5 Ways to Improve As an Active Listener

listening-earLet me say up front that this post is longer than usual, but if you read it all and truly wrestle with it, you’ll be a better leader and your family and congregation will thank you for it. Let’s dive in!

Communication is key to being an effective leader and I would argue a genuine human being. After being called out by my wife, previous employers and team members for interrupting, I had to do some deep soul searching and take an introspective look at how I communicate, dialogue and interact with people in general. I realized I didn’t intentionally practice active listening.

Active listening is a communication technique used in counseling, training, and conflict resolution. It requires that the listener fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being said.

Honestly, this is an area I’ve dealt with for years and am just now actively working on improving. I think I’ve always known that listening is key; I just haven’t done a good job at it in every area of my life.

I actually wrote about leaders needing to listen in my last book Strange Leadership. In the book, I said, “Leaders are readers. Leaders are learners. Leaders are listeners.” I even pinned a TwitPic to my Twitter wall to share it with others. It’s been retweeted over 1200 times. I think we all know this is true deep down. The question is do we live this out? Do I live this out?

I’ve blogged and posted on social media numerous times that I see a counselor or therapist. I have for years and I highly recommend it, especially for pastors. Lately, this is what I have been working on with my therapist. I asked him to help me be a better active listener. So each week we work on active listening.

Here’s what I’m learning and here are five ways to evaluate yourself and do your own introspection:

  1. Leadership: Employers, are you open to feedback? Do you know and practice bottom-up leadership? Do you learn from your employees? When you lead and interact with your team and staff, do you really listen to them? Do you know their dreams, their passions, struggles, and frustrations? Do you hear them when they say their hurting, or tired, or burnt out and in need of rest? Employees, do you understand what your employer wants from you? Do you actively listen when he or she gives you instructions and corrections? Do you get defensive and interrupt them when they critique you or give you a performance evaluation? Pastors and church leaders, are you listening to your congregation? When you plan sermon series, do you have a good pulse on what your people are going through? Do you actively listen to their concerns, fears, and frustrations with where the church or leadership is heading? Do you encourage open dialogue?
  2. Counseling: Pastors, when you counsel people in your congregation, do you cut them off and interject your thoughts and opinions? I have in the past. Do you practice active listening in such a way (like a therapist would) that you can repeat back to them what they said? Good counselors and therapists will listen to you vent and share and then respond with, “So what I hear you saying is…” I know you have a Biblical worldview, a strong grasp of Scripture and theology, but there is much to be learned in this area. My wife is a counselor and they go through a grueling two-year grad school program to learn counseling techniques – techniques we would benefit from learning. A book I highly recommend is entitled Toughest People to Love. I’ve read it twice and found it thoroughly helpful and insightful. I also recommend you reach out to a local therapist and pick their brain. Ask them to teach you how to be a better active listener. And, if you’re not already doing it, make an appointment with a counselor. You will benefit greatly from it. Your family and congregation will benefit because of it, and you might learn something.
  3. Social media: Dave Adamson recently said that at North Point Church they strive to use more questions marks than periods. My friend, Nils Smith said, “Facebook is a social network, which means that conversation is central to the platform and the best way to create a conversation is to ask a question.” The biggest problem I see when I do an online presence evaluation as a church secret shopper is churches using social media as a broadcast tool only. They don’t truly create conversations and safe places for people to react, interact, and dialogue with the church and its leaders. My friend Brandon Cox wrote a helpful and insightful book entitle Rewired. In the book, Brandon writes, “The world around us is having a conversation about life, meaning, culture, and eternity, and we have an amazing opportunity not just to join the conversation but also to lead it. But too many in the church are struggling to keep up with this cultural shift and failing to use these communication tools to their full advantage. And this shift we are seeing toward a more mobile, social environment is actually a return to the form we were created for: to be in relationships, to have conversations, and to share our stories  with each other.” I encourage you to strategically and prayerfully rethink your social media strategy as a church with a focus on listening.
  4. Family: Did you know that if you learn this skill of active listening and utilize it intentionally and regularly, you will have a better relationship with your spouse and children? I can’t tell you how many times I’m watching TV or working on my computer while my wife is talking to me and then she says, “Greg, tell me what I just said.” I usually struggle to repeat her words back to her. Since I’ve been coached on active listening, I’ve gotten better at this. I’ve still got a way to go, but I’m growing and learning. You’ll find that your parenting skills and dynamics change with your kids if you truly pay attention to them, make eye contact with them, and say back to them, “If I heard you right, you’re feeling…” If you accept my advice and heed my own testimony, this skill can improve and for some of you, save your marriage and/or relationship with your kids.
  5. Relationships: One of the things that I’m proud of is that I’m a good friend. I truly care about those that I’m in a relationship with. When I interact with my friends now, I’m trying my best to actively listen. Too many times we’re quick to interrupt and interject our thoughts without allowing them to finish their thought and express how they feel. If you want to go to the next level in your life and relationships, learn to listen and then respond with grace and love.
  • You know who’s really good at active listening? Coaches and counselors. I think we, as church leaders, could learn a lot from them and apply this same technique to our various areas of ministry and service.
  • These are 5 things that I’m working on in my life and if you prayerfully assess and evaluate your own areas, you’ll have no regrets. Remember: Leaders are listeners. Let’s seek to lead and listen exceedingly well.
  • One last thing, friends and you haven’t heard me say this in YEARS: Go to my YouTube channel and subscribe! I am about to start recording regular content for pastors and leaders. I’ll be doing series for areas and subjects such as leadership in general, pastoral ministry, helps and coaching, guest services training and insights, ministry thoughts, mental health issues and awareness, and other things that I get emailed about. Please SUBSCRIBE today!

How I’ve Done Assimilation

I was a Campus Pastor at a multisite church for 6 years. After just “winging it” for the first year, I talked to my friend, Nelson Searcy, and he suggested I read his book Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church. Now, mind you, many things are discussed in the Fusion book, including first impressions (which is HUGE – you know how much I’ve written about that in the past). I’m just touching on the area of assimilation today.

I first read the summary of the book by one of my sponsors (seen to the right) called Leaders Book Summaries. After I read the summary, I was hooked and I had our entire Lead Team (our Senior Leadership Team) order and read the book. I then ordered copies for my staff at my campus and we read through it together, too. It’s an amazing read and well worth the investment. I highly encourage you to go get the book (paperback or Kindle) HERE. The leaders summary will give you the basics and highlights. The book will give you the full philosophy, principles, and strategy for the Fusion concept.

First Impressions Podcasts

Hello, friends. I’ve had the honor of being on several podcasts over the years. Recently, I was guest on some great podcasts where we discussed my book Secrets of a Secret Shopper.

I realized that I haven’t told you all about them, so I wanted to post them here for you to check out.

I’m in the process of recording several more, so stay tuned for updates.

For now, give these a listen!

Here Are Five Summer Tips from a Church Secret Shopper

I stay busy with church secret shopper consultations during the summer, as wise churches prepare for the Fall. Now that Summer has begun, let me give you 5 practical tips to implement at your church so you can prepare for a killer Fall. Here we go:

  1. Vision cast to your Guest Services team
    So often, people that serve on a church’s guest services team feel unimportant. They think they are not good enough to sing on stage, lead a small group or are not tech-savvy enough to serve on the production team. It’s vital that your leadership over communicate that this is not the B-team. This is not a place to serve for people that have no talent. This is a vital ministry and is a front door to your church. People make up their mind whether or not they will return in the first 10 minutes. First Impressions matter!
  2. Pray with your team before your first service
    Never, ever forget the God-factor when you serve in ministry. We are but vessels. We need the Holy Spirit of God to love, lead and serve through us. Pray each week with your team that they would be the hands and feet of Christ. Pray for God to break down walls of fear, skepticism, and distractions. Pray that the lost would come to Christ and that the hurting would find healing and hope.
  3. Remember it’s always someone’s first Sunday
    I really can’t stress this enough. No matter the size of your congregation, chances are, someone is entering your doors for the first time. The larger your church is, the more this is true. Churches of 200 can expect at least 5 to 8 guests a week. Larger churches welcome even more into their midst. When you gather with your Guest Services team to pray before your first service, remind your team of this simple truth. Focus them on their mission to welcome all who enter with love and to be a servant.
  4. Free up your hands
    One of my pet peeves is when I see people on the Guest Services team that have a coffee or cell phone in their hand. This is a red flag for me. I want my team shaking hands, hugging regular members, holding open doors and pointing to where people need to go (or even escort them there.) If your team member is distracted by looking at their cell phone, it is one of the rudest and worst first impressions you can give a newcomer.
  5. Focus on your guests and not your team
    A lot of times when I visit a church or even attend my local church, I’ll notice team members in conversation with each other and talking while guests pass by them. Again, this is a red flag and a big no-no. Another pet peeve of mine is parking lot attendants standing next to each other and talking. Parking lot attendants should be spread out and not bunched up together talking. Door holders, ushers, and greeters should be focused on their role and not engaged in conversation with friends. Make eye contact with all who enter, smile and welcome them.

First impressions matter, so take them seriously and do all you can to remove distractions and barriers for your guests. Love and serve others like you would want to be loved and served.

Finally, give all the glory to God. It is He who uses us as jars of clay and melts cold hearts. The cool thing is we get to be a part of that supernatural process.

I hope you’ll implement these tips and have an amazing Summer. If I can serve you and your church in any way, I’d be honored. You can go here for more info on my consulting.

Weekend Worship, Guest Services, and the First Impressions Conference

Hey, friends! Did you know that there is a Facebook group where we talk about everything that happens on a weekend at the local church? There is!

If you serve as a pastor, church staff member (Communications, Children’s, worship, guest services, first impressions, hospitality – or even on the security team) – this is a great place to share best practices, ask questions, and learn.

Go HERE to join in the discussion. Remember – this week could very well be someone’s first Sunday at your church. LOVE and SERVE them well.

  • And if you haven’t already, go sign-up for the first annual First Impressions Conference. It’s May 1-3 and it’s all online (no travel). Check out the speakers, sessions, and the schedule is posted at the bottom of the website. See you in May!

*** And just for readers of this blog: Use coupon code GREGATKINSON when you check out and save 20% off conference registration. Put the code in right under the word “Tickets.”

 

How to Reach More First Time Visitors for Your Church

Are you a pastor or church leader with a full schedule and only limited hours in the week? If so, are you struggling to find ways to reach more first-time visitors with the limited time you have?

Being a pastor isn’t just preparing for Sunday’s message every week but the scope goes much more beyond that. And on top of all of that, you must find a way to reach more visitors and to spread the message of Christ.

There just isn’t enough hours in the week for everything a pastor must do.

And with that, I am so excited to invite you to the Church Hacks Summit to Reach More First Time Visitors!

They’ve assembled 25 of the world’s leading church first impressions, guest services, and marketing experts to teach you their secrets on how to reach more first-time visitors and grow your church.

I’m honored to kick off the Summit with the opening talk on why hospitality matters. I’ll be making the Biblical case for why you should take this area of ministry seriously.

This is going to be a free online event (no travel) for equipping your church with proven systems and strategies to connect with new first time visitors in your community! We’ll show you how your church can be a magnet for first-time visitors without being gimmicky, breaking the bank, or setting unrealistic expectations.

And the best part of the Church Hacks Summit is that it is 100% absolutely free! If this is something you’re interested in, just click this link and register today! And if you know somebody that would benefit from this Summit, make sure to let them know.

The Interruptions Aren’t Interruptions

It’s 2pm on a Thursday and you are knee-deep in your sermon preparation and coming down the homestrech. The energy, caffeine, and momentum is just right – you feel you’ll finish before 6pm and make it home in time for supper.

Then it happens: You get that knock on your door and look up to see someone standing in your doorway saying, “Do you have a moment?” – they’re not interrupting your work. They ARE your work.

Ministry is about people;  it always has been and always will be.

One thing that bugs me is hanging out with pastors that say (not jokingly), “Ministry would be great if it weren’t for the people.” It pains my heart that pastors and Church leaders don’t get this simple truth. We are the Body of Christ and every member is important and special. We are called to shepherd God’s people and that involves getting our hands dirty and yes, being bothered and interrupted.

IMPORTANT: This isn’t about being an introvert or extrovert. This is about being sensitive to the Holy Spirit, who is always at work around us.

As ministers, we should seek the opportunities to show and express Christ’s love to those we lead and serve.

Speaking of seeking opportunities: You have to be intentional. What does your weekly schedule look like? How many breakfasts, coffees and lunches do you schedule each week? I fill lots of my calendar with people meetings and have for 22 years.

If you go from administrative meeting to meeting and never schedule any time with your congregation members, volunteers and staff, and people in the community, you’re missing a crucial part of leadership and the opportunity to be God in the flesh to someone in need.

Please note: It is very important to set boundaries. I used to do all sorts of late night meetings. Now, I make people schedule a meeting during office hours. There is the rare exception/emergency, but that’s to be expected in ministry.

My encouragement and exhortation to you is to leave some margin in your schedule for the unexpected. Have time set aside in your calendar that is empty, so when the interruptions come (and they will), you’ll be able to get back on track.

So where do you go from here? Here’s an action item:

When you notice someone down, frustrated, hurt or just not themselves, you should take the initiative to ask if they need someone to talk to or how you can pray for them. When you’re in the midst of busy/office work and someone calls, texts, emails, IMs, or drops by your office – take the time to listen and serve.

Be the hands and feet of Christ to those you come in contact with – it’s what we’re called to do and you’ll be a better and more trusted, respected and loved leader because of it.

So – confession time: Have you ever been in the midst of busy/office work and had someone drop by unannounced? How did you handle it? Do you have the presence of mind to be sensitive to the Spirit?

 

*** This is an excerpt from my bestselling book Church Leadership Essentials. Get copies for your team HERE.

Wonder: Old Story – New Song

I once asked Pastor Derwin Gray how he stayed so passionate and fired up about his faith, his ministry, and his relationship with Christ.

He said, “I just think about what Christ has done for me.”

I’ve been taking a little time to do some soul searching and reflecting. I think because I became a Christian so young, I have lost the “wonder” of my salvation and stopped singing a “new song.”

Our faith and the Gospel story is a very old story, but it should never get old to us. I know that in my mind, and am trying to live it out in my heart.

Pray for me, that I “stand amazed in His Presence” and sing a “new song” once again. I will pray the same for you.

Greg Atkinson’s Top 20 Blog Posts of 2016

I thought I’d take a look back at the most popular blog posts of 2016. Important to note is that there are a few that are targeted to pastors and preaching. There are also a few focused on Easter – which is good for this time of year.

There are also a couple on my church secret shopper ministry. You can go here to learn more about hiring me to evaluate your church’s weekend experience.

Also, please check out my new book Secrets of a Secret Shopper – which goes into great, practical details on how to turn first-time guests into second-time guests.

HERE ARE THE TOP 20 POSTS FOR 2016:

Leadership and the Power of Momentum

Ministry, Leadership, Worship, and Expectation

Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Life, and Lies

Preaching and the Power of Imagination

5 Ways to Improve As an Active Listener

Digital Real Estate Matters

Always Point People to the Church Website

The Seasons of a Church Secret Shopper

Help Your People Say “No”

5 Tips from a Church Secret Shopper

7 Tips for Guest Worship Leaders

Easter 2016 Review and Learn

The One Thing You Must Do this Easter

3 Ways to Still Have a Team After Easter

Don’t Quit! We Need You.

Don’t Tell Me Men Don’t Sing

You Don’t Always Have to Hustle

Have You Ever Considered a Church Secret Shopper

7 Lessons from Peyton Manning for Pastors

99 Questions When Hiring a Worship Pastor

Preaching to Yourself: The Most Important Sermon of All

contempating

Do you talk to yourself?

I don’t mean when you’re wrestling through your taxes or walking through your to-do list. But do you talk yourself, really? When you are fearful, do you command your soul to trust in the Lord?  When your affections are low, do you command your heart to bless the Lord? As Paul Tripp is fond of saying, “No one is more influential in your life than you are because no one talks to you more than you do.”

In the particularly difficult moments of the day, how do you talk to yourself? How do you specifically exhort yourself to hope in God?

Psalm 103 has been immensely helpful for me as a pattern for commanding my soul in seasons of low affection. The Psalm begins (Psalm 103:1–2) and ends (Psalm 103:20–22) with David’s exhortation to his own soul to bless the Lord. While there is much to draw out of this rich text, I’d like to highlight two observations:

  1. Remind yourself of what the Lord has done

Sin, pain, or sorrow can blind us to God’s present work and, occasionally, even the miraculous ways He’s worked in our lives in the past. And while we might argue with our journal or with our memory, God’s work in redemptive history is unassailable. David helps us by reminding himself (and us) of God’s irrevocable work for his people in history:

The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.

David takes us (and himself) back to the most pivotal event he can think of. And it’s not in the valley of Elah with three smooth stones in his hand and a sling by his side. In fact, it’s not even an event from his lifetime.

Instead, David brings us back to Sinai (see Exodus 6:6–9). He brings us back to the moment when the Lord worked powerfully and victoriously and decisively to redeem his people out of Egyptian bondage. He brings us back to the moments when God demonstrated his covenant-keeping love.

In the fight to command our souls to bless the Lord, we not only call to mind the things in general that are true about the Lord (see Psalm 103:3–5), we follow David’s example to get our arms around concrete, unassailable realities of his work in redemptive history. We lift our gaze above our own circumstances and fix it upon the Lord’s acts of provision and deliverance in the past. We tell ourselves what God has done — in history, for us.

  1. Hold fast to a specific truth about the Lord

David does something very instructive next. Having reminded himself of who God is and what God has done in redemptive history, he latches on to a particular text, specifically Psalm 103:8,

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

David is quoting Exodus 34:6. At the heart of David’s self-exhortation (cf. also Psalm 145:8!), he has a particular text in mind — one frequently recalled by Old Testament authors in the midst of sin (Joel 2:12), sorrow (Lamentations 3:21–23), and pain (Psalm 86:15).

David, Moses, Jonah, Jeremiah, Joel, Nehemiah, and Hezekiah — they all went here for help (Jonah 4:2; Nehemiah 9:16; 2 Chronicles 30:9). And David, having to mind this text, begins to spin out all its implications — God’s anger does not last forever, sin has been cast as far as the east is from the west, God’s compassion will not fail because David is his (see 103:9–19).

David is moved. A heart that was faltering is now soaring. A deeply wrought gratitude now swells up to expression. He cannot keep it in: “Bless the Lord, O my soul” (see Psalm 103:20–22).

When you’re talking to yourself, are you reminding yourself of what God has done for you in Christ Jesus?

Do you have specific texts with which you exhort your soul? When the days are darkest, don’t let your soul take command. Summon your soul to bless the Lord.

Find specific texts by which you can fight the fight of faith — perhaps some short ones like these: Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5–6; Isaiah 41:10) and long ones (Romans 8:26–39; John 10:7–18; Psalm 103!.

“May the word of Christ dwell in you richly. . .” (Colossians 3:16).

  • The following was a post by Ryan Griffith that originally appeared on desiringGod.

Ryan Griffith serves as the Assistant Professor of Christian Worldview and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, MN.

  • Check out THIS video of Paul Tripp talking about preaching the gospel to yourself.