By James Jackson
It started because I picked up his cigarettes for him.
We were all settling into our seats for a very crowded airplane flight. My seat mate was a very old man. And as he was adjusting his seatbelt, his cigarettes fell out of his coat pocket. I bent down and handed them back to him.
“Thanks,” he said quietly. “My sons have been on me to quit, but 72 years makes it a hard habit to break. I started smoking when I was 18 years old– the day I enlisted in the Army. I’m 90 now.”
“When did you enlist, sir?” I asked. I try to never miss an opportunity to show respect to someone who has served our country.
“December 8, 1941. I was in line at the recruiting office, the morning after Pearl Harbor, waiting for the doors to open.”
What followed was a truly fascinating conversation with a genuine war hero. He had served as the pilot of a B-24 bomber in the Pacific during World War II. I had just finished reading a book about a B-24 crewman who had been lost at sea in the Pacific. So I was able to ask him some reasonably intelligent questions about his experiences. I was sincerely grateful to have shared the flight with a member of the Greatest Generation.
I believe that our small groups and Sunday School classes are full of people who want to share their stories. And I honestly believe our groups will be richer for hearing them. So as I think about the conversation with that elderly gentleman, here are four takeaways that I believe we can apply to our small group leadership.
1. A small act of kindness opens a lot of doors. For me, it was stooping to pick something up for someone else. For you, it might be making sure the coffee is brewed before class starts. Or remembering a specific detail of a prayer request a group member shared three weeks before. When your group members perceive you as kind, they will be more likely to open up to you and to the rest of the group.
2. A non-judgmental attitude keeps those doors open. Understand, I am not a fan of cigarette smoking. And I suppose I could have smugly watched the old man struggle to pick up his own cigarettes. Or, I could have said something snarky like, “You know these things will kill you, don’t you?” But odds are, if I had, I would have never experienced the rich conversation that followed. If you want your group members to share their stories, they need to know they won’t be judged for doing so. Communicate acceptance, both verbally and non-verbally. Watch your body language. Be aware of the expression on your face. Group members who may already be self-conscious about what they are sharing are paying attention to every cue you give them.
3. Find common ground. Because of the book I had just read (By the way, it was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, and it is an amazing book), I was able to get into my seat mate’s world. I remembered from my reading that many WW2 pilots had bad experiences with how the B-24 handled in the air. I asked my new friend about his experience with the plane. He told me the very colorful (and quite profane, but remember Point #2!) nickname he and his crew gave their bomber. And new energy was injected into the conversation. Work to establish something you have in common with each person in your small group. If a 40-something, bookish editor can find common ground with a 90 year old emphysemic war hero, you can find common ground with the people in your small group.
4. Respect, Respect, Respect. I called him sir. I thanked him for serving our country. When he apologized for “rattling on” about his old war stories, I assured him that it was an honor to hear his story. I didn’t miss an opportunity to show him I valued who he was and the contribution he had made. Your group members will open up to the group when they believe they are valuable members of the group. And that starts with the feedback you give them as the group leader.