Joe L. was a friend of a friend I got to know a few years ago. I think he was a little younger than me, a United States marine, and had done quite a bit of work with the homeless before he had to retire with disability. Because of a variety of ailments, I occasionally visited him in hospitals, rehab facilities and at his home.
He knew I was a pastor, but we never talked too much about God. He was straightforward about what made him angry, what he wanted, what he needed and what he thought about others. I enjoyed that about him. I knew where I stood with Joe. No games. No pretense. No pretending.
One time I thanked him for that. He replied, “Why are you thanking me?”
I said, “Well, most of the time people tell me what they think I want to hear.”
Joe said, “What a waste of time.”
I have often thought about that conversation and that gem of wisdom. It is so true. There are precious few people with whom we can be completely honest and say what’s on our minds. We harbor far too many fears about what others will think of us, so we rarely express how we feel. And if Joe’s perspective is correct, we waste a lot of time telling people what they want to hear.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone this past year. Some people are still distancing from worship at church, so I just call and say, “Hi. I was just checking in to be sure you were well. What can we do for you?” After a while, the responses are predictable.
“Oh. Hi, Pastor. We were just talking about how we need to get back to church.”
“Don’t worry Pastor, we are mailing our offerings to the church.”
“I know we haven’t been to church lately, Pastor, but don’t worry, we still pray every day.”
“Pastor, we are still staying home, just to be safe. We don’t go anywhere, except for our doctors, the grocery store, the post office, physical therapy and the veterinarian.”
All I wanted to know was if you’re healthy and have everything you need.
Of course, we in ministry are guilty of the same thing. How often do I tell someone what I am really thinking about them? How often have I dulled the edges of my preaching so as not to offend as few people as possible? How often do I simply keep my mouth shut? It’s a skill you learn early in life and perfect as the years go on.
A lot depends on how you say something. There’s a time and place for honesty, but it’s also important to listen and understand before you speak. I believe you also need to examine your motives. Why are you telling someone something? To help them, or to hurt them? Is it for their benefit, or to make yourself feel good?
And of course, the more important skill is listening. Listening is never a waste of time. I always learn something. And I often hear what I need to hear, not just what I want to hear.