In his exceptional biography of Francis Asbury, John Wigger describes the characteristics that made the father of American Methodism an effective communicator. These four traits were:
1. legendary piety and perseverance, rooted in a classical evangelical conversion experience.
2. ability to connect with ordinary people
3. ability to understand and use popular culture.
4. organization of the Methodist church.
This is the second post in a four-part series that considers each of the traits that made Asbury an effective leader. I will also consider whether these traits are relevant for contemporary church leaders. (You can view the previous post by clicking the first trait listed above.)
The second trait that made Asbury an effective communicator was, “his ability to connect with ordinary people” (6). John Wesley was not known for this characteristic. In fact, there are a few examples where Wesley’s interactions with people are shockingly insensitive. Asbury, however, was gifted at connecting with people he met throughout his travels, building relationships with them even during short stays.
My favorite part of this aspect of Asbury’s personality is that he was known for having a good sense of humor in a time when “Methodists didn’t generally consider joking and laughter compatible with religion” (Wigger, 6). Even better, Asbury’s sense of humor was self-effacing. Here is one particular story that Wigger relates that also shows that Asbury did not take himself too seriously:
Once, when Asbury was nearly sixty and had been a bishop for nearly two decades, he and the ‘venerable, portly’ preacher Benjaming Bidlack came to the home of a ‘respectable Methodist’ in the Genessee District of upstate New York. Seeing Asbury riding in front, the man mistook him for an assisstant and ordered him to dismount and open the gate for the bishop. Bidlack played along, and as he passed by, Asbury bowed low, offering to see to the bishop’s horse and bags. When their host realized his mistake, he was ‘mortified’ until he saw how much Asbury enjoyed the joke (6).
The way that Wigger concludes his summary of this second aspect of what made Asbury an effective communicator is particularly intriguing: “People found Asbury approachable and willing to listen to their concerns more than they found him full of inspiring ideas” (7).
Asbury was an effective communicator and leader, then, because he was able to connect with people. He could make them laugh. He could even enjoy a good laugh at his own expense. People listened to him because they liked him, largely because they sensed that he liked them.
Would this characteristic be significant for contemporary church leadership?
People will rarely follow someone they do not like or they do not believe likes them. And leaders in the contemporary church will be far more successful in leading if they are able to relate to the people in the churches to which they have been sent to provide leadership.
Here are a few quick thoughts on how church leaders can connect with ordinary people:
1. For those who are seminary, stay in contact with “normal people” (whatever that means!). Seminary is great, but it can also unintentionally become a kind of bubble, where you forget that most people would not be interested in having a three hour conversation about various theories of the atonement, the difference between imputed vs. imparted righteousness, etc. My point is not that these things are bad. In fact, they are essentially to a seminary education. But seminary can unintentionally deform you from being able to relate to the “people in the pews.” And if people who are attending seminary because they have been called to local church ministry can no longer relate to the people they will be serving when the graduate, well, that is a problem.
2. Spend time with people on their turf. When I was pastoring a church in rural Oklahoma, a significant number of men from the church would meet for coffee every morning at the co-op. Driving up to a grain elevator, walking into a room with fertilizer bags, horse troughs, and hundreds of tools I had never seen before was initially a jarring experience! But I learned to love that time. I learned more about those men sitting on folding chairs around that plastic table than I ever did within the walls of the church. I also laughed more there than any other place in that town. They are precious memories! And looking back, I am amazed at the hospitality that these men showed in welcoming me into their favorite place to spend time together.
3. Relax and don’t have an agenda. Just spend time with people because they have been created in the image of almighty God. Listen to them. Hear what they are trying to tell you. If you do this, you will be invited into people’s lives in incredible ways.
4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Leaders always win when they laugh at themselves. And they win when they share credit and build up other people.
5. Remember that more often than not people want to know whether you care and whether you can be trusted. This is a hard one for me. My instinct is to try to bowl people over by my ideas, by content. But Asbury’s example reminds us that before people can hear our ideas, they first need us to hear them – really hear them.
So what do you think? How important do you think it is for leaders in the church to be able to relate well to other people? What would you add to my list of ways that church leaders can better relate to others?
Going from preachin’ to meddlin’: This post assumes that Christian leaders do genuinely love the people God has sent them to serve. I have been surprised at how often I have encountered pastors who are not good at listening at all. It is an area where I can always find room for growth myself. Are you a good listener? Do you habitually, maybe without even realizing it, interrupt people? Before you try to get others to hear you, how can you learn to better hear them?
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Josh Ratliff said:
Love the story about Asbury and Bidlack!
Jeffrey Rickman said:
I read that biography a little less than a year ago. It was one of the most enjoyable and powerful things I have ever read. My favorite story was how he humorously shut down Pilmore in the middle of a tirade.
I think his insecurity around his own humor is telling. It shows up several times throughout the biography. Wigger also points out that others in Christian history like Augustine have identified humor as a threat to faith at times. Likewise, I think familiarity in the course of visitation is a real threat to the power of the good news to transform lives. In my pastoral visitations, it has become more and more clear to me that many are expecting something like a social call, in which I hear whatever they want to say without any negative response.
But my understanding of the function of visitation is that it is more like a doctor’s house call, where it is primarily designed to identify a threat to faith and treat it. At times I have taken to having a pad of paper with me and writing out a prescription for people regarding prayers to say, daily disciplines to pick up, etc. This feels thoroughly Wesleyan to me.
Something I have been unable to figure out about Asbury is how he was able to so personally identify with people while also still modeling faith. So often I am put in the position of either blessing a person’s belief/conduct through silence or shaming them by speaking in their own house. I think of Wigger’s account of Asbury being present at a slaveowner’s house who was offended by Asbury’s distaste. How did he not find himself in those situations more often? He must have brought out the best in people. Or I bring out the worst. Either way, his ministry is one to be admired and emulated.
Kevin Watson said:
Thanks Jeffery. Wigger’s biography is exceptional. One of the most important books on American Methodism of the last several decades.
I really appreciate the push back regarding the role of pastoral visits. I think you are right that Asbury had the ability to both connect with people and challenge them to grow in their faith. I think this was, at least in part, related to his vibrant relationship with God discussed in the first post. It seems to me that this is something that you were modeling in the sermon you mentioned awhile back about finances.
The challenge is that if we alienate people, we can’t have influence. But a vision for pastoral ministry that doesn’t believe God wants to bring healing and transformation is quite problematic from my perspective – and I think it is safe to say from Asbury’s as well.
Jeffrey Rickman said:
Something I have struggled with a lot lately is this western logic concerned with alienating others (“You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar). So often we fear turning people off, such that they don’t ever give us a shot. But more often than not, I see ministries that operate by this concern floundering. It’s those ministries concerned only with truth, without compromise or apology, that seem to be more vibrant. I wonder of people actually respond better to a harsh message, even if they don’t like it very much. When I read Jesus (in the gospels) that is largely what I hear. If you have written on this phenomenon, please direct me there. If you haven’t, please do so soon. I haven’t found a lot of good voices to be in dialogue with around this. Thanks again for your thoughtful post. It was nice to have the overlap with the biography.
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