What Are they really saying?

by Clyde W. Harvey

When a member of your congregation approaches you with a suggestion or question, do you know what he is really saying?

As leaders we often react to a person’s suggestions or questions without having a proper understanding of his real interest.

William Ury, in his book, Getting to Yes, says, “The basic problem in negotiation lies not in conflicting positions, but in the conflict between each side’s needs, desires, concerns, and fears.”

In other words, such desires are interests. Interests motivate people; they are the silent movers behind a person’s position. One’s position is something he has decided on. His interests are what caused him to so decide.

While I was interviewing at a small church in North Dakota, a farmer named Ed wanted to know my philosophy of visitation.

Knowing this could be a loaded question, I asked him to define what he meant by visitation? He replied with a tear in his voice, “I just want someone to come see me once in a while.”

His position had nothing to do with my philosophy on visitation, but everything to do with his interest in a pastor who would come by his farm once in a while.

After that congregation elected me as its pastor, I often had coffee with Ed.

When people approach their pastor with concerns about the church, what are they really saying?

The person who questions his pastor’s commitment to prayer services is likely not addressing the pastor’s deficiency as much as expressing his own interest. We need to introduce these people to others who have the same interests.

Everyone has a key interest that he will pursue. Those in children’s ministry will say, “We need more room for the children.” At the same time the senior citizens will say, “We cannot find a quiet place for our Bible study because you give all the rooms to the children.”

When someone approaches the pastor about a need, interest, or concern, the pastor should ask: Is there a real problem? Can I separate his position from his interests? What need, concern, interest, or fear is at the foundation of this conversation?

When dealing with interests rather than positions, a pastor will find that several possible solutions may meet the interest, but rarely more than one will meet the position.

Feeding one’s interests rather than arguing positions also works because behind opposed positions lie many more interests than conflicts.

A pastor will find that the most powerful interests are basic human needs. In searching for one’s basic interests behind a declared position, Ury suggests that pastors look particularly for bedrock concerns that motivate most people.

Taking care of these basic needs helps both sides reach agreement and function in the agreement.

We can trace most disturbances to a few, basic human needs: security, economic well-being, sense of belonging, recognition, and control over one’s life.

In the local church, each basic human need arises at the paid, as well volunteer, staff level.

Security seems threatened when others seem to be taking over.

A congregation may not completely trust a new staff person because members are unsure of his role and job description, and they may lack proper communication in times of change.

Economic well-being seems threatened when the budget is not well-planned or income is low. Workers may believe the loudest voice gets the biggest cut of the pie. Are your various ministries receiving their needed supplies?

Sense of belonging seems threatened when the church leaves certain departments out of the budget. Others may feel that they come in the door, do their ministry, and go back out the door without even a handshake. Those laboring in the church need to know that their pastor knows they exist, and that they are an important part of the church.

Recognition includes announcements from the pulpit and in the bulletin, bulletin boards that recognize the departments and individual workers, and special times when the pastor publicly recognizes workers before the entire congregation.

Recognition goes a long way toward meeting one’s need for security and sense of belonging.

Control over one’s life comes when the pastor releases each person in his giftings. Let those appointed to leadership lead, without a controlling hand or voice always telling them exactly what to do. Ask workers to commit to a segment of time in their service so they control when they begin and end their ministry involvement.

To understand the various interests of each side, write them down. This not only serves as a reminder, but also helps in your assessment as you gain more information.

Furthermore, listing them may stimulate ideas for building on these interests.


The pastor should not only seek to understand the interests of others, but he should also seek to communicate his own interests. Those in his congregation may not know what dwells deep in his heart, what he would like to see accomplished, or what his goals are.

Leadership is not a society of secret keepers. Leaders need to communicate, excite people about their vision, and inform people of their interests.

Many times, suggestions or questions disguise what people are really saying. Do not react. Ask: Is there a real problem here, or is this an unfulfilled interest?