The Art of Relationship Building

Date Posted: 4/24/2014

Connecting is very Wesleyan, and can be considered a spiritual discipline --whether that involves pastors seeking to develop a growing sense of trust with their congregations and neighborhoods or individual members learning to share life through everyday alliances. Read below some of the lessons several ‘power networkers’ have learned when it comes to facilitating ministry and creating a shared vision – in the church and community.
Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, refers to networking artists as “Connectors” with a “rare set of social gifts” that exercise the “law of the few.” In other words, a few true connectors can make a lot happen. Most would agree that relationships are everything in life and love, and certainly critical in pastoral and lay leadership. 
Knowing that the gospel has been transmitted through networks of people since the days of Paul makes Rev. Alan Van Hooser, First UMC, Teague, a strong proponent of intentional relationship building. “Keeping track of your relationships in our highly mobile and media driven culture is an essential skill,” he says. “Our calling is to be Christians that are connected to communities rather than merely members of local churches.”
Alan believes that John Wesley’s genius was in connecting people in order to connect their relationships into the Methodist movement around the message of the Gospel. “He did not invent the process but applied it to his context,” he observes. “The Acts and Epistles show the followers of Biblical days ordering themselves around the Gospel and applying it to their life and times.  Wesley created relationships with Anglican priests intertwined with committed lay people around the Gospel message.  Wesley’s use of Holy Conferencing and sending forth his network armed with his sermons and an abridged Articles of Religion was revolutionary -- the “Facebook” of the late 1700s.  Classes, bands and sacramental worship provided an “end zone” of sorts, a framework to attract the justified to gather and grow in grace.  The media and technology have changed but the basic premise is timeless.”
The power of connectivity
Alan shares this scenario: “Last weekend a friend, and church member from a former appointment, sent a Facebook post to my wife looking for a Methodist preacher in Waskom.  She forwarded it to me, and since I know the pastor, I sent Rev. Sherry Crenshaw’s contact information link from the Conference site to my wife, who sent back through this chain of connections to the friend of the friend who messaged my wife who messaged me. Later I learn that this man’s grandfather passed away in Waskom but had moved away from Hemphill, leaving him without a pastor.  Pastor Sherry, moved to Waskom from Hemphill, had been the man’s pastor and the connection was completed.  The grandfather and his fond and former pastor were reunited through this tangle of relationships --- giving us a happy ending.” 
Miles away in east Houston, the relational network is working wonders at Calvary UMC. Pastor Keith Somerville shares that, “Two of our newest members joined after meeting member Mittie Davis while she was crossing a street. She saw them and engaged in a friendly conversation and ended the discourse by inviting them to come visit. They came the following day and have been with us for a month. We have two or three new visitors a week because one or more of us have invited someone to come visit. People in the area are becoming more aware of us simply because I invite the congregation every week to share the love of God with people they meet every day.”
Alan shares his favorite aspects of connecting:

  • The first ingredient is will.  For some people, these skills come naturally but for others, who recognize their value and apply intentionality to this discipline, they are learnable.
  • Love the people more than the network.
“It must be about the people in your circle and not merely what your network can do for you.  Life is empty if we are just building a structure to house a Facebook friends list.  Our true wealth is people, both those that you know and those that you want to know,” he says. 
  • Don’t take out more than you put in to a network.  Add value each time you engage your network.
  • Be more open to connecting than you expect others to be.
Being willing to maintain a relationship with those who will not return the favor is a hallmark of the connection.
  • Connecting is a spiritual discipline.
Adds Alan, “Your network of relationships is a gift from God.  Personal connections sealed in prayer require work but the blessings are worth the effort.” 
Rev. Keith Somerville excels at building relationships with community leaders. He suggests starting by identifying who is engaged in connecting resources to the people in the community.  Notes Keith, “Then I would reach out to them and introduce myself. Before sharing what you will do, ask them how you can participate in the work they are doing.”
His second tip: finding the popular places where people gather is a great way to find out about community life beyond Sunday morning and become comfortable with your new setting. “Social media is another powerful tool to connect with people of influence and younger adults,” he adds. “Another grassroots technique I just started that has already yielded a return is printing out fliers about your church and inviting people to come to a Saturday program. Then you, as the Pastor, walk the neighborhood and hand them out. Go to local businesses and share what you are doing and ask to leave some fliers with them. It is a little more time consuming and tiring, but there is still nothing like physical contact with your community.” 
Relationship building following a new appointment
Keith, who joined Calvary UMC just a few months ago, likes to begin his new relationships with a social/community time with the current congregation first, then with the key leaders. This time can be spent assessing their needs and hopes, which can then be the guide for next steps. “During that time, I would ask intentional questions to find out information related to their profession, hobbies, and favorite places to go. I like to see who enjoys social media and what other talents they have that could promote awareness in the community.” Adds Keith, “Next, I start with an email and phone call to local government representatives to make them aware of our desire to partner in their work. Most respond quicker when they see you reaching out both ways. Then see if they are on social media and connect with other people through their outlets. I invite them to have lunch, visit the church, and speak with our congregation as well. Even if they do not have time, they do appreciate the offer.”
Pastors and laity know that people inside and outside the church first want to know you care about them before they will care about scripture. Pastor Keith suggests the best relationships are between those who are willing to be transparent. “If you are sent to a place that is culturally different than what you are used to, be honest about it and look for people and resources to help.”
Relationships are time consuming
Rev. Alan admits, “It’s much easier to call it a day and go home, but you will miss out on so much by not going the extra mile to attend a meeting or get to know one of the families you are serving.” Pastor Keith adds, “The benefit of expanding and deepening connections is in building the Kingdom of God on earth and fulfilling the great commission by going rather than waiting for the community to come to us on Sunday morning.”
He believes when pastors and laity go out and engage the community, they will see where their giftedness, passions and influence are needed most to make a greater impact and have more relational, life changing sermons. 
Relationship building: essential to meaningful change
Networking often results from crisis. For example: Fairfield, in Freestone County, had a suicide cluster in 2013 when four unrelated young people committed suicide.  Rev. Paul Kethley, First UMC, Fairfield, engaged his friends in the Fairfield Ministerial alliance and through them connected by forming many relationships in the medical community, law enforcement, local schools, and the social services. Freestone County’s four United Methodist churches added their networks to the mix to form a countywide Suicide Prevention council. Adds Alan, “Different denominations, cultures and traditions came together around this one issue and from this gathering of resources, friendships, new working partners and a stronger church presence throughout the county have resulted.  The results have been increased services, access to a national network called the Jason Project, and a stronger awareness of the issue of suicide. One goal is that through the Jason Foundation will come the Jason Act that, when adopted by the Texas Legislature, will bring radical change in how the issue of suicide is addressed with our young people.” 
Christ modeled relationship building throughout his journey. “Christ engaged with the community when he called James and John from their jobs, invited himself to Zachaus’ home, met the Samaritan sister by the well, for example,” adds Keith. “And then of course the Great Commission commands that we go and not wait to make disciples. A church that is not going is likely not growing or glorifying God by obeying God's command.”