One of my most spiritually rewarding experiences took place in a very irreligious setting.
It happened at Harvard University. Harvard began as a profoundly Christian university, but by the time I arrived for a one-week course in nonprofit management, the Christian ethos had left for higher ground. Christianity and the Ivy League had divorced decades ago.
The Harvard learning model includes case studies and cohorts. We explored 25 case studies during the week and teamed up in groups of five for relationship-building exercises.
Every student brought a “business” problem to solve. It was part of the team experience to receive direct input on the issue you brought from home. Mine entailed strategizing how to best scale the multi-site model at the church I had founded 14 years earlier.
The course I attended included 125+ nonprofit leaders from around the world — leaders of art nonprofits, Goodwill chapters, healthcare organizations etc., etc. I was the only one pastoring a congregation.
My pastor role and Christian faith made others “suspicious” of me from the start.
When my problem-solving turn arrived, one of my teammates immediately confronted me.
The rest of us were shocked by his words. Several group members had previously sought me out at lunch or dinner and shared family and marriage struggles. They had come to Harvard to solve business issues, but they sat down at my meal table to solve personal ones.
I confess I became a little fiery when confronted by the team member who believed I shouldn’t have made the cut. “I have just as much a right to be here as you do,” I told him. “I paid the same fee you did!” He sat silently while the rest of the team helped me discuss the future direction for my church.
At the end of my session, the group was to spend the evening together. I phoned a friend who travels extensively. “Where’s the best place to go in Cambridge?” I asked. “Take them to Paddy’s Lunch. It’s the oldest bar in the U.S. Great place.”
When I suggested we go there, one team member asked, “You can go to a bar? Aren’t you a pastor?” “Yeah, but I’m Lutheran,” I smiled. “We drink.”
The evening was a ton of fun. We talked about home and kids and jobs. We all even promised to stay in touch afterward. We didn’t head back to campus until midnight.
Friday morning, at breakfast, the confrontational team member sat down next to me. “I need to apologize for how I treated you the other day. I’m really sorry.” I asked him what exactly about my situation caused him to react the way he did.
He told me how the church back home in Melbourne had treated his daughter. She had ended up leaving Christianity, and so had he. The memories brought him to tears. Of course I accepted his apology. I also asked for his forgiveness for how the Church had hurt his family. We hugged at the end.
I’ll never forget that Harvard week — the professors and case studies were terrific. More than that, though, I was able to be a pastor to leaders who didn’t have a pastor but sorely needed one.
I believe everyone needs a pastor — especially those higher up in organizations. The more elevated your seat, the harder it becomes to place your soul under someone else and to seek spiritual counsel. Spiritual counsel is exactly what is needed for all of us as spiritual beings.
As I’ve reflected on what led those leaders at the Harvard course to seek me out for counsel, I’ve landed on a few practices I recommend for every Christian wanting to build faith bridges at work.
I’ve used these practices not only at Harvard but on juries and airplanes. I’ve used them at dinners and parties, and I’ve used them at soccer fields where parents are present only because their child is on the field.
If these practices work for me — someone who wears the intimidating “pastor” label in settings where pastors usually aren’t valued — they’ll certainly work for you.
I believe that many (if not most) Christian leaders want to be spiritually approachable and want to present an air of welcome rather than one of judgment.
Humans deeply desire a God who is for them. When you radiate that spirit, you become spiritually approachable. This is a core trait you need if you want people to know your Savior in a culture that is becoming more and more opposed to Him.
The first practice is to ask questions. Questions communicate to others that you’re interested in getting to know who they are. More than that, questions communicate value and respect.
Start building workplace relationships by starting at the ground level. Ask nonthreatening questions — ask about their family, their spouse.
“How long have they been married?”
“Where did they meet?”
“Where do their children live?”
“What do their children do?”
“What do they do for a living?”
“Why did they choose that career?”
“What do they love about it?”
“Do they see themselves retiring in that profession?”
“What would they love to do otherwise?”
These may seem simple (or obvious), but this simple practice is critical. Many of us are not conversationally astute at asking questions, and it’s a skill we must sharpen. How many times have you left a conversation and thought, “They weren’t that interested in me.” Most likely, you felt that way because they never asked you any questions. You left that conversation with the perception that they didn’t want to learn about you, your thoughts, or your opinions.
Many of us aren’t comfortable sharing about ourselves. But, we can overcome this discomfort by asking questions. Asking questions helps break the ice and pull all parties into the conversation.
One of the questions I routinely ask at every stage of the relationship is some version of the question “Why?”
“Why is that, you think?”
“What about her attracted you?”
“What led you to become a doctor?”
By asking questions that explore the reasons for behaviors and emotions or for choices and decisions, I am able to better understand someone. I get to know the real being behind the name. I get a peek into their humanity.
“Why?” types of questions also allow others with whom we interact to share pieces of themselves. Self-disclosure is powerful.
Listening to and learning about what others value opens the door for future spiritual conversations. When people feel known, accepted, and understood, they are more likely to explore spiritual issues and interactions.
So many people with whom we come into contact might not label conversations as spiritual. When you haven’t embraced a faith, it’s hard to recognize that all of life is spiritual. Every decision is a spiritual decision. Every stream is a part of one river.
When we ask questions, we signal safety and approachability to those we desire to know.
More difficult than asking the questions is listening to the answers.
Sometimes the answers will be directly opposed to your faith. The more comfortable the person is with you, the more likely they are to speak truthfully about what they believe.
It can be challenging for passionate Christians to truly listen to people just as passionate about non-Christian faith and practices. It’s tempting to defend or correct. It’s easy to take opposing opinions as an affront. And it can be hard not to take their views personally.
Yet, that’s what we need to do.
Our job is to lean in and listen.
Seek to understand. Listen to the heart behind the words. Embrace the joy or share the pain that’s disclosed.
Sharing joy with others is easier than sharing pain. When you hear joy, celebrate with them.
“That sounds awesome.”
“How cool was that?”
“Wow. I bet that was great.”
Sharing laughter and celebration is a significant first step in building rapport. Shared joy prepares the way for other, harder-to-digest truths.
When you sense the answers are painful or when the person’s tone becomes quieter, listen more closely. Lean in more fully. Be fully present.
Here is what I mean by leaning in — look your friend in the eyes while they share and use nonverbal cues (like nodding your head) to show empathy. When in doubt, simply listen.
During a recent trip, a young man I had never met shared with me — in front of his aunt and others — how he was going through a very painful divorce. I could tell by his aunt’s reaction she was surprised he shared it. Her eyes got wide, and she backed up a little.
I leaned in. Literally, with my body, I leaned in. I wanted to show him I was willing to listen and share his space while he talked about his feelings. “COVID-19 did a number on our marriage,” he shared.
“I’m so sorry to hear that. I can’t imagine how sad that was,” I said. He just nodded. “Yeah, it is what it is. But it sucks.”
Leaning in and listening can show others that we accept them for who they are — hurts, failures, and all. If we want to show the love of Christ to others we meet, we need to live with them through the emotions they express.
All souls long to be sensed.
All hearts long to be understood.
Our job in listening isn’t to tell, push, or preach. It is to let others share themselves. You’re not preaching. You’re listening.
If you need to speak, ask a question, but stay on topic! Don’t allow your need to rescue them from their pain to lead you to ask a question that changes the subject.
Stay in the moment.
Don’t look away.
Allow your heart to hear and feel what their heart is saying.
Asking questions and leaning in and listening goes a long way in making you more spiritually approachable. You’ll be amazed at the difference these two practices can make when it comes to building relationships.
When it comes to how we learn, stories are the secret sauce.
Stories combine pictures that sink deep into our psyche.
Stories anchor themselves in our memories and ground us.
Stories build into a journey entwining highs with lows.
Stories show us the suffering and celebration, the tragedy and the routine.
Stories are unforgettable.
That is why Jesus taught using stories.
As you ask questions and listen, consider what stories in your life follow a trek similar to the one your friend is sharing.
The goal here is not to impress or to overwhelm with your own stories. The goal is to relate to and to demonstrate to your friend that you share everyday life experiences, that you’ve walked in similar shoes, that you’ve climbed similar mountains.
Don’t take over.
Don’t try to one-up.
Simply share your story to build rapport.
Building solid relationships in the workplace requires transparency. Relationships require honesty and humility. These are the types of traits that will cement relationships and will make you approachable.
Sharing your faith in work settings begins with becoming a Christ-follower who truly cares for your co-workers — your heart feels for them, and you desire only good for them.
By asking questions, listening and leaning in, and sharing stories from your life, you will demonstrate the love of Christ.
When friends and coworkers feel the love of Christ emanating from you, the stage is set for them to ask you about why you choose to live out your faith as you do. Leading with transparency helps others embrace Hope in gentle ways.