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  • Writer's pictureStephen Percy

When questions need... questions

In a former life, I took part in a range of different training events to develop my interrogation motivational interviewing skills. Working with some of the people I was, who’d done some of the things that they’d done, responsibility and motivation to effect change was often either lacking or limited. A good rapport and skilled questioning style could unlock new levels of ownership of an individual’s actions and motives, whereas a deficit in these skills could close people down and limit their growth in recognising their wrong and willingness to address their problems.[1] Given some of the complexities involved, it was common to observe people new to motivational interviewing resorting to merely issuing instructions, slipping into problem-solving mode.

Fast forward slightly and I find myself interacting on a daily basis not with people I can breach for non-compliance, but who are facing different but similarly sticky challenges. The reality of the “sin that so easy entangles” (Hebrews 12:1). People meet with me and talk quite openly about their struggles, the problems they’re facing, the challenges confronting them in their Christian walk. And then they wait.

I’ve noticed that what they’re generally waiting for is a wise response in the form of a ‘do this’ or ‘take these three steps and things should be alright’ from me, the pastor, as if I’m the fount of all wisdom and knowledge (plot-spoiler; I’m not!).

Maybe it’s owing to busyness and the misleading promise of expedience and efficiency that problem-solving offers; maybe it’s due to my wiring as a decision-maker, but I observe in myself, despite my previous training and experience, a tendency to revert to what’s expected. I become the dispenser of insight and wisdom, as if I have some kind of monopoly on it (or any of it!).

What a load of nonsense!

I’m not saying there aren’t occasions when, in the grace of God, a clear invitation to a different way of behaving/thinking/feeling needs to be issued. Sometimes it’s the case that blunt and direct words need to be used (I’ll never forget one friend’s delicate pastoral advice: “Just stop it!”) when confronting sin.

I suspect, however, that the majority of my interactions with others - and those of you who are involved in similar situations - could look quite different if we asked questions more than issued answers.

“Who do you say I am?”

“Why do you call me good?”

“Do you believe?”

“Do you want to get well?”

“Why are you so afraid?”

“Has no-one condemned you?”

These are some of the questions Jesus asked, and they appear to serve a far greater purpose and probe far more accurately at root issues than any wisdom I can muster.[2]

The transactional pastoral exchange[3] (‘Pastor, this is wrong’… ‘Okay, try this’) is more like an appointment with a GP. If we’re honest, it’s probably a bit lazy on the part of both parties. Maybe a better transitional approach – one that provokes thought, reflection and challenge and promotes the individuals’ response as a disciple of Jesus - would involve questions:

What do you understand the Bible to say about that?

What are the consequences of continuing down that road? Who is impacted?

Is that consistent with your profession of faith? If not, how do you sit with the tension?

This appears to relocate the pastoral issue back with the person whose issue it is. The danger of transactional exchanges is that it feels like the one doing the confessing is absolved of any responsibility if they try the pastor’s ‘prescription’ and nothing changes. That’s not the case.

I think we can do better in how respond to the issues people bring to us. Let’s not settle for quick and easy ‘solutions;, but probe the issues and find where the Gospel challenges and comforts people in the midst of questions and struggles. Often people left Jesus’ company with questions. It’s no bad thing if they do the same with us.

[1] The 5 core principles were summarised with the acronym D.A.R.E.S (Develop Discrepancy, Avoid Argumentation, Roll with Resistance, Express Empathy, Support Self-Efficacy) [2] Don’t mishear me – there are times when instruction, challenge and advice form the main part of pastoral counsel, but it probably doesn’t need to be as monotone as it can be. [3] Admittedly I just made this term up!

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