The good news is this can be very easily addressed, without Senior Pastors running themselves into the ground.
Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years to help introverted Senior Pastors practice being more relational:
1. Don’t focus on friendliness. Focus on displaying the fruit of the spirit.
Nowhere are we commanded to “be super friendly and outgoing” in scripture. But we are commanded to be joyful, peaceful, patient, and kind. The former is an unrealistic expectation for anyone, introverted or extroverted. It is perception-based. Trying to play to people’s perceptions is a fool’s game. Focus instead on exuding the fruit of the spirit in every encounter you have.
2. “Many light touches, few deep touches.”
Years ago Steve Sjogren, former pastor of the Cincinnati Vineyard and author of Conspiracy of Kindness, told me the way he survived being a Senior Pastor in a thriving, chaotic church, was to be strategic about how often he’d do a “deep dive” with a person. His goal was to physically shake hands and hug as many individuals as possible on Sunday morning. Then he limited the number of 30-90 minute intensely volatile emotional encounters he had with people during the week where they shared their problems.
By adopting a strategy like this, it clarifies what you’re trying to do with people. This also creates healthy boundaries for yourself. Probably the best advice I’ve ever learned from Andy Stanley is “Do for one what you wish you could do for all.” When we do that, eventually everyone feels the ripples of our love.
3. Smile when you preach.
The good news is that people can know their Pastor, even if they never actually meet their Pastor. 90% of the kinds of complaints about “unfriendliness” we receive stem from how we come across when we preach. Believe me, most people don’t actually want to shake your hand and talk about last week’s game with you. Quite frankly they’re busy, or intimated, or see no real need.
What is important is the perception that you are approachable if they need to approach you in the future. So help them out and smile. Watch yourself on video with the sound off and count the number of frowns vs. the number of smiles. Be brutally honest with yourself. Then change your behavior.
I used to do this with a former worship pastor who never smiled. It just didn’t come naturally. I made him force himself to smile once during each song he led. After a while it became natural, and the friendly guy I knew off stage, soon became the friendly guy everyone else knew on stage.
4. Have someone quiz you on people’s names.
Up until we reached 2,000 people in our church I had a staff member bring pictures of people in our church to our staff meetings and quiz us each week. This is incredibly helpful in the 200, 400, 600, and 800 range.
Now I focus on memorizing certain segments of people in the congregation. Knowing someone’s name is the clearest sign that you care. It’s certainly better than calling people, “Hey youuuuu…”
5. Make sure you have one pastor to every 100-150 congregants (even if they are volunteers).
The day I changed my staff member’s titles from “Director of” to “Pastor of” any complaints about my unfriendliness virtually went away.
Years ago I was sharing with a retired pastor friend of mine the unrealistic pastoral care and relational pressures being placed on me. He wisely responded, “It could be because you’re the only person with the title ‘Pastor’ in the church.” We were young. Staff were being created within the church and had little theological education (theological education is a huge deal for me). But they were pastors, and the moment I called them such (and accelerated their theological training) things changed overnight.
People need someone “official” they can turn to, and if you don’t have a 1 pastor to 100-150 congregant’s ratio, you’ll feel the effects. There are certain universal truths about the way congregations work, and this is one of them.
6. Publicize where you’ll be after services, and be there to greet people, every week.
The people in the church I serve know that after each service I stand at the back of the room until the last person leaves. My goal is to be available to have a word with anyone that would like to do so.
When individuals come up and start crying because of a heavy burden, I immediately invite them to speak with our prayer team a mere 20 yards away. For those that “must” talk to a pastor, I have a male and female pastor (or trained volunteers) on stand-by for all such situations, again, a mere 20 yards away.
I would suggest you have a similar set up for your people. Having a male and female pastor as well as a prayer team available frees me up to meet new people and connect with regular attendees. Without this I would inevitably be drawn into a single conversation that makes the other 15 people waiting to say hello eventually leave.
7. Open emails with “Hi _____” and end them with “Your friend, ______.”
You’d be surprised how blunt you can be in an email. It’s hard to gauge emotion through short, written communication. That’s just a fact. So as Senior Pastors we need to be strategic about the way we communicate. I always open the emails I send by writing “Hi” before I type the person’s name. That may seem insignificant, but trust me it helps. I know how I feel when I receive an email that is addressed “Hi Brian” vs. “Brian,” and so I’ve always wanted to respond in kind.
My friend Rick Stedman always ends his emails by typing “Your friend, Rick.” I occasionally do that, but that seems forced to me unless the situation is right. I have been doing it more and more, though. Rick would say he wants to be everyone’s friend, and he genuinely means it, so why not go ahead and say it? Good point.
8. Send one handwritten note a day.
Go to Overnightprints.com and order a cheap set of personally designed cards so you can hand write one note to someone every day. Few people send hand-written notes anymore, so it touches people when you send one.
My rule of thumb is whenever I feel thankful for someone, or blessed by their ministry, I want to let them know it. Ever been to a funeral and heard all these beautiful things people thought about a person, but you wonder if they ever actually shared those feelings with the person while they were alive? I don’t want to go to the grave with unexpressed gratitude in my heart. I want people that have blessed my life to know it immediately.
9. Tell three personal stories in your sermons.
While describing his Senior Pastor’s preaching, a congregant recently said, “He spoke for 45 minutes, and 99% of it was the Bible.” Preaching is simply truth expressed through personality.
If all you do is quote and explain scripture, people might as well read a chapter of a Bible commentary. People want to know you, so let them get to know you! Be personable from the stage by being transparent. Make fun of yourself.
I tell the Senior Pastors that I coach to tell an opening story, closing story, and one or two good stories in between. Help people feel like they know you from the stage, and the pressure will be off to get to know you personally.
10. Always give people “a look, a touch, and a word.”
Robert Schuller (before he got all weird and self-helpy), was a dynamite church planter. One of the best pieces of advice he ever shared with Senior Pastors was this: whenever you encounter people do three things: give them a look (look them in the eye), give them a touch (a handshake or appropriate hug) and give them a word (say something encouraging to them). That’s magnificent advice for any pastor, let alone introverts. Looking someone in the eye, appropriately touching them, and then sharing something encouraging with them, is a powerful gift we can give people. And that’s my encouragement to you. Focus on giving people something – a feeling, or a confirmation of love or hope – instead of trying to change their perception of you. “Give and it shall be given to you.”
11. When you meet someone new, find out their F-O-R-M.
A friend of mine, Russell Johnson, a Senior Pastor I interned with years ago, always impressed me by how he was able to make a personal connection with every new person he met. He was never at a loss for words. When I asked him how he did it, he shared a simple formula he follows during every new encounter. He asks them about their F-O-R-M: Family, Occupation, Religion, and Mission (what makes them tick). That’s such simple, easy-to-follow advice. One of the keys to being effective in ministry is mastering two-minute connections with the new people we meet. Using F-O-R-M as a conversation guide will make this task much easier.
12. Regularly tell your people how much you love them.
We should find a way each week to tell our people how much we love them, appreciate them, pray for them, root for them, and are thrilled to be their Senior Pastor (even when we don’t feel like it). Being in ministry is like being in a marriage. We speak healthy relationships into existence.
If we focus on continually telling our people how we genuinely feel about them (or want to feel about them), they will internalize that. I do this in my weekly “Behind The Scenes with Brian” email that I send to the congregation, in sermons, and in social media. But honestly, I don’t do it enough. I love the people that I serve, and I want them to know it, every week, just like I want my wife to know it, every day.
13. Adopt Jesus’ mental framework of ochloi and mathetai.
It’s clear that Jesus saw people in two distinct groups: there were the crowds (ochloi in Greek) that followed him everywhere, and then there were the disciples (mathetai in Greek). He spent time with both, but unevenly. To me, this is how I envision spending time with people on a weekly basis. On Sundays I’m with the hoi ochloi – I preach, pray, and minister to every single person that I can. But when the service is over, I spend the rest of the week with hoi mathetai – throwing myself into my staff and key leaders.
Knowing that Jesus spent hours with the crowds but weeks with his disciples gives me a theological basis for how I structure my time. Having a theological framework ungird my relational interactions removes any hint of guilt from not “spending enough time with” congregants. It helps me say “no” or “sorry I can’t meet” much easier. Reserve Sundays for hoi ochloi and throw yourself into teaching, loving, healing and serving them. Then spend the rest of your time pouring into hoi mathetai (the roughly 10% of the staff/lay leaders in your church).
14. Finally, remember that “No-one likes you as much as you think they do.”
The Senior Pastor of the church where I grew up used to tell people this all the time. Part of the reason we feel such a sting when we hear people complain about us is that we think, at our core, that people really like us. Like REALLY like us. The reality is they don’t like you as much as you think they do.
Knowing this lowers expectations. Once we realize this, it is freeing. It takes the wind out of the sail of our people pleasing tendencies. A sober self-perception frees us to focus on being vs. performing. It frees us even to be unfriendly at times towards people who, quite frankly, shouldn’t be coddled or placated.
Jesus certainly never focused on being liked “for being liked sake.” Neither should we. But we should always concentrate on being gracious. As my friend Avia, a missionary friend of mine in India always tells me, “Brian, be bold, and kind.”
If you think another Pastor might be encouraged by this, please share this on the social media tabs below. Thanks!