Can we be better speakers and listeners?

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Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

So I am sitting at a conference, watching the other attendees, fascinated at all the other activity going on. Yes, there are a few people sitting, listening and taking noted. But there are many more people who have come well-equipped to do other things. A few still bring books and newspapers, but many more do their reading on a phone, tablet or laptop. One person is preparing slides for a presentation. Another is catching up on email. Of course, some are scrolling through their Facebook newsfeed. Some have brought their breakfast with them. There is plenty of texting going on. Me? I admit, I was doodling on the back of the conference agenda as I listened.

It’s tough to listen. It’s tough to just it there and listen. It is hard, hard work. Which puzzles me a little. I have two ears that hear naturally, involuntarily receiving lots of sounds. But it is still hard to listen.

That got me thinking, when I was supposed to be listening, about those who listen to me preach each week. I can’t see everything everyone is doing, but I know there’s a lot going on. There are people on their phones, and I know they aren’t all using their Bible apps to follow along with the sermon text. I see a few of the weekly church newsletters in people’s hands — well, at least they will know about upcoming events. The congregation always includes a few note-takers, snackers, dozers, draw-ers, sneezers, whisperers, and nose-blowers. Some need to visit the bathroom, a few need a drink, a couple have to go back to the car to get their glasses, and who can help but watch the babies?

I know it’s different. I only have to keep their attention and they only have to keep their focus for fifteen to twenty minutes. But whether it’s a scheduled hour-long presentation or a blessedly-brief twelve minute homily, I believe there is a shared burden by both speaker and listener for effective communication.

For the speaker at the conference (or in church):

  • Do not read your powerpoint slides to me. I can read them myself, thank you very much.
  • Tell me stories, get me to laugh, paint some word pictures and engage my attention before you get to the weightier part of your presentation.
  • Make sure you haves a point. At some moment, give me something that will stick in my mind. It can be a phrase, a 140 character summary, a slogan, something to take with me.

For the listeners at a conference (or in church):

  • Don’t bring a diversion. Instead, come prepared to listen.
  • Take notes. Write down a few words, a phrase, a summary, something you can take with you.
  • Visit the facilities before the speaker begins.
  • Commit to giving the speaker some kind of useful feedback. By useful, I mean beyond the generic, “Thanks, I enjoyed that.”

I do not offer the above advice as an expert speaker or listener, just as someone who wants to learn to do both better.

 

 

Ocean City conference

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View from the deck of the Port-O-Call Hotel

My travel day to the district’s regional pastor’s conference in Ocean City, NJ began early. Really early. Since I had to fly out of Orlando this time, I was on the road by 3:30 am. Pretty easy drive, breezed through security with TSA pre-check, and had time for some people watching. A few things that caught my eye:

  • They still use dot matrix printers at the gate when printing out the passenger list. The zzztt-zzzttt-zztttt is a strange sound when you are used to laser printers. The continuous feed paper is a strange sight, too. Bonus points if you know the other place they still use these printers. That’s right — at the car dealership, as they print out your financing forms.
  • Chinese food must be popular for breakfast at the airport. The line at the Manchu Wok was longer than any other restaurant. I passed on the lo mein and opted for Cuban coffee and a muffin instead.
  • Classical music is still the go to background music at the airport. Hundreds of years later, Mozart and Handel fill the air at the busy gates. Is there anything else that can match the shelf-life of good classical music? 
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  • This guy carried two basketballs onto the plane. They didn’t seem out of the ordinary. They weren’t autographed. He and a friend practice their dribbling at the gate before boarding.

There was no line at the rental car desk. They asked me, “Will you take a free upgrade to an SUV?” Absolutely. A few colleagues met me there and we had a nice drive to the Jersey shore.

Ocean City, NJ

I am back in Ocean City, NJ for the annual pastor’s conference for our region of the English District. With a few exceptions, this is where we usually come. We have been in Lancaster, PA and Niagara Falls, NY, but this place is my favorite.

Which is an interesting phenomenon. I live at the beach. Well, not at the beach, but only ten minutes away. So why do I enjoy coming to another beach community? Continue reading

Fall conference time

Last week I spent three days at the Port-o-Call Hotel in Ocean City, NJ at our (English) district professional workers conference. It stood out as different from past conferences in a number of ways:

  • I didn't have an ocean side room this year. There is a silver lining to that, though. We had more people (forty-two) register for the conference this year than any I've been to since coming to the English District. That's the upside to a balcony overlooking the parking lot.
  • The main presenter, Rev. Dr. Lawrence Rast, president of Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, was engaging and interesting as he talked about cultural changes and the consequent challenges for the church and ministry. Typically, the presentations are as exciting as watching paint dry. His humor, observations about the past and the present, and engaging conversation were great.
  • I had great conversations with old friends I only see once or twice a year, with new workers in our region, and with the bishop himself. There is always a lot to catch up on, new challenges, new people to meet and some new opportunities for ministry.
  • We drove to a local congregation for our worship one evening, rather than using the daily conference room. It turned out to be encouraging for that church as well as a good experience for us.
  • The weather was absolutely gorgeous. The temperature dropped into the upper 40s at night, quite a difference from the daytime 90s I left behind in Florida.

Those of us who come up from Florida travel the longest distance to attend, but this year, it seemed worth it. Good job, organizers! We'll be back next year.

 

Professional worker’s conference (part 1)

 

After an uneven travel day, the conference began at 7 with a devotion and then the first part of Dr. Jeff Gibbs' presentation (professor, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis). While his presentation was promoted as being about witnessing, he took the topic in a different direction than expected. He chose to talk about the what of our witness, not the how, specifically different ways of presenting the gospel beyond the usual “Jesus died for your sins.” The Bible is filled with images of resurrection, reconciliation, growth and unity, all of which are good gospel themes. I think ourngoal will be developing a broader vocabulary for our witness, which should be interesting.

Of course, most of my conversations with my brothers have been about Adam's call and upcoming ordination and graduation, and Olivia's high school graduation. It's cool to have lots of good family news to share.

The most exciting part of the day was hearing a woman rant and rave about her disappointing first class accommodations on the flight from Jacksonville to Charlotte. Expecting to be treated as a diva, she got nothing but disdainful looks from the other business travelers, which really set her off. She continued to yell and shout on her way to her connection, prompting one man to say, “Maybe I'll be that important someday.”

 

Conference time

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It’s time for the annual English District Professional Church Workers Conference, held each May for the pastors, a few deaconesses and other assorted professionals in our district. After years of having the conference near the Detroit airport, we are moving out to the Sheraton Hotel in Ann Arbor.

The conferences always consists of devotions, keynote speakers, some workshops and an assortment of reports. For the first time that I can remember, we will receive CEUs for attending some of the sessions presented by Dr. Jeff Gibbs, a professor from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

I always have mixed feelings as this attendance-required (though some never attend) conference approaches. On the one hand, it is a nice break from the routine and a chance to see my colleagues from across the country who are part of the English District. On the other hand, these conferences are traditionally, in a word, dull. And that is saying it in the kindest way. The fact that attendance has to be enforced says something about the whole process.

I appreciate the hard work that the planners and presenters put into the conference. I think part of the problem is that we only get all the pastors of our district together once a year, so the organizers feel the need to squeeze in all the reports, greetings, and Q&A sessions possible. Most of this information could be communicated throughout the year, but I suppose it’s harder for a captive audience to ignore a live presentation.

I leave tomorrow morning and I will write about each day’s experiences here. It will help me stay on task and perhaps will cause me to reflect more on what is presented each day.

Last week’s conference

Last week, from Tuesday through Thursday, I attended the annual English District professional workers’ conference in Detroit, Michigan, close to where the district office is. I’ve faithfully attended many such events over the years, even though I am rarely thrilled by the program put together by the conference committee. I’ve learned I will always find a few bright spots that make going worthwhile.

First, the main speaker, Dr. Andy Bartelt, from the Concordia Seminary, St. Louis faculty was great, speaking about Isaiah 6 and 60. I especially liked his image of the breathing in and breathing out, that is, the church gathering around word and sacrament, then going out in to the world.

Second, I got to catch up with many of my friends from around the country, who I only get to see once a year.

Third, I got to meet some new people. This year, I got to know some of the guys doing inner city ministry in Milwaukee, WI, who are discovering other ways of funding this kind of work through grants and partnering with other church. I also met some men in their first year of ministry planting churches in inner city San Diego. Imagine starting from scratch, in a community of mostly agnostics and atheists, some homeless, some upwardly mobile professionals. I wouldn’t even know where to begin, so I learned a lot from our conversation. With nearly twenty-five years of pastoral ministry behind me, I’m learning to appreciate the next generations coming up, doing kingdom work, and making an amazing difference in a world that so much needs our Lord’s love.