The Vague Pastor

by dave jacobs

Has this ever happened to you? You come away from a meeting (either with a group or an individual) feeling that things went pretty well only to later find out that you were misunderstood? You think to yourself, “I don’t know how I could have been more clear.” 

Communication is risky. Every time we talk or write there is a chance that we will not be as clear as we think we’re being, and that point of vagueness can result in a false or incomplete impression that can frustrate our relationships and ministry. 

Every time we preach we run the risk of being vague and all the while thinking we’re being clear. Every time we lead people we run the risk of being vague and all the while thinking we’re being clear. Every time we write we run the risk of being vague and all the while thinking we’re being clear. Be careful when you preach, when you lead, and when you write.

The longer we have to mull something over the greater a chance there is that when it comes time to communicate we will leave something out. Have you ever proof-read something you wrote and discovered that you left a word out of a sentence? How does that happen? I think that in your brain you know what you’re going to say (it is clear to you) but your writing gets ahead of your brain and you leave something out.

When Ellen was proof reading my first book (Mile Wide, Inch Deep), more than once we had a conversation that went something like this:

“This doesn’t make sense.” “What doesn’t make sense?” “Chapter seven, paragraph five. It doesn’t make sense. I know what you’re trying to say but I’m not sure your readers will.”

(Me hastily reading chapter seven, paragraph five with slight irritation)

“How is that unclear?” “It is. You need to rewrite that.” “Well, it’s clear to me.” “Well…if you’re going to be the only person that reads the book then leave it alone.”

(At which point I return to my office, look more objectively at chapter seven, paragraph five, admit that Ellen was correct, and rewrite the paragraph.)

Finally, be careful when you’re leading a meeting, especially if in that meeting you will be explaining or promoting new direction for your church. In my coaching practice I help pastors to identifying goals and strategies that help them fulfill the mission God has given their church. It’s not unusual for us to work for a whole month, sometimes longer, on certain plans and the means by which they will communicate the plan and generate ‘buy in’ or ‘get everyone on board.’ Some call this ‘vision casting.’ I call it a great opportunity to be vague and all the while think you are being clear. 

Vision casting is risky because the one doing the casting has usually spent a long, long time developing the vision. This goes back to what I said earlier; the longer you have to mull something over, the longer you have to think about something, the greater chance there is that when it comes time to explain the idea to others you will leave something out. It’s all clear to you but something breaks down when it travels those few inches from your brain to your mouth. 

Speaking, writing, and leading…these are the most common times when we can be vague. To minimize vagueness ask yourself questions such as these:

– What point(s) of mine really needs to be clear? – If there is anything in what I’m about to communicate that could be vague, what is it? – Would it be helpful if I used notes? – Am I prepared to ask those I’m communicating with for feedback on areas where I may have been vague? – How helpful would it be if I rehearsed my talk or presentation? – Have I prayed for God to help me be clear rather than vague? – Does my audience contain some who have misunderstood me or found me to be vague in the past? Should that affect my approach? – What can I learn from past vagueness that will help reduce future vagueness?

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