By Carolyn Taketa
As pastors and leaders, we spend much of our time ministering to people through conversations. Whether it is one-on-one or with a group, a constant challenge for any leader is to foster, sustain, and navigate meaningful, soul-shaping conversations. While some may be more naturally gifted, anyone can learn and grow in facilitating spiritually significant interactions. So how do we get past the surface, uncover the heart, and talk about the real issues?
Jesus was a masterful conversationalist. One of the most transformational interactions in the gospels is found in John 4:4-30. By examining four elements of this remarkable conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, we can learn some tips on how to engage in meaningful dialogues.
1. Be intentional
Jesus deliberately chose to go through Samaria even though most Jews would have gone a different route to avoid it. Given the religious, ethnic, and social barriers between Jews and Samaritans, this was a surprising and uncomfortable choice. Yet, Jesus is quite purposeful in his destination, which sets the stage for the interaction.
Go into a conversation or a group setting with clarity about what you would like to take place. Prayerfully aim to get past the superficial exchange (e.g., weather, sports, entertainment). For example, set expectations early that your group will engage in real life; sharing authentic struggles and discussions about applying Scriptures to life. Remember to be discerning about the stage of the group, keeping in mind that newer groups will need time to gel and develop trust before conversations can go deeper.
2. Choose to engage
Jesus didn’t just pass through Samaria in a hurry. He stopped by the well at a specific time, sat down, and waited for this woman to come. Jesus made himself available, chose to engage, and initiated the conversation.
So often, we get focused on the tasks of running a group meeting or our daily “to-do” list that we miss God-given opportunities to engage. Carve out time to pay attention and be present for whomever God sends our way, whenever He sends them. For example, plan to hang out for at least 30 minutes after a group meeting is over so that anyone who wants to hang out after the official meeting time, can do so. Some of the most significant interactions happen in that pre-planned and unstructured time.
3. Ask questions
Jesus kicks off his interaction with the Samaritan woman with a question. During his earthly ministry Jesus asked hundreds of questions, not because he didn’t know the answers but because questions draw people out and reveal their true hearts.
What is more compelling? A question or a statement? Questions can elicit people’s thoughts, emotions, and the underlying issues in a situation. Since we ask questions when we want to know people better, questions communicate value and give space for people to share who they are and what they think.
As leaders, we might be focused on imparting information and instilling correct theology. However, it’s through asking insightful, probing, and powerful questions that people will open up and be inspired to change. Remember to go beyond the “what” questions and into the “how” and “why.” Also, don’t rush people into an answer. Silence after you’ve asked a question may seem awkward but is often necessary as people, especially the more introverted, process and formulate a response.
4. Follow up
In this fascinating interchange, Jesus listens to each of the Samaritan woman’s responses and keeps building the conversation from the abstract to the more personal, layer by layer. Jesus directs the flow of the conversation, which ultimately leads her to testify to his identity as the Messiah.
So how do we go from a general, abstract topic to something personal and transformative? Pay attention, listen closely, and follow-up well. In addition, we need to get past our own assumptions, filters, and agendas. Instead of being distracted or formulating a response while people are talking, we need to be attentive and truly listen to both the verbal and nonverbal communications happening on multiple levels. Remember that some people may need additional time and space to process what they have heard or learned.
When we follow-up with an observation, connective response, or a reflective question, we reveal not just how we are synthesizing the information but more importantly, how we value them as individuals. Moreover, if people share about a step they want to make toward change, ask for permission to hold them accountable and be sure to follow-up at a later time.
Let’s follow the pattern set by Jesus in this interaction by being intentional, attentive, engaging, inquiring, and following up. Then, our conversations are likely to be transformative, both for you and others.
Carolyn Taketa serves as the executive director of Small Groups at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, Calif., where she has been on staff since 2005. She oversees all aspects of the small groups ministry and participates in both the executive team and the worship planning team. Carolyn is a former attorney who has been leading small groups for more than 25 years and is passionate about biblical community, spiritual friendships, and authentic leadership. She is a contributing writer for SmallGroups.com and the host of GroupTalk, a podcast for the Small Group Network.