Last year we had a series on leadership that got significantly interrupted by life in 2020. We ended up fitting it in at different times, and we have one of those posts remaining which we are “fitting in” at the start of this new year. OPC Pastors shared not just thoughts on leadership, but we asked them to share a book on leadership that has influenced them and their ministry.
In this final post, Al Tricarico shares how Malcolm Gladwell has influenced his thinking about people, their nature, and our service to them.
Talking to Strangers, by Malcolm Gladwell is a disturbing book. And you would all benefit from reading it. If you are familiar with his other titles, you have come to appreciate Gladwell’s gifts for non-fiction storytelling and analysis. You will see those gifts put to good use again in Talking to Strangers. You will also discover that many of its stories deeply unsettle the reading soul. What is perhaps as painful is that Gladwell does not provide a real solution to the problem he identifies! It is a worthy read, however, mainly because of the caution it raises.
Gladwell suggests that we know much less about the people we meet than we think. We tend to size up personal encounters and draw conclusions that are inaccurate. Worse, we are sometimes in a place to act on those conclusions and can do harm in the process. At times, wrong assumptions have threatened the health and lives of the poorly known—or, in some of Gladwell’s cases, their victims.
Why did Neville Chamberlain trust Hitler when the two met in September of 1938? How did DIA analyst, Ana Montes, live and work as a double-agent in the service of the Cuban government for so long? What were the conditions under which Ponzi-schemer, Bernie Madoff, successfully deceived investors for more than two decades?
Gladwell gives his answer. We are not equipped to interpret people accurately. Even in the face of questionable speech or behavior, our default disposition is trust. We believe what we hear and see. But not always. Ask Amanda Knox, who was wrongly convicted of murder and imprisoned for four years. Why? Because her speech and gestures were inconsistent with what authorities would expect of innocent people. She was a misunderstood stranger.
While the book is not meant to provide lessons in leadership, it does deliver a sobering message that we all do well to hear. I want to share some more about Gladwell’s message and suggest a few areas of pastoral care that drew my interest as I reflected on what I read.
Sandra Bland was driving on a Texas road when she was pulled over by a state trooper for failing to signal a lane change. What began as a slightly uncomfortable exchange escalated to the point of physical aggression on the part of the officer. Bland was arrested and later committed suicide while in police custody.
According to Gladwell, the tragedy could have been avoided if the officer had made a better effort to patiently seek understanding. He assumed that a nervous driver was an imminent threat. His trust of early impressions caused unjustified aggression and provided the setting for a woman’s self-harm.
Talking to Strangers begins and ends with Bland’s story—an account of negative assumption. Gladwell also tells stories of undeserved trust. The sexual crimes of Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar are deeply troubling examples of that. At bottom, the error in all accounts is the same. People make and act on unwarranted assumptions.
The Cost of Trust
We make judgments all the time. And we overestimate our ability to judge accurately. We land on the side of either suspicion or trust and are often wrong. Gladwell believes that people in our society prefer to trust and, for the most part, act accordingly. This is costly when the trust is undeserved—very costly at times. But Gladwell believes that a society of baseline trust is a good thing. We need to enjoy a generally positive environment of good faith and accept that it will sometimes be misplaced and lead to painful consequences.
Pastoral Ministry is Personal Ministry
And personal ministry is, in fact, personal. As pastors, we are called to preach God’s word. No one denies that. A weak preacher does not serve God’s people well. But do we think the same about personal ministry? Are we committed to serving through being in the company of the saints? To encourage them. To pray with them. To listen to them. Are we committed to rejoicing and weeping with Christ’s precious ones? (Romans 12:15) I hope we all are.
I listened to an address by a trusted teacher some years ago. He spoke on the intersection of preaching and shepherding. I believe his words were “proclamational ministry” and “personal ministry.” The two relate and rely on each other in a profound way. A sound preacher will have authority in the living room. “He knows what he is talking about.” A warm personal minister will have credibility in the pulpit—even when delivering hard sayings. “He knows me and loves me.” Is it possible that preaching is significantly weakened by the preacher’s absence from the lives of the members? Likely so.
Our pastoral work is not mainly talking to strangers. But the pitfall of trusting our assumptions exports easily to personal ministry to folk we know. Fact is, we don’t fully know anyone and can act on wrong impressions. Let’s not do that. Here are four lessons I want to take away from reading Gladwell’s book.
Be patient and extend a listening ear. I have come to believe that listening is ministry—good ministry, in fact. I wish I could say that I have mastered the art, but I can’t. “Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” (James 1:19) Are you quick to listen? It should be obvious to all of us that people want to be heard and understood. It is good that they do. But understanding will not come unless we allow people to talk—and to finish talking!—before we barge in with our “brilliant” advice.
Serve from a position of humility. Do not assume that your assessment of things is perfect, or even close. Better understanding comes when you pay close attention and give your time to listening. Don’t hurry. Don’t allow mental distractions to invade. Don’t work on your next delivery before the other person finishes a spoken thought. I recently read an account of a person who was won for righteousness because a thoughtful pastor met with him and did not look at his watch. Amazing, the power of “small” things.
Know your limitations. “God’s understanding is beyond measure.”(Psalm 147:5) Ours is not. While we affirm this, do we sometimes live and speak as if we understand more than we do? Here are some questions for you. How easy is it for you to admit that you are stumped? Or that you were wrong about how you understood someone? Did you rush to judge the situation? The motives? The real risks at play? Then, how do you deal with the discovery of your limits and the misdirection you may have given? I tend to impose pressure on myself to be right. To play the expert. Do you ever do that? This is an attitude that will not advance the cause of fruitful ministry. It will undermine it.
People know that we are not omniscient. Really! It is okay for us to admit it. It is also good to serve within our boundaries while we seek to grow in never-perfect understanding. Real people with significant limitations who love Christ and know his word can do a lot of good. And this without full comprehension of the scene and players.
Make amends as necessary. Something that strikes me about the stories in the book is that their conclusions usually involved prison time. (Or, in the case of Amanda Knox, release from prison.) Not many of us face that kind of consequence of our false assumptions. But that does not get us off the hook. Consider the possibility of making amends for the pastoral missteps you have made.
Chiefly, I mean the verbal admission of a mistake or confession of sin. It is good to confess. It honors Christ when you do. You should never be afraid of confession, as embarrassing as it might seem. Usually, people notice the Spirit of Christ in the one who confesses. And that is a very good thing. Your decrease. Christ’s increase. (John 3:30)
Have you thought much about the irony of this? You might think that admission of guilt would hurt your reputation as a useful leader. But the opposite is almost always the case. Honest, appropriate confession shows people that you are a fellow pilgrim who needs the blood of Christ to wash you and the Spirit of Christ to empower you. Do not be afraid of admitting your wrongs. You will find freedom in doing so.
Trust the Good Shepherd. My final word does not relate at all to Gladwell. Remember that you are never alone in your shepherding. Christ is with you. (Matthew 28:20) Christ is also with the one you are seeking to help. In fact, he was there before you and will still be there when you leave. And isn’t it good to enjoy the presence of the one who never has a false impression! He never draws wrong conclusions. It is impossible to deceive him. He knows absolutely everything and will give you the discernment you need to give yourself for the good of his sheep. Glory to him!