How to have a pastoral conversation

  • Richard Sweatman
  • 1 November 2017

Most growth group leaders know how helpful it is to meet up one-to-one with their group members. This can be a regular time of Bible reading and prayer; sometimes it’s just a low-key catch up. At other times, however, group leaders realize they need to speak with someone about a particular concern or problem. Let’s call this a ‘pastoral conversation’. It can be a pretty big deal, so I want to give some guidance for how growth group leaders could go about having a pastoral conversation.

There are all sorts of issues that might mean you need to catch up with someone. They could be doctrinal; for example, a person might share that they’re really struggling with the idea of predestination. They could be related to suffering; perhaps they are finding aspects of their marriage very difficult. Or they could be issues of sin or foolishness; for instance, a person may have started dating a non-Christian. Whatever the issue or problem, the approach I’m explaining here will be the same.

Before we meet up with them, though, we need to watch out for a few attitudes in our hearts. Firstly, we should approach the pastoral conversation with a positive attitude—this is an opportunity for growth for your group member, rather than an inconvenience for us to resent. We want to be hopeful and prayerful that our group member will change and grow as together we work through the problem.

We also need to be aware of our desire to control things and fix people’s lives. This is a big mistake for earnest and caring growth group leaders. Only God has complete control, and if there’s any fixing going on it will be his work not ours. If we happen to be doctors or psychologists, we should also make sure we’re not approaching our group members as patients or clients. That’s a job for other people! Our task as growth group leaders is to pastor, teach and love them.

One last danger to watch out for is having such a strong fear of failure that we don’t actually have the pastoral conversation. This is just pride. It is possible that the conversation will ‘fail’ from an earthly point of view, but accountability to God and love for the person should spur us on to have the conversation anyway.

So what do we do once we’ve repented of any wrong attitudes and arranged the actual meet up? It feels a bit rigid, but I’m proposing you can do a good job by following these five steps. I haven’t included prayer as a specific step since prayer needs to be there before, during and after the actual conversation.

1. Listen

When you meet with someone, spend a lot of time listening. Listen to them talk about whatever the issue is. Some useful questions to get things started are: “I’ve heard things are hard at home, can you tell me what’s been going on?” or “How are you feeling about that difficult topic that came up at growth group?”

There’s no point going in and lecturing them on what they should think, say or do. Resist the urge to jump in and give advice, or defend people or yourself. There will be time for that later. The conversation must begin with listening.

It is usually worth asking an extra question or two that takes you beyond your comfort zone. This might involve raising something that is or awkward or taboo among Christians. For example you might gently ask, “So, are you angry with me?” or “Have you thought about leaving church?” or “Have you considered getting an abortion?” Questions like this can take you closer to heart of the issue for your growth group member.

2. Bible

At some point you need to move to talking about and reading the Bible. This is where both of you will be listening to God, rather than each other. Many group leaders feel reluctant to do this. They can worry that it feels awkward or forced to bring the Bible into an intense discussion. But this is so wrong: intense discussions are where we need most to hear from our heavenly Father! So how can we do this?

One simple way is to ask, “What have you read in the Bible to help you think this issue through?” This is a great question because people will be reminded either of good things they’ve read or challenged that they’ve forgotten to listen to God in the midst of the problem. If they do share a passage or two, you should ask if you could read that with them right then and there. This gives you both a chance to listen to God and reflect on what he’s saying.

Another way to bring the Bible into the conversation is for you to suggest some relevant passages. You could say, “What you’re saying reminds me of a passage in Romans, would you mind if we read that now?” This, of course, requires you to know the Bible to some degree. It’s a reminder of the value of our own Bible reading and study for the ministry of growth group leading.

If you’re completely stuck for anything to read you can always go to what you read that morning. You could say, “Even though I can’t think of anything perfect for your situation from the Bible, we should listen to God for a moment today. I loved what I read this morning, can I read it with you now?” You’ll be surprised by how something as simple as this can change the tone and mood of a conversation. For a short time at least you are no longer two individuals working things out—you are sons and daughters of God sitting at the feet of Jesus.

3. Do something

After listening to the person and reflecting on the Bible, it’s important the person actually does something about the issue. Just talking isn’t change or growth. What is it that they should do? It could be repentance and an actual plan for change. For example, your group member could pray a prayer of confession and repentance, and then take steps to do things differently. The change might be getting rid of illegal software or disposing of alcohol or apologizing to someone they’ve hurt.

The thing to do might not be about sin. It might be something wise like booking in to see their doctor or psychologist, or withdrawing from an imprudent job application. If the issue is about an area of doctrine, the action step could be a plan to read through part of the Bible and a good Christian book together.

Christians can be great at thinking about changing but not so good at actually changing. This step is all about your group member taking action as a result of your conversation.

4. Follow up

Change is much more likely in a person if you plan some sort of follow up. This provides an extra reason for them to do what you talked about in step three. Follow up could be something like promising to call the next day to see if they’ve made that doctor’s appointment. Or meeting up again in a week. Or promising to ask about that sin they’re working on in a couple of months. Of course, it’s necessary that we actually follow through on this and do what we promise too.

5. Communicate

The last step is to think about who you need to talk to about the pastoral conversation and what you need to tell them. It can be a danger in ministry to become a keeper of secrets and then to feel isolated and alone. On the other hand, gossip is also a risk for leaders, so we need to be wise and godly regarding who we share with.

Most of the time the person to talk to would be your pastor or someone from the pastoral team. You don’t need to tell them every detail of the conversation, just enough for them to know what’s going on. For example, you might say, “I met with this person from growth group about some issues of depression and anxiety. They’re going to see their doctor next week and we came up with a good plan for Bible reading. Please pray for them.” Communication like this helps you and your pastors care for you and the person in your group.

It is wise and appropriate to let your group member know who you will be sharing with and why. It is also very important not to promise to keep secrets with your group members. Keeping secrets always puts you in a stressful position and limits the help you can provide your group member. You can instead say something like, “I won’t keep a secret, but you can trust me to be careful and wise about who I share with”.

It seems a bit rigid to create a five-step process for having a pastoral conversation, but if it can help you meet with people, read the Bible and bring about change, then it’s a good thing. As you gain experience in pastoral conversations you will come up with lots more ideas and strategies of your own. God in his wisdom has put us into leadership, and will bring about growth through good pastoral conversations.