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What an incredibly difficult ten months this has been for so many Americans.  In addition to the struggles many of us had with life in general pre-COVID, a recent national survey indicates that, during this pandemic, we have had a three-fold increase in the number of Americans exhibiting signs of depression! That is a staggering statistic. 

Yet there is still an amazing, under-utilized ministry tool available to us, and which can be used effectively “at a distance”: the telephone.  All of us should be considering whom we need to call; someone we suspect might need human contact during this depressing pandemic when so many are experiencing social isolation.

However, I am not suggesting one of those “Hi,-how-are-you?-Fine” kind of conversations.  I’m thinking of meaningful, thoughtful and repeated conversations where the recipient feels cared for; where you are both a friend and a counselor.

One of my favorite Scripture passages is Ephesians 3:16-19.  “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.  And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is that love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”  This text, at least in part, captures a vision of what the fellowship of the Body of Christ can and should be.  And in pre-COVID, more “normal” times I would like to think that my brothers and sisters in Christ who are struggling are being supported and encouraged by their congregation.  Well even if that was the case then, it is far less likely now.  There are so many out there who are feeling cut off from whatever social support system they could once count on from their fellow church members.  And this will be an on-going issue for many months to come.

This ministry challenge — and opportunity — came to mind when I read a November 19th New York Times column written by David Brooks.  This article focused on some of the keys to having “deeper conversations.”  And the following insights and recommendations from Brooks are by no means limited to face-to-face conversations.  They can just as easily be utilized on the phone.  Here are five of the recommendations David Brooks shares when it comes to facilitating “deeper conversations.”

1. “Ask elevating questions…Some questions, startling as they seem at first, compel us to see ourselves from a higher vantage: What crossroads are you at?…Whom do you feel most grateful to have in your life?  What problem did you once have but now have licked?  In what ways are you sliding backward?”

2. “Ask open-ended questions.”  Instead of questions that tend to limit conversation, “better questions start with ‘What was it like…’ or ‘Tell me about a time…’”  I would add, “What has been the hardest part of this pandemic for you personally?”

3. “Treat (your) attention as all or nothing…In conversation it’s best to act as if attention had an on/off switch with no dimmer.  Total focus.  I have a friend who listens to conversations the way congregants listen to sermons in charismatic churches — with amens, and approbations.  The effect is magnetic.”

4. “Don’t fear the pause.  Most of us stop listening to a comment about halfway through so we can be ready with a response.  In Japan…business people are more likely to hear the whole comment and then pause, sometimes eight seconds, before responding, which is twice as long a silence as American business people conventionally tolerate.”

5. “Keep the gem statement front and center.”  In this time when our culture seems embroiled in partisanship and conflict this is a particularly apt insight from Brooks.  He writes, “In the midst of many difficult conversations, there is what mediator Adar Cohen calls the gem statement.  This is the comment that keeps the relationship together: ‘Even when we can’t agree on Dad’s medical care, I’ve never doubted your good intentions.  I know you want the best for him.’”

One additional quote that Brooks shared in this article is from journalist Amanda Ripley: “Humans need to be heard before they will listen.”

I have some suggestions of my own when it comes to these deeper, more meaningful conversations.  And these apply to both phone and online communication.  One is that for on-going relationships it can be helpful to set up each conversation in advance; preferable agreeing on a next time at the conclusion of the previous conversation.  That way he/she has the assurance that you will continue to be available; that this is not a one-time-only conversation.  And finally, I think that it is helpful if this person knows you will be praying for him/her.  I’m not talking about the judgmental cliché, “I’ll be praying for you.”  Instead, “I want you to know that I am including you in my prayers each and every day.”  And then do it.

Pastor Don Brandt

Congregations in Transition