is a popular stage show where three guys, with just their eyes, communicate sadness, curiosity, surprise, joy, relief, confusion, and anticipation. Proverbs 15:30 says, “Bright eyes gladden the heart.” “Bright eyes” express excitement to the one you are greeting. People know when our eyes say, “There you are, I’m so glad to see you,” and they also know when they say, “Oh boy, they’re going to take up way too much of my time.”
Facial expressions honor others too. A wink says, “I get what you’re saying.” Raising your eyebrows shows excitement, shock, and intrigue. Gritted teeth have a way of portraying fright. A simple smile lets others know you enjoy their presence, story, or joke. A furrowed brow and straight lips show empathy. Pastors spend a lot of time listening. When you can’t get a word in edgewise, track with the conversation by thoughtfully using facial expressions. Flat faces are the enemy of enthusiasm.
One’s posture also communicates an open or closed spirit. Folded arms say, “I’m not receiving your critique.” Arms at the side is non-threatening and open to the feedback of another. Sitting on the edge of your seat and leaning forward shows interest and enthusiasm, but too much of it can come across as aggressive. A hand in your pocket shows that you are relaxed and trust the other person.
Your proximity to the other person is a nonverbal often overlooked in pastoral care. Standing too close to someone is called “getting in their space.” You can also dishonor someone by moving away from them while they are in the middle of a story. Distancing yourself says, “We need to wrap up this conversation.”
Finally, physical touch is a nonverbal showing forgiveness, companionship, and even romance. Parents hold hands with their children to protect and lead their children across a busy street. A husband shows chivalry by placing his hand on the small of his wife’s back as she walks through the door he opened for her. A gentle hand on the shoulder can say, “Will you forgive me? I’m sorry.” Appropriate physical touch shows love. I give a lot of side-hugs on Sunday.
To be honest with you, the sixty-second counseling sessions and prayers on Sundays are the hardest for me. When they feel rushed, they come across as insincere. This isn’t my heart at all. The conversation turnovers are tough, too. One moment, I’m praying with someone battling cancer and the next moment someone asks if I caught the latest episode of Shark Tank. Whatever the situation, I want each person I come in contact with to know I esteem them as highly valuable no matter the duration of our interaction.
What do members of your congregation feel when they walk away from you on Sundays? What are some nonverbal ways you can show genuine care for first-time guests to your church? When you walk in the room, do you honor people with an enthusiastic approach? Blessings to you as you honor others in their presence.