Growing in care

August, for me, is a month of getting jobs done. Work is a little less busy, so I have more time to make those calls – or pop into stores – to progress the tasks of daily living that pile up for us all. Whether it’s sorting out banking or broadband, there’s always something on the list to address.

Today, as I have tackled some of those tasks, I’ve become acutely aware of just how different customer service can be.

I’ve experienced customer “care” that didn’t try to serve me at all. One conversation involved a member of staff enquiring in passing about my circumstances and then proceeding to tell me exactly what I needed. I assured him his ideas were far from accurate but still he persisted, knocking down the price just a little to try to persuade me to buy in to his plans for my life. After 40 frustrating minutes, I left the conversation with tears in my eyes. He had not listened one jot. I was just a sales target for him (not one that was fulfilled!)

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve experienced customer care that tried far too hard. Sitting with one adviser, I was assured and reassured of how much my custom was valued. I had things explained – re-explained – and reinforced. I had all the assorted options set out before me (even the ones for which I was ineligible). I had videos to watch – which were, naturally, summarized by him after I had watched them. Every box on his checklist was ticked by the end of the conversation (some in triplicate, I suspect). You could not fault his desire to be thorough, and he did get the job done, but what should have been an effortless process became a burdensome one as conversation progressed through ever decreasing circles, and my will to engage slowly ebbed away.

Thankfully, I also experienced outstanding customer care this afternoon. One young man asked pertinent questions, gave me options, respected my wishes, progressed what was needed in a timely manner and was relaxed enough to ensure we both giggled along the way. He got to know me enough to be able to recommend what was helpful and, of course, I did not hesitate to sign on the dotted line. 30 minutes in store with him was a joy and I came home feeling heard, understood and with life progressed. There is no doubt he will get a 5* review when the inevitable text message pings.

It has been a day of strong emotions but, as I was sitting on the bus home (still mumbling to myself about the first 2 encounters), it occurred to me that our pastoral care in churches can fall into similar traps.

How easy is it, for some of us, to assume that a piece of advice – or a thoughtful Bible study – that helped one person, is bound to help another? So, we whip it out, unthinkingly, hoping to play a trump card that solves the problem and sends the person away rejoicing in the Lord, so we can get on with our day.

How easy is it, for others of us, to try a little too hard? To ask and ask. To suggest and suggest. To call and text and WhatsApp and write. To summarize and recap and be so attentive that the other person feels a little, well, smothered. Sometimes we try to help more than the relationship we have with them can sustain.

How important, then, for us to be people who prayerfully seek to steer a path between the 2 extremes.

  • Asking questions to get to know people but keen to respect their boundaries;
  • Being willing to share with them timeless gospel-truths from God’s word but knowing that human beings are not one-size fits all. Different people will need to hear distinct aspects of God’s word at various times.
  • Thinking wisely about what would be helpful for them but willing to accept feedback if they indicate we are on the wrong lines.
  • Wanting to serve but going at the pace our friends are comfortable with, letting the relationship grow organically.
  • Acknowledging that the topic of conversation may indicate one person is in need, and the other walking alongside, but still embodying that sense that we’re both just people who can chat and laugh together without things always needing to feel intense.

The list could go on. And, maybe, it should.

One other way I tend to spend August is reviewing how I want to do things differently when the new term begins. As it says in 1 Peter 4:10:

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.

Faithful stewards are attentive to the ways they are using God’s gifts.

You might like to do some reviewing too? When it comes to conversational ministry:

What are the traps you tend to fall into?

If you do not know, you can always ask a few chosen people for feedback. You can also pray the kind of prayers that pick up on the “search me” language of Psalm 139, and ask God to bring to light anything you need to know.

What are some of the steps you can take to grow?

Maybe there’s a book to read, a course to do, a conversation to have, some informal supervision to put in place or some personal change in which to engage.

Thankfully, God does not expect us to be perfect. And there is grace for those moments when we under-listen or over-attend. We do not need to tie ourselves up in knots trying to be the perfect friend to those in need. But identifying one or two areas for growth…that is never a bad thing.