By Craig Thompson
Another call. Another broken-hearted friend. “Craig, my church is falling apart.”
How often have I gotten these calls? More often than I want to count. How often is this happening because of poor theology, bad preaching, or broken ecclesiology?
As best as I can remember, not once.
Why are pastors failing? Why are churches angry? There are hundreds of reasons, and the lack of health in the local church is one of them, but perhaps the greatest reason is the lack of soft skills among pastors.
Hard skills such as preaching, teaching, facility management, and fundraising are teachable and measurable. Soft skills are the things that make you a decent and enjoyable person, pastor, and employee.
Soft skills include communication, flexibility, leadership, empathy, and etiquette.
Recently, one of my seminary professors, J. D. Payne tweeted:
I’ve seen more church leaders fired over a lack of soft skills than hard skills. Schools primarily train for hard skills. We must do a better job. Churches primarily hire for hard skills but fire over soft skills. Students, be wise stewards: develop soft skills.”
Most churches don’t admit when they have to let someone go over a lack of soft or relational skills. They don’t admit it because they don’t have the vocabulary for it in their job descriptions or their performance evaluations.
It’s difficult to verbalize a person’s lack of empathy. It seems childish to be peeved over the fact that the pastor’s SUV is the first one out of the parking lot after worship services.
Since churches can’t explain a pastor’s flat bedside manner before a dying saint or his lackadaisical attitude toward a frustrated children’s ministry volunteer, they look for other things to complain about.
It’s easier to accuse a pastor of being too traditional or too contemporary than it is to address a lack of soft skills.
But, here’s the rub.
When people start looking for a reason to complain about or dismiss their pastor, it’s rarely for theological reasons.
People begin looking for reasons to dismiss their pastor because they got their feelings hurt or because they feel overlooked or unappreciated. Their pastor might be a preacher, but he hasn’t visited them or checked on them or showed concern over their failing health.
In other words, when the soft skills are lacking, people begin to nitpick the hard skills in an attempt to justify their frustrations.
We must excel in soft skills or we’ll fall hard.
If one hasn’t been trained in soft skills in seminary, one might believe they don’t matter much. This sentiment is reflected in thoughts like:
“The seniors are upset because I won’t eat lunch with them, but there’s nothing missional about lunch and bluegrass music.” Or perhaps, “All they want me to do is visit them in the hospital, but I’ve got a sermon to write.”
Seminary trains people in theology and ecclesiology. It trains some to preach and some to counsel. But rarely are pastors trained in how to make small talk or socialize in the church lobby.
There aren’t seminary classes on how to hold new babies and pray over their parents—or how to dress or honor the senior adults in one’s church. And since these things aren’t formally taught, it’s tempting to assume they aren’t important or biblical skills.
But, developing soft skills is worth the investment.
When we consider Paul’s lists of qualifications for elders, how many of those qualifications resemble hard skills?
When I read 1 Timothy 3:1-7, the only hard skill that jumps off the page is “able to teach.” The other qualifications are character traits and soft or relational skills—not hard skills that can be taught and measured with a textbook.
Consider the following list of soft skills from Paul. Elders must be:
- above reproach—offering impeccable character.
- sober-minded—not allowing one’s self to be easily influenced or carried astray; keeping a clear head.
- self-controlled—this goes without saying, but at least consider your tact on social media.
- respectable—this means, for instance, what you wear and how you carry yourself is important as a pastor. You have to carry yourself in such a way as to be considered worthy of respect in your church.
- hospitable—welcome people into your home.
- gentle—pastors can’t be bullies.
- not a lover of money—we have to eat, but we don’t serve to get rich.
- manage his household competently—this looks different in every situation, but you know it when you see it.
- keeping his children under control with all dignity—pastors who have children are called to be good fathers who properly discipline their kids in love.
Is this an exhaustive list of the soft skills required of pastors? No, but it’s a partial list that helps us to see soft skills are not add-ons from needy churches and church members. Soft skills are a part of the biblical requirement for pastors.
Developing Soft Skills Can Be Difficult
Many of these soft skills don’t come easily. Perhaps you’re introverted, have a quick temper, or just don’t really like having people in your home.
Maybe you’re suspicious of your congregation’s expectation that you tuck in your shirt or wear a tie because, “Jesus doesn’t care how we look.”
Maybe it’s hard for you for any number of other reasons. But, it’s hard for all of us.
Hard doesn’t mean impossible, and hard certainly doesn’t mean unnecessary. As pastors, most of our training and books and conversations revolve around hard skills because teaching and learning hard skills is easier than teaching and learning soft skills.
It’s time, however, for the sake of the church and the gospel message, that we stopped doing the easier things at the expense of the harder things.
We must manage our soft skills, or we’ll fall hard. Major in relationships and relationship-building. Jesus did this, and His relationships yielded disciples who eventually risked everything to follow Him.
We don’t have to choose between relational skills and measurable skills. We can—and we must—leverage our soft skills to get maximum impact from our hard skills.
CRAIG THOMPSON (@craig_thompson) is the husband of Angela, father of four, and senior pastor of Malvern Hill Baptist Church in Camden, South Carolina.