All of us reading this post at some point have probably had a church leader ask us,
“How can I help you?”
On face value it appears to be a great question which explains why it’s one that’s also so commonly used within church leadership or management strategy: it seems to be servant-hearted, empowering and supportive.
However, the reality is that this question is something of a foolish wolf in sheepish disguise.
The question is self-serving
By asking one of your team or one of your congregation this complex question, you’re immediately placing them under significant pressure by assuming that they have an answer prepared. Not only is the question highly unlikely to be straightforward to process, in the context of church leadership or management there will be several additional layers of relational complexity that make the question not only awkward but virtually impossible to answer well.
This does not serve your people well.
For example, what church/team member with a good heart (i.e. not rebellious) will reasonably feel that it’s appropriate to begin to suggest new methodology or strategy to their senior leaders above them?
Similarly, it may seem like a culture of wisdom for a leader to announce, “We keep short accounts with each other here!” But what happens if the leader is behaving immaturely or inappropriately? Is it healthy to expect team members (including new staff) to be comfortable in raising issues or dysfunctions they observe in this context?
Healthy leaders serve their people through maturity and being intentional.
The question is controlling
Because the question has the appearance of a servant heart while actually being self-serving, the net result is that the question becomes controlling.
When a leader “passes the buck” by sliding the responsibility over to someone in their team, a form of paralysis can often be induced and the effect on the individual can be a sense of being controlled or even bullied.
Think about it ‒ if you approach your people and ask, “How can I help you?” one of the first things that it conveys is that you don’t know or haven’t really observed them.
But isn’t a shepherd supposed to feed and fend for the sheep? Isn’t a shepherd supposed to be watchful and observant, skilled in interpreting the weather or, like King David, how to slay a bear?
When you use this question, you communicate that you don’t know how to do your job which backs people into a corner where they may feel controlled, unknown and helpless.
The question is unsupportive
One of your primary roles as a healthy leader of God’s people is to protect and provide support for them. Healthy leaders provide their people with wisdom and vision and generosity and a whole heap of other qualities beside.
It makes sense, therefore, that the closer contact times with your people should include questions that support them well. This is an elementary prerequisite of leadership.
In the similar way that we’re known and called by God by name, the role of healthy leaders is to know and relate to their teams with varying degrees of interpersonal detail, not in vague generalities.
If you use this question, you not only abdicate your God-given responsibility to serve your people or to empower them via healthy relationship, but you’ll also fall short in supporting them with proactive suggestions as to how you could help them.
“How can I help you?” fails to offer a servant heart, empowering support and what follower ever wanted a leader like that?
Instead, be like the Nenet people of the frozen Russian wilderness ‒ nomadic reindeer herders who know every single one of their vast, five-thousand-strong herd … by sight.
An approach to use instead
To genuinely help the people in your church or your team, instead of asking “How can I help you?” commit to:
- Demonstrating humility, vulnerability and transparency from your own life as you approach meetings or reviews with them;
- Mix this with a healthy dose of observational knowledge and respect for them as individuals. Show them that you have noticed and spent time reflecting/thinking about them as unique individuals. Oftentimes, it really is the thought that counts.
- Finally, as a healthy leader, always suggests ways that will help your people to be happier and, therefore, more productive within your church/team life. Come with a plan as well as a listening ear.