Avoiding misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and wounded
by Wes Fleming
Rolling Hills Church was growing like crazy, and Joanie, the
Christian education director, had her hands full. After screening
Mrs. Palmer’s application and running her through a background
check and interview, she introduced her to the 5-year-olds’ class
on Sunday morning.
Little Corbin was throwing blocks again and having a fit.
“That’s one of our EGR children,” Joanie said with a sigh. “What
does EGR stand for?” asked Mrs. Palmer. “Extra Grace Required,”
Joanie chuckled. Mrs. Palmer wasn’t laughing, however. “EGR?” she
asked indignantly. “That’s my son!”
Communication bloopers! The longer you serve, the more stories
you have to tell. The goal, of course, is to have as few stories as
possible. So how do you better communicate with parents?
“An unreliable messenger stumbles into trouble, but a reliable
messenger brings healing” Proverbs 13:17 (NLT).
Reliable communication occurs when intent equals impact — when
what we mean to say is what’s heard. Simple enough? In theory,
maybe. In reality, though, people’s pasts, cultures, and
personalities impact how they hear things.
Mike was a policeman from Brooklyn who, after attending Bible
school, worked with our children and youth as an intern. He was
born and raised in a culture that speaks fast and to the point.
Mike had a heart of gold and the kids loved him, but some of the
parents were put off by his blunt communication style. To gain
parents’ confidence, he humbled himself and adjusted his
communication style to fit their filters. It wasn’t long before
Mike started asking instead of telling people to serve in our
Are you willing and able to anticipate what a parent may hear
before you speak and adjust your style accordingly? This is the
essence of good communication. Take a look at the “Said and Heard”
section below to learn what some parents may hear by things you say
— and what’s at the root of the misunderstanding.
Listening provides us with the information we need to avoid
being misunderstood. Opening our ears to parents’ hearts, we find
out whether they’re capable of understanding us at the time or
whether their stress, fatigue, culture, values, personal needs, and
past hurts require us to turn up the volume or turn it down.
Listening demonstrates our desire to understand and respect
another’s feelings and viewpoint. Listening means we refrain from
giving advice or even expressing an opinion until we better
understand the person. It also requires…
- an awareness of how you’re feeling so you’re able to decode a
parent’s sentiments fairly;
- avoiding subtle verbal and nonverbal expressions that convey
- maintaining good eye contact while a person is speaking;
- allowing periods of silence to give parents enough time to get
in touch with what they really feel;
- listening not only to what the parent says but also to what he
or she is trying to say; and
- providing undivided attention.
Test: One, Two, Three
How can we make sure that what we say is heard correctly and
retained? Close the circle of conversation. Politely and humbly ask
your listener to summarize and reflect back to you what you’ve
said. Here are a few techniques I use.
- “I’m not sure if I’m making sense. Can you tell me what I’m
trying to say?”
- “Can you help me know if I’m making sense?”
- “Am I coming across? Can you explain back to me what I’m
- “Do you hear my heart? What am I trying to say?”
In a conversation that involves any expectation or commitment on
my part, I record dates, deadlines, financial figures, names, phone
numbers, and promises I make on a note pad and then send the
information via email to the parent. I ask the parent to check for
errors and reply. I’ve kept myself out of hot water many times by
closing the circle of communication in writing. When email isn’t
available, a phone call or letter is helpful.
Paul says in Colossians 4:6, “Let your conversation be always
full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to
answer everyone.” There’s nothing more grace-filled than words
spoken from an understanding heart. In addition, here are general
things to keep in mind when speaking to parents.
1. Slow down. In the frenzy of Sunday morning, it’s easy to pass
on instruction, demands, and potentially controversial information
without taking time to know how people are doing.
2. Ask good questions. Asking parents for their opinions,
feedback, and advice builds trust and shared ownership. The more
questions, the more interest in participation.
3. Avoid starting off questions with “why.” Why questions are
often perceived as accusatory and judgmental: “Why does your child
pinch other children?” Better to use questions that start off with
the word “what”: “What reasons can we identify for this
4. Speak in the first person. When you have to be direct, always
speak in the first person: “I believe,” “I feel,” “I would like”
indicates a willingness to take responsibility and earns parents’
trust and respect. “I feel we could better serve your son in
another classroom.” “I would love for you to pray about stepping up
5. Touch base. Good communication depends on trust and the first
step toward building trust is your assuring presence. Parents need
a touch from you every Sunday morning. They need to know you
6. Avoid discussing delicate matters in the hallway. Protect a
parent’s dignity by calling at home or speaking after church,
rather than discussing a child’s behavior in public. Postponing a
delicate conversation provides you with the opportunity to gather
your thoughts as well.
7. Get support. Occasionally, when a matter is particularly
controversial, you may want to invite your pastor. Having a third
party present provides objectivity and, in some cases, a capable
“The tongue has the power of life and death,” Solomon says, “and
those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). I’ve had to
eat a fair portion of rotten fruit to realize that as a children’s
minister, it’s better to listen and understand before I speak.
Parents need our help. Stress, anxiety, shame, and cultural and
religious differences sometimes prevent them from hearing our
hearts when we speak. As leaders, we must seek to understand before
being understood. James warns, “My dear brothers and sisters, be
quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” It’s time
to stop living this verse in reverse.
Wes Fleming (Eastside Vineyard@twcny.rr.com) helps church
leaders and parents bring spiritual formation and healing home at
By better understanding parents’ primary filters, you’ll avoid
1. Stress — If a parent seems tired,
depressed, distracted, preoccupied, and irritable, it’s likely that
he or she is stressed out. Stress can drain a person of the
emotional energy needed to properly listen and understand. Feeling
overwhelmed with worries and the demands of life saps all of us of
the emotional energy we need to accurately listen.
2. Shame — If a parent demonstrates a pattern
of procrastination, avoidance, withdrawal, defensiveness,
blame-shifting, victimization, and super-sensitivity to issues that
pertain to her children, you’re probably dealing with someone who
suffers from painful feelings of inadequacy — especially about her
identity as a parent.
Shame is rooted in intensely negative feelings of self-judgment.
It works hard to hide personal limitations and perceived failure to
avoid exposure to further judgment — especially from others —
which would confirm the assumption “I’m a bad parent.” Shame-based
parents assume they’ll be judged. This is why our well-meaning
guidance, counsel, instruction, and even a simple greeting can be
misconstrued as criticism and condemnation.
3. Pride — This is shame’s evil twin. If the
parent regularly interrupts you, tops your ideas with his, resists
your suggestions, pushes an agenda, or projects blame and
responsibility for his children on you and others, you’re again
dealing with someone who suffers from deep-seated feelings of
shame. In managing these painful feelings, this parent will resist
help and counsel and avoid facing the painful reality of his need
by blaming and criticizing others.
4. Cultural Values and Religious Traditions —
Virtually undetectable in the early stages of a relationship,
cultural heritage and religious traditions powerfully influence
parents’ reactions to what you say. Beliefs about spiritual
authority, religious ceremonies, sacred elements, and rituals are
some of these land mines.
5. Past Church History — When a person has
been wounded in a bad church experience, some sociologists suggest
it takes as long as eight years to mend and re-engage in
church-related service — depending on the degree of hurt, quality
of the post-trauma support system, and the resiliency of the church
member. If a parent seems to be spiritually mature and relatively
free from emotional baggage, but still misreads you, you may
discover that her inability to hear you finds its origin in her
Said and Heard
What you say isn’t always what parents hear. Learn more by
reading this chart.
What You Say (Intent)…(What They Hear (Impact))…and Root
• Does your child have any special needs?…(Why is your child
acting so wild in class?)…Shame, self-condemnation
• Could you fill out these forms?…(As if you don’t have enough
to do, could you please read this treatise?)…Stress, fatigue
• I’ve been praying for your kids….(There’s so much wrong with
them)….Shame, fear, anxiety
• Would you consider serving snacks in preschool for a
while?…(Would you be willing to serve, snacks until Jesus
returns?)…Bad past church experience
• We need your help in our nursery….(You’re not doing enough
in our church)….Bad past church, experience, guilt
• Our pastor would like your input on some decisions….(My
opinion doesn’t matter; the pastor should make church
decisions)….Cultural values, religious traditions
• Can I talk to you for a minute about your child?…(Can I talk
to you about being a bad parent?)…Shame, self-judgment
Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and
prices are subject to change. Originally published in July-August,
2005 in Children’s Ministry Magazine