Breaking the Ice and Getting Past Hello With Inactive Members
By Kenneth C. Haugk
Your first visit with an inactive member may have all the elements of a good story. There may be a beginning, middle, and end, and character development of the principals in the story – you and the inactive member. If the story is a satisfying one, there may also be the signs of a relationship beginning to develop, which makes the story of that first visit even more like the first chapter in a novel.
What to Do at the Beginning
Q. Do you have any suggestions on how to begin a conversation or visit with an inactive member?
A. I think people need to lower their anxiety level considerably and look at conversations with inactive individuals as just an interaction between two human beings. This is not a meeting between an “active” person and an “inactive” person, but between Laura and Amy, or Andrew and Nathan between two people with names, in other words. My first suggestion, therefore, is to relax.
Mostly, anxiety about a first visit is related to having a results orientation. There is also the normal anxiety that goes with any first-time meeting. You have learned the futility of a results orientation, so you should be freed from that burden. As to the shyness or tentativeness you may be feeling, just be as natural as you can. Talk with the inactive member in the same way you would anyone else.
The basic staples of greeting are yours to make use of: “Hi. How are you?” Because this phrase is so routine, maybe a little better would be, “How are things going with you?” or “How is life treating you?” Certainly you can add, “It’s good to see you,” or “It’s good to meet you.”
Q. What do you say after you say hello?
A. Again, you don’t need to make a big deal of this. Simply be genuine. Be casual. If the person is a stranger to you, you would spend some time getting acquainted. If you know the person already, less time would be necessary.
I’m going to give you guidelines rather than a canned speech. Formulas for relationships are self-defeating. You feel unnatural. The other individual hears the artificiality and feels unnatural, too. You are just two people getting to know one another.
The safest course is to focus on the other individual, having him or her bring you up to date on what’s been going on. You have to be careful of making remarks such as “I’ve missed you.” Share it only if and when it’s definitely true, but recognize that a statement such as this can come across lacking genuineness and trigger defensive feelings in an inactive member, which you do not want to do. Get the other person to talk about him or herself. Don’t throw the church bulletin in the person’s face, or a newsletter. Don’t just “happen” to have their box of contribution envelopes with you. Don’t come in with a planned agenda. You want to know what the other’s needs are.
Q. If an inactive member responds to my greeting by complaining that the church is always asking for money, and that people are always contacting him or her for that reason, how do I respond?
A. The first thing you need to communicate, in no uncertain terms, is that money is not the reason you are visiting the person. (And that had better be true! Money is a totally inappropriate subject to be talking about to inactive members.) You could say, for example, “This might have been true other times, but I can promise you I’m not here to talk about money. As I mentioned on the phone, I just want to check in with you and see how things are going for you.”
Will the inactive member believe you? Maybe, maybe not. That statement at least provides a measuring stick for the person to use as the conversation progresses. Trust will unfold as he or she sees the extent to which you live up to what you say.
What Not to Do
Q. As a way to break the ice and get the conversation going, should I first ask the inactive member why he or she became inactive, and then get into a discussion of that?
A. That is the exact opposite of what you should do. Starting there would be meeting your needs, not looking to the needs of the inactive member. Your focus has to be on the other’s needs.
If you met someone with a bad sunburn, would your opening remark be, “So how’s the old sunburn?” accompanied by a hearty smack on the back? If a family member who hasn’t been home for three Christmases suddenly shows up, are you going to kick the conversation off by asking, “How come you haven’t been home before this?” Both these openings would be rude and inconsiderate, and your native tactfulness already has told you that. First build a relationship of trust, then you will have earned the right to be shared with, and the inactive member will more than likely signal it by sharing with you spontaneously.
Q. Is too much zeal a danger in relating to inactive members?
A. As a matter of fact, I think anyone who reaches out to inactive members needs to have a very high degree of zeal. But the zeal has to he expressed in an accepting and loving way. Therein lies the answer to your question: The amount of zeal isn’t the issue, but how it’s channeled and what form it takes is.
Here’s an example someone shared with me, in which misplaced zeal brought unfortunate consequences:
One inactive woman in our congregation had been recently divorced, so I sent her a postcard telling her about the next meeting of a singles’ support group that I headed. This was a case of being too full of my own agenda. From my vantage point, knowing how positive and supportive the group was, I couldn’t imagine anyone taking such an invitation amiss. But from her point of view (as reported to me by another member of the singles group), “The church couldn’t even wait until the ashes of my marriage were cold to try to get its hands on me!”
My goof taught me two lessons. First, there is no substitute for personal contact. Second, I will never again offer my solutions for someone else’s problems. Instead, I will spend some time listening to find out what his or her needs are.
Being careful about how you channel your zeal does not mean being apathetic, or totally letting the other person alone. Be zealous about caring. Be zealous about sharing Christ’s love.
Real care is not overpowering. If you confine yourself to listening and being actively present with the other, you will already have the safeguards you need built into the relationship. This will require patience and self-restraint on your part, especially if you have previously thought of inactive members as individuals in the grip of apathy who need a strong shove to get them going again.
Q. Why does saying “I’ll pray for you” seem to hit inactive members the wrong way?
A. First of all, when an active member says, “I’ll pray for you” to an inactive member, this can communicate a lofty air of spiritual superiority. It may be interpreted by the inactive member as, “You poor, depraved individual, you need a lot of help and I am in a position to offer it to you because I have the inside track with God.” A healthy response on the inactive member’s part could be to look the active member square in the eye and reply, “And I’ll pray for you, too!”
A second problem is that such words can seem to dismiss whatever the real needs of the inactive member are. I’ll pray for you sounds glib in many contexts. It sounds like the person who says these words is looking for a quick and easy way to dispatch the other individual’s problems, without taking the time to listen, to empathize, to get involved. Such a perception of you can be deadly to any relationship you would like to develop.
Finally, these words can be uncaring and manipulative, an attempt to bend the other to your will for him or her. Suppose an inactive member makes some critical statements about the congregation. To respond, “I’ll pray for you” might very well be taken to mean, “I’ll pray that you realize God wants you to quit complaining and get back to church.” That’s akin to the kind of prayer a church welcomer made for a new member who happened to be an excellent tenor, but wanted to serve as an usher. The choir needed tenors, so the welcomer closed his visit with this prayer: “Lord, please open Jim’s heart and lead him to do his part where the congregation needs him most. Enable Jim’s ministry, wherever he serves, to be like music in your ears!’ A prayer like that may make newly active Jim become inactive Jim!
By the way, please do pray for the inactive member. You don’t have to announce it at all, and in fact to do so could put you in league with the Pharisee who prayed publicly so all would see what a righteous fellow he was (Luke 18:10-12). But praying privately, in your inner room as Jesus suggests (Matt. 6:6), will be good for both you and the inactive member. It will be good for you because it reminds you that God is really the one who is at work in the inactive member’s life. It is good for the inactive member because Scripture tells us it is (1 Tim. 2:1, 3-4).
There is a time when offering to pray with or for an inactive member is very appropriate. When the inactive member is dealing with an explicit life struggle, and the two of you have been talking about it, an offer to pray for the other is perfectly suitable. Suppose there has been a death in the family, for instance, or the inactive member has some major illness. Then to say, “I’ll pray for you,” shows your concern for the other, and will not be taken as an attempt to browbeat or cajole him or her. The difference is that you took the time to listen first, so that you really understood what the other was struggling with, and demonstrated your understanding during this sharing.
What to Do in the Middle of the Visit
Q. In visiting inactive members, how do you keep the visit from being just a social call? How do you move to in-depth discussion?
A. The best way to move to in-depth sharing is to keep your mouth closed and your ears open. Inactive members and most everyone else will talk about all kinds of in-depth issues when they are ready. You have to respect their willingness and their sense of timing.
Keep the focus on feelings. Ask open-ended questions, which are questions that can’t be answered yes or no. How and what are markers that indicate these kinds of questions.
Remember also that if you try to yank inactive members along to in-depth issues of your choosing, you risk never finding out what the issues are that really concern them. Many times when you think you know what’s bothering an inactive member, in all probability you don’t. The only way you will find out is by waiting and listening. Inactive members in many instances are struggling, sometimes crying out for help. They are just waiting for someone to come along who seems willing to listen. You can be that person.
Q. You said before that it’s bad form to open up the conversation with a question about why the individual hasn’t been involved. Should I ever ask an inactive member point-blank what his or her feelings are about the church?
A. certainly, within the context of a relationship you can ask a question like that. The relationship will take more than one visit to develop, probably, so you would not be likely to ask such a question in a first visit. The chances are very high that the inactive member will bring up the subject him or herself if you just wait. At that point you will be able to ask follow-up questions very naturally because you will base the questions on what the inactive member said.
Here’s a powerful follow-up question you might ask the individual in the course of time: “Where have we failed you?” Or if this is a bit strong for you, phrase it: “Where might we have failed you?” To ask a question like this requires courage. Words such as these are not for the faint-hearted. But they are words that mark genuine, courageous care.
Q. If I think an inactive person is not telling the truth, how can I encourage more honesty?
A. Defensiveness on the part of the inactive member is not the equivalent of dishonesty. You can expect defensiveness, and honor it by taking seriously whatever the inactive member says. Respect his or her right to work up to letting you in on what he or she is thinking and feeling after some testing to see if you are trustworthy.
You work on trust in the relationship by being trustworthy yourself. Listen for the inactive member’s feelings. Try not to get defensive. Keep your promises. In short, make yourself worthy of their honesty and then hope for the best.
Q. Suppose I believe an inactive member is just telling me what he or she thinks I want to hear – what do I do then?
A. Clarify what you want the individual to do. You could say, ”I have an idea you’re just telling me what you think I want to hear. But I am here to be honest with you, and I hope you will be honest with me.” Tell the individual you want to know what is genuinely of concern to him or her if you say, “I really do not have any preconceived ideas of what is best for you, and I’m not looking for some painted-over, sugary niceness, I just want to hear what is the truth,” then most people will tell you the truth.
Now, how can you be convincing in saying this? Let that statement be a true reflection of your inner attitude. You can encourage the inactive member to be either insincere or genuine. If you see your role as simply being there to issue an invitation to come back to church, for example, then the inactive member will pick up on that and may try to get rid of you in a hurry by saying, ”I’ll be in church on Sunday.” If you flinch, glare, breathe heavily, or clench your teeth when the inactive member gives an honest appraisal of some shortcomings of the church, the person will start to back away from further honesty. If you start trying to explain away some hurt the inactive member has experienced by offering a rationale for why it happened, the person is likely to back away. Mostly you want to listen and empathize, which means being actively present with the other while he or she states concerns and explains feelings.
Q. After a first visit, I thought there was a petty good chance I had messed things up. I think I did everything wrong. The inactive member ended up being extremely negative and defensive. Is there anything I can do after the fact to retrieve the situation?
A. You can get back to the inactive member as soon as possible after the visit, saying some variation of the following:
“When we were talking the other day, I’m afraid I really came on like Mr. Know-it-all. I certainly wasn’t listening very well to what you were trying to say. I was probably coming in with my own agenda, instead of being there with the purpose of hearing what you had to say. But what you have to say is what is important, and I feel embarrassed about the way I acted. I’m sorry.”
Depending on the person’s response, you might add:
“I sure hope we can talk again.”
An honest apology to anyone, inactive or active, is one of the most powerful statements you can ever make. It’s not easy to do, but it communicates care and concern for the other person’s feelings in a way that hardly any other statement can. By being willing to admit your faults, you give the inactive member a chance to reconsider his or her decision to write you off. Your honesty and vulnerability may not retrieve the situation, but it’s your only hope.
Q. Let’s say we in our congregation start with reaching out to recently inactive members, but after a lime we want to include those who have been inactive for more significant lengths of time. How can we go about relating to them?
A. Call them. Tell them you want to stop by and talk with them. The dialogue might go like this:
Inactive member: “You’re too late. I’m busy with other things now.”
Active member: “I’m really sorry we have let things go so long.”
How will the individual respond to that? Probably he or she will be pleased. You might then say:
Active member: “I’d still like to stop by.”
Much of the time the person will agree to see you. But sometimes the dialogue might continue like this:
Inactive member: “You’re wasting your time – I’m not coming back to church.”
Active member: “I’m not calling to get you to come back to church. I’m calling because it’s been a long time and I’d just like to sit down and talk with you. [Silence greets this assertion.] Do you believe me?”
Inactive member: “No, I don’t.”
Active member: “I’ll make a promise to you. If and when we get together, I’m not going to bring up church. If you want to, fine, but I won’t bring it up. That’s my commitment to you.”
People will respond very positively to such openness on your part. You can be nearly certain they will bring up the subject of church, but if they don’t, there will be plenty else to talk about that will tell you what their needs are.
Q. What is the single most effective way to attract an inactive member into wanting to be a more active part of a congregation?
A. Come across to the person in a caring, nonpossessive way, without trying to control or get results, but genuinely offering Christ’s love to him or her.
This question is almost like asking, “How do I get someone to love me?” Perhaps the only possibility is to love the other person. There is very little you can do or say that will make another love you. It just won’t happen. The only way an inactive member will regain love for a congregation is by being loved without conditions, as he or she is.
Q. If you had an opportunity to say just a few words to an inactive member, what would they be?
A. The exact words would vary depending on the situation and the individual to whom I was talking, as well as how I was feeling myself, but the gist of them would be:
“Tell me how things have been going with you.”
From there on, my responses would depend entirely on what the individual said in reply.
Are you surprised? Perhaps you expected me to say something like:
* “I wish you would come back to church.”
* “Please come back to church for your sake, for the congregation’s sake, for God’s sake.”
* “We are concerned about you, your spirituality, your relationship with God.”
* “God loves you so much. I wish you would realize that.”
By this time in this chapter, I hope you are not surprised. I hope you realize that what inactive members need most from us is permission for them to share their concerns, and the listening ear to appreciate and respond to those concerns. By this time I hope you realize that you are to be the incarnation of Jesus, that same Jesus who paused to ask (Luke 18:41) the blind man of Jericho, “What do you want me to do for you?” Just as Jesus did not take for granted what the blind man would want, so it will be with you in ministry to inactive members. What is really important? Not what you say, but what the inactive member says.
Article “Breaking the Ice and Getting Past Hello With Inactive Members” excerpted from “Reopening the Back Door”. By Kenneth C. Haugk.
‘This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, ‘Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.’