Jard DeVille is professor of leadership at the Metropolitan State University, Minneapolis.

There is a basic principle of interpersonal relationships that every dedicated elder should learn as early as possible in his or her leadership office. It is a principle that must be communicated to the people of the parish in many different ways. This other side of the leadership coin focuses on the sound understanding of human relationships as the best way to lead a successful congregation.

"We should all please our brothers for their own good, in order to build them up in the faith" Rom. 15:2.

A recent study conducted with more than a thousand spiritual leaders in a major denomination revealed that their major concern was learning better ways to manage interpersonal relationships. I did not conduct the research, but it certainly confirms my own work and my experiences in dealing with congregation leaders in the English-speaking world.

The basic principle of better interpersonal relationships is this:

Good things happen to people who cooperate

I am not so naive as to think that good things have always occurred in the lives of men and women who give their best to God and church. That would eliminate the apostle Paul, many of the prophets, several disciples, and even Jesus himself to say nothing of the martyrs from Christ down through the ages and the men and women of faith and devotion who are caught up in the massive economic disruptions of our era. Some slippery and malicious characters enter different congregations for their own reasons that have little to do with spiritual worship and growth.

Although I admit writing a book called Nice Guys Finish First that was translated and became a bestseller in several nations, I never wrote a line saying that "naive guys and gals finish first." It appears that when some people hear me talking about nice people doing well in life or quoting the basic principle they grow disturbed and angry. Some say it just isn't so in the real world. In New Zealand recently, one woman snorted loudly enough to be heard all through a large meeting room and said that was the craziest thing she had ever heard.

Even more challenging was my experience with a talk-show host in one of the larger television stations in Detroit, Michigan. I was told I would have six minutes to promote my book and to tell what it was all about. When I arrived on camera, the host, a fellow named John Kelley, sat me on a stool before the people, held a copy of Nice Guys Finish First to the camera, and loudly announced that this was the most absurd thing he had ever seen. There was no way, he stated loudly, that a nice person could make it successfully in this lousy, rotten world.

He then turned to his live audience and asked how many of them agreed with this dunce on the stool (his body language sent the message loud and clear). About half the audience raised their hands to show they wanted to believe that nice people could make it. He then asked how many agreed with him that nice people would be steamrollered by life. The remaining half raised their hands to endorse that host's view that a nice guy or gal had no chance in the world of succeeding.

John then turned toward me, motioned for the cameras to zoom in to see me sweat in discomfort, and said, "Now Doctor DeVille, how are you going to handle that?" He was very sarcastic, but I was ready. "It all depends on how you define nice guy or gal," I replied. "If you think of a nice person as a marshmallow, a doormat, or a wimp, I have to agree with you. That kind of nice guy doesn't have much of a chance. I have never advised anyone to face life from such an attitude. But, if you define nice guys and gals as I do, it's an entirely different matter." I explained that I see a nice person as one who works from the following triad:

  • Manages interpersonal relationships very well
  • Shares the rewards of cooperation with others
  • Creates a community of continual achievers 

John sat stunned as the cameras swung back and forth, panning from me to him, to the audience and back to me for thirty seconds or more. That's an eternity of dead air on a talk show, but he sat silent while I crossed my arms and leaned back on my stool, having spoken my piece. He finally stood and gradually took charge of the program once more. He said aloud and on camera, "Well, I'll be damned! I had never thought of it that way." When he finally came fully out of his reverie, he turned to the live audience and asked for a show of hands again. "Under these conditions," he asked, "how many of you still disagree with the learned doctor?" Only two people raised their hands this second time. I had won them over. The next Sunday I contacted my pastor, told him the story, and suggested that with my conversion rate we would have the largest congregation in the world! John had given me a full twenty-five minutes on the show rather than the intended six!

I understand that naive people often get hurt by the users and abusers of society, but any pastor can use my basic principle to win the consistent commitment of the people in a parish. This is your promise not that you can control acts of nature and God that you will do your best as their leader in doing three things. You will manage interpersonal relationships well, will share the rewards of dedication, and will create a community of believing achievers in which the members support each other. This should be your spiritual contract with your congregation.

A realistic pastor does not pretend to be perfect or to have control over all the important events of parish and personal life. You can promise, however, with all your strength and wisdom to give people good for good. You can promise to reward people physically, psychologically, and philosophically in body, mind, and spirit. You can promise to the best of your finite human nature that they will get full credit for everything they do, that you will not burden them with busy work, and that you will do your utmost to help them mature in the Christian life. There is every reason in this world and in the hereafter to make this commitment to your people. Good things happen to people who help make your parish a better congregation.

There is another element in the basic principle, however:

Bad things don't happen to people who cooperate

Once more, you are not God. Accidents occur, and deeply loved children develop leukemia. We all experience what Viktor Frankl calls the "tragic triad" of suffering, guilt, and death. That is part of the human condition, and all you will be able to do is teach your people how to use each tragedy and setback as a stepping-stone to greater maturity. But, to the best of your ability as pastor and friend, you will not humiliate or allow to be devalued by others the people who take you at your word.

Like a good army officer who sees that his soldiers are fed and sheltered before meeting his own needs, so a pastor sees to the satisfactions of the people. By doing this, any leader is secure in the knowledge that his or her own satisfaction will be all the greater later on, as more and more people respond to better use of interpersonal trade-offs. You will not hide when people need you but will work productively until circumstances return to normal. You will give credit when it is due, thus transmuting mutual respect, creativity, and performance into the pure gold of an achieving community of Christians.

Finally, this aspect of the basic principle must be used cautiously:

Good things don't happen to people who don't cooperate

That statement sounds cruel, but I believe it is valid according to the Epistles of Paul and the teachings of Jesus. Because you are finite and there are only so many things you can do in a day, you cannot afford to give too much of your time to people and situations when there is no cooperative response. When I was a young minister, I inherited a congregation thickly interspersed with deadwood. Worse, it was in a denomination that worked from a connectional system in which we had to pay our budgets according to the number on the rolls.

I set up a calling program to reach every member who was not attending services fairly regularly or had not contributed financially to the church over the past few years. We were fair about it, sending letters and making phone calls, but for those remaining on the rolls without having moved to another community, I finally went to see them. I suggested that since the congregation was apparently no longer meeting their needs and no longer important to them, they should resign. Then we who were paying the bills would not have to carry them at the state level financially, would not have to supply services when their children were getting married, or see to their burial when they died.

Some people grew angry with me, but I remained firm and fair. If the congregation was still important enough for them to remain on the rolls, I asked them to give us some tangible support with their work, money, and worship. If not, I suggested that they find a church in which they could feel comfortable and do the work of God there. Of course, I am not talking about the homebound elderly or infirmed in any form, or even the men and women who are trying to work their way through serious intellectual doubts. Great patience must be exercised with the latter, but with some you must say that the congregation is a community in which all capable members are expected to give to God and humankind in a variety of ways.

No elder or church should be expected to support and continually cope with those men and women who actively or indirectly frustrate the activities and programs being implemented. There will be times when you must say, "Good things don't happen here to people who don't cooperate with us."

The basic principle of interpersonal relationships is effective for one major reason. People want the quid pro quo. We all prefer Pleasure to pain in the physical aspects of life, Power/prestige to devaluation in the psychological area, and Purpose/permanence to meaninglessness in the spiritual area. People all want to be useful in their relationships. When you use your skills, authority, and power to help them gain pleasure, prestige/power, and purpose/permanence in their relations with others and with God, they will give you their consistent cooperation. Teach your people in as many ways as possible that good things happen to people who cooperate in this community of believers and achievers.

Jard DeVille is professor of leadership at the Metropolitan State University, Minneapolis.