The Dying Art of Conversation with People You Barely Know

 

After more than 45 years of missionary service, my husband, Art, and I are preparing for retirement and living in an area where we don’t know many people. So why is it that, when we go to a church that is new to us, we’re one of the last to leave? Sometimes we have very meaningful conversations with people we meet for the first time. Are we just natural extroverts who don’t know when to shut up?

Actually, as a teenager, Art didn’t talk a lot, even to people he knew well. I’ve always been more outgoing, but as a teen I often didn’t have the confidence to talk to people who weren’t church people. Today we can talk to almost anyone.

What changed?

We’ve worked at our conversation skills and developed them throughout many years of ministry. You may find this surprising, but the art of simple conversation is one of the most important ministry skills we have.

In our own church ministry in New Zealand, welcoming strangers and getting to know our church people has been crucial. Visiting our supporting churches in the States means we need to connect with many people whose faces look familiar but whose names we might not remember. Now, we’re looking for a church to call our home in Iowa. That means meeting a constant stream of strangers, some of whom won’t be a part of the church we choose.

Initiating and filling out conversations with people we don’t know well takes some social energy, but it’s really not difficult for us anymore because ministry has given us plenty of opportunity to practice. Some of these conversations don’t go very deep, but it’s surprising how many really great conversations we get into. They often form the start of a nice friendship.

How do we do it?

Today I’m going to reveal the relatively simple tactics we use to initiate conversations with people we don’t know and may not have much in common with. This might look a little different at church than it does in our neighborhood or at Walmart, but it does work. And it’s a skill you can learn.

Send out feelers.

Some people may not like to engage in conversation with strangers. In some situations, over-friendliness can even feel a little creepy. But let’s say you’re in a safe environment and just want to send out some friendly vibes and see what someone will do with it. How do you make that happen?

Begin by putting your cell phone away. Hiding behind cell phones is a very efficient way to kill conversations before they begin. (Even I struggle to start a conversation with someone using a phone for any reason.) Then make eye contact and smile. Make a general comment that’s appropriate for the situation. You don’t want to get too personal and make the person feel unsafe, but here are some topics that often work with people you don’t know or don’t know well.

  • Weather
  • Where they are from
  • How long they’ve lived in this place
  • What job they have
  • If they are a student and what they are studying
  • What they enjoy doing, hobbies or interests
  • Some item of general interest

If the person doesn’t want to talk to you, they’ll probably let you know, but this gives you a good place to start.

When my husband and I go to a church camp, we each sit separately with different campers every meal. We line up last so we can spot spare places and sit with kids or teens who might show more interest than others. We ask the names of campers closest to us and ask where they are from.  We ask about camp activities. If we’re familiar with their families we ask about them. We might ask about their interests: sports, music, future career, hobbies, college expectations. This often gives us a way to connect with some of them.

I look for potential writers or missionaries or Christian workers. Art is more likely to ask about sports and physical activities. The key word is “ask.” Many kids and teens are willing to talk if you get the conversation started, ask them about themselves, and show genuine interest.

You can do a similar thing while you greet a visitor at church, watch a soccer game, or visit at someone’s house.

Focus on them.

As missionary guest speakers the focus is usually on us. We go first in the food line. We are featured and welcomed in the service. We talk about ourselves and our ministry. Some of this is necessary and helpful. But if we want to have a significant impact on individuals, we need to shift the focus at some point. This is not just about me and my ministry. I want to know about the other person. Who is she? What’s going on in her life right now? What is she passionate about? What can I learn from her?

When you focus on a person, listen to more than words. Search for their concerns or joys or passions.  Listen to what they say to learn about them, not just to use their words as a springboard for your own comments. You may never see this person again, but right now she deserves your full attention.

Connect as a friend.

This is not sermon time. I don’t start a conversation to straighten someone out or act like super-missionary. I just want to know him and affirm him. These are the kinds of questions I like to ask:

You like to play baseball? Cool. What position do you play? I know missionaries who use baseball for a great outreach in the Dominican Republic.

You play the piano? How long have you played? God can really use that skill in your church or on the mission field.

You do artwork? I’d love to see your work sometime. Do you have photos on your phone?

You’re a football fan? In New Zealand they play rugby. I actually know very little about it, but you should talk to my husband sometime. He likes sports, but he’s more of a runner.

Sound pointless? Actually, making conversation is an important friendship skill that will help you wherever you go. Today we have more forms of communication than ever before: texting, email, phone calls, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, social media in many other forms, even snail mail. But with all of these, we have less and less time to actually focus on one person and communicate well. It’s becoming a dying art, and yet one that is desperately needed.

I’m convinced that one of the most effective ways to impact people is through quiet, personal conversations. We don’t often see the results of this kind of ministry, but it is real and memorable. While we give friendship in this way, we receive rich benefits as well.

How can you use these friendship skills to encourage someone today?

 

 

In 46 years of mission ministry, my husband, Art, and I have experienced ministry on the mission field and off the field. Adapting to different cultures. Furloughs. Changing fields. Saying goodbye to our parents and siblings. Saying goodbye to our own daughters. Victories and seeming defeats. Helping people who turned to God and praying for people who turned away from him. But we are now making a change we’ve never made before.

Retirement.

Even though we’ve left the mission field, we’re not retired yet. We still have American churches to visit while we keep our fulltime missionary status, and we plan to continue to minister in our retirement years, but we’re beginning the transition to retirement. Change has begun. Almost everything in our life is changing in some way.

We had been searching for years for a national pastor who could replace us when, just 14 months ago, we found a pastor who was interested in the role. On the last Sunday before we took a short furlough. While in the States, we used Zoom and What’s App for church membership classes with Paul and Therese Gray. By the time we returned in May, Paul and Therese were taking an active part in the ministry of Tay Street Baptist Church. We spent 6 months mentoring them and helping the church work through the process of calling and employing its first paid pastor. 2023 was a whirlwind, but God blessed in amazing ways. At the end of that time, we left the church in the hands of Pastor Paul and Therese. The church had a lovely farewell time for us with the Christmas dinner. Two days later, we used our first one-way ticket from New Zealand and began the stateside part of our journey to retirement.

Having adapted to the culture and lifestyle in Taiwan and New Zealand, we now need to adapt to life in our home country. The America we left in 1980 to go to Taiwan is different from the country we’re returning to 43 years later. We’ve changed as well. What will retirement mean for us?

I’ve heard non-missionaries talk about the changes they go through in retirement. The husband doesn’t know what to do with himself and gets in the way of the wife’s routine. They might move a few hundred miles to be closer to their children. Medicare clicks in and they navigate through it. They might start having more physical ailments. They might fill the time emptied by leaving fulltime employment with volunteer jobs or part time employment. Some find it a time of renewed rest and special new joys. But ministry has been such a big part of our lives for so many years, it’s hard to visualize what retirement will mean for us.

Maybe you’ve already made the move to retirement. Or maybe you’ve watched family members make this transition and learned from what you’ve seen. But consider the changes foreign missionaries make when they return home for retirement. How do you pray for them at a time like that?

We’ve just left New Zealand and its culture and lifestyle are not a lot different from life here in the States. Yet I find change everywhere I turn.

In the last month:

  • Art and I have left our home, the house we loved and decorated for 25 years, and left New Zealand to prepare for retirement in the US.
  • We’ve said goodbye to all our NZ friends and our church ministry that has been such a huge part of our lives, not knowing if or when we will see them again.
  • We’ve traveled 30 hours from an airport in NZ to an airport in Des Moine, Iowa.
  • I’ve broken a tooth the morning we began that trip, and seen a brand-new dentist within 12 hours of landing.
  • I’ve signed up for a dental plan on day one in the US and we’ve begun to work through medical plans and insurance for a medical system that is completely different than we used in NZ.
  • I fried my computer in NZ and got almost everything off the hard drive to put on a “new” computer in the US. (I’m finding out that almost everything and everything makes a big difference in stress levels.)
  • We’ve joined our family in the US for Christmas for the second year in a row!
  • We’ve found a new home to buy and set the settlement date at January 30.
  • We’ve begun to visit new churches to find a new church home.
  • I’ve begun to drive a car I’m not used to, on the opposite side of the road than I’m used to, in a place I don’t begin to know my way around.
  • We’ve begun to learn about new products and new brands in new stores for all the basic needs we have. (Including gluten free options.)
  • We’ve started gathering and buying furniture for a house we’ve only been inside a few times.

We’ve only started making other key moves on our journey from full-time, active missionary service to retirement late in 2024. We’re looking forward to many things on the other side of this journey. I’m looking forward to spending more time writing and engaging in writing-related business. Art’s looking for his own ways to serve. We plan to remain active in ministry. We’re so thankful to live closer to our families and see more of them. But as I stand on the threshold of retirement, I begin to realize the scope of changes we’ll be making.

Change can be good, but change takes extra energy. Emotional energy, mental energy, spiritual energy as well.

In our case, we’re not returning to Colorado or Montana, the states we grew up in. Not even to a state where we’ve had supporting churches (with one small exception early in the 1980’s.) We’re moving here to be close to family. Iowa has many great churches and we’re looking for one to be our home church, but during the months we visit our supporting churches and look for a church of our own on the side, we don’t have our own circle of friends. Already I feel myself becoming self-absorbed from concentrating on all our needs without much thought for the needs of others. This feels different and wouldn’t be healthy if it continued for very long. Isolation isn’t a healthy place for a believer.

God has been so good to us as we’ve travelled down this road of transition. Both in New Zealand and now in America, the Lord has blessed us with friends, family, and virtual strangers who have shown amazing generosity that has helped us to leave one home in NZ and prepare to move into another one in Iowa. But even in ideal circumstances, transitioning to retirement involves huge changes for the missionary. We hold the needs of the field we leave behind close to our heart. We work to fit into life in a country which has changed substantially since we first left it. And we look for meaning and purpose in our new life.

I hope this peek into the life of one retiring missionary couple will help you understand this key part of a missionary’s life. The more you understand, the more you can pray for, befriend, encourage, and support your missionaries who transition and move into retirement status.

 

One Unforgettable Night

How could God let it happen?

Have you ever heard of a situation in which a Christian was treated so unfairly that you wondered how God could let it happen?

In my entire life, Mary Weaver’s story is the harshest example of unfairness I’ve ever heard of.  In 1993, Mary was providing childcare for a baby who had a seizure. Mary called 9-1-1 and performed CPR on the baby, but later in the day the baby died from brain injuries. Medical experts believed Mary had to have shaken and slammed the baby during the 42 minutes she had spent with the baby that day. In time, this caring babysitter faced charges of first-degree murder and child endangerment.

The shocking case made headlines for months, then years. But while some medical experts testified against Mary, others testified in her defense. Steve Brennecke, her lawyer and friend, was convinced of her innocence and fought to prove it. Frank Santiago, a prominent reporter in the area, kept her case alive. The Mary Weaver Support Group wrote letters, ran car washes, and marched in the rain to support her. When the unthinkable happened, all hope seemed gone, but God was still working in her case. Yet like Joseph in the book of Genesis, Mary kept trusting God. Her simple faith during this dark time in her life challenged me to want to write her story and bring it to print. It continued to speak to me during the two years I gathered information and wrote the book.

This month is the tenth anniversary of the night Mary, Steve, and I launched Edges of Truth: The Mary Weaver Story in Marshalltown, Iowa. November 22, 2013 was a night I’ll never forget. Mary had stipulated from the beginning that God must get the glory from this book, and the book launch was an amazing opportunity to let His glory shine.

Twenty years after the baby’s death, people came early and lined up at the door of the book launch to get in. Some had come four hours or more to buy a signed book. Mary’s family was there. Lawyer Steve and Reporter Frank stood beside Paul Rosenberg, Mary’s appeal lawyer and traded stories. The one jury member who voted “not guilty” in her first trial attended. Members of the Mary Weaver support group viewed photos of their earlier activities on her behalf. The venue filled with over a hundred people who, twenty years after the baby’s death, still supported Mary. No one was going away soon. Mary, Steve and I all spoke about the amazing way God had worked in Mary’s murder case and the writing of her story.

As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of that momentous book launch. I count it an honor to be Mary’s friend and to be entrusted with her story. To celebrate this special time, I’m sharing her story in various ways with all of my readers. Some of these resources are free. Edges of Truth: The Mary Weaver Story and I Survived! – the companion Bible study – are available on Kindle Unlimited for the first time. Prices on Kindle and paperback editions are reduced until Christmas. Feel free to share these links with others. Think Christmas. This amazing story makes a great gift and is sure to inspire others to trust in God more completely.

Read a Thanksgiving story.

“Prison Blues: A Thanksgiving Story,” a free chapter from Edges of Truth that will melt your heart and challenge you to be thankful. Can be read as a stand-alone story. https://debbrammer.com/?p=5123

Watch the book trailer. 

Click anywhere on the photo to view this video.

Access information from the MaryWeaverStory website.

Read book reviews, copy sharable quotes, find more of the inside story about this true story and its pathway to publication.

Get Edges of Truth: The Mary Weaver Story.

  • Free on Kindle Unlimited
  • $2.99 for Kindle (price reduced 40%)
  • $11.95 for paperback (price reduced 15%)

 Do KU, Kindle, and Print editions together and use this link.

Get I Survived! – the companion Bible Study.

  • Free on Kindle Unlimited
  • $ .99 for Kindle
  • $6.95 for paperback

 

 

 

 

Free True Thanksgiving Story for 10th Anniversary

November 22, 2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the launch of my book, Edges of Truth: The Mary Weaver Story. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the book launch for Edges of Truth and celebrate American Thanksgiving, I’m giving away this chapter from the book that will challenge you to give thanks.

 

Prison Blues: a Thanksgiving Challenge

Mary Weaver sat on her prison bunk and slipped a family photo from the pages of her Bible. It pictured her with her husband and two children, before she was sentenced to life in prison without parole. She caressed her red-headed son John and his blonde sister Catherine in the picture. For sixteen months she had only seen them once a week when her husband brought them to the prison visiting room.

It all started January 22, 1993 when Mary was providing childcare for 11-month-old Melissa. Mary was putting the baby’s snowsuit on when Melissa quit breathing. Mary called 9-1-1 and performed CPR until the ambulance came, but the baby died within a day. The autopsy found a two-inch skull fracture and other severe injuries that were seven to ten days old. Some doctors ignored these older injuries and believed Melissa’s death was caused by acute injuries from shaking and possibly slamming the baby just before she quit breathing. Since Mary was with Melissa during the forty-two minutes before she quit breathing, they believed Mary must have caused the fatal injuries.

Mary had never done anything to hurt Melissa but opinion on her guilt was divided. She was eventually sent to prison for murder. Her lawyers were seeking to appeal her case, but over a year had passed and they still hadn’t been able to get a new trial. Meanwhile Mary was separated from her husband and kids who were now five and six years old.

Mary felt sure God would eventually free her and clear her name. She was a Christian and she knew God would get her through prison one day at a time. But she grieved for her children and unsaved husband. Months had passed into a year and more and her children were growing up without her. She would never get those years back.

As Mary sat in her cell worrying about her family, a guard appeared at the door. “Mrs. Weaver? You got a visitor.”

Mary set her Bible aside and preceded the guard down the prison corridor. Who could this be? As she stepped into the visitor’s room Catherine skipped up to her in a pink tutu and leotard.

“Mommy, Mommy, I’m going to my dance recital! Aunt Lisa brought me so you could fix my hair.” Catherine jumped around until Mary could hardly get a hug from her.

Mary smiled her thanks at her friend, Lisa Murphy, who had figured out this creative way to include Mary in her daughter’s special occasion.

Mary drew her daughter close. “I’d love to fix your hair. Shall we do French braids?”

“Yes, yes, yes, with pink ribbons!” Catherine bounced with every word.

Mary removed ribbons and elastic bands from Catherine’s ponytail and pulled long blonde strands into sections with her fingers.

“Hold still,” she reminded her daughter as she started one braid. Mary breathed in the fruity fragrance of the superfine hair as she began to weave the strands into identical braids on either side of her daughter’s head, then tied perfect pink bows at each end.

Catherine shook her head to feel her new hairdo. “Thank you, Mommy! I can’t wait to see myself in the mirror.”

Mary surreptitiously wiped tears with one sleeve. “You look beautiful. Can you show me your dance?”

Catherine performed several ballet steps, ending with a lopsided pirouette. Mary clapped loudly. “Good job! Just remember, when you’re in that recital today, I’m going to be thinking about you.”

Catherine gazed at her mom with pleading eyes. “I wish you could come to my recital.”

Mary blinked some tears from her eyes. “Me too, sweetheart, but Aunt Lisa will take pictures and I’ll study them carefully. Just remember that your mommy is very proud of you!”

Mary gave her daughter a quick, prison-acceptable hug and watched the two walk away. Satan whispered, “You are missing her recital and all the other important moments in her life.”

Mary lifted her chin. But God allowed me to fix her hair. God gave me that precious moment. God is good.

She thought of other ways God had allowed her to mother her children as well. God had given Mary a prison job, and her wages had been raised from thirty-eight to forty-one cents an hour. So what if it was only ten percent of minimum wage? The job made her time pass more quickly, and she could use the money in the commissary or craft store. Supporters could also add twenty dollars a week to her prison account. The activities directors had been especially kind to use this money to purchase fabric and patterns for her. Mary had been able to sew outfits for the kids, paint T-shirts, and buy presents for them.

Mary returned to her cell, sat on her bunk, opened her Bible, and prayed. Lord, help me to be thankful for what I have, not to complain about what I don’t have.

A prison sentence made it easy to slide into self-pity. Unfairness could defeat her but only if she let it. Instead she thought about The Hiding Place, a prison library book she had recently read. Corrie ten Boom had hidden Jews in Holland during World War II. The Nazis had caught her and thrown her into a bitter cold prison for four months, then a women’s extermination camp in Germany. Except for her sister, who was imprisoned with her for a time, Corrie had almost no contact with her family. She and her sister existed in overcrowded, filthy cells with little regard for sanitation and little to eat. They were allowed no exercise or fresh air.

Like Mary, Corrie was unfairly imprisoned, yet Corrie’s sister challenged her to focus on what she had. Corrie accepted the challenge. In solitary confinement she hungered for human contact, but she thanked God for an ant that crawled into her cell and provided a bit of company. In one of her prison cells, for one hour a day, she could stretch herself out tall and feel the sun shine on her head and chest. She thanked God for the sunshine. Later, at the extermination camp, she slept piled on a straw-covered platform with many other prisoners, sandwiched between other crowded platforms. Fleas infested the stinking straw, but Corrie even learned to thank God for the fleas. The tiny insects kept the guards away from the overcrowded bunk, where she hid her precious Bible.

Mary closed her eyes to shut out the conversation of the other inmates lounging right outside her cell. Her prison cell was the Ritz Carlton compared to the ones in the book. “Thank you, Lord, that my family is safe and that I can see them every week. Thank you that I have other gals to talk to. You’ve even given me a roommate who seems to be a true Christian. Thank you that I can feel safe in prison, that other inmates haven’t given me trouble, that the guards treat me with respect. Thank you that I have a Bible and I can read it openly, whenever I want. Thank you that I’ve grown closer to you in prison.”

The State had stolen her family. The first year they seized all her possessions, even her clothes. Only now they allowed her to keep a few things of her own. The State could separate her from her home and family, but they couldn’t take God away from her and they couldn’t take her away from God. She would focus on him and the things she was allowed to enjoy. Today that meant fixing her daughter’s hair for a special occasion.

Get Edges of Truth: The Mary Weaver Story here

  • Free on Kindle Unlimited
  • $2.99 for Kindle (price reduced 40%)
  • $11.95 for paperback (price reduced 15%)

 Get I Survived! – the companion Bible Study here

  • Free on Kindle Unlimited
  • $ .99 for Kindle
  • $6.95 for paperback

 

 

 

6 Questions to Help You Balance Your Ministry

Do you ever feel overwhelmed in ministry? Maybe you minister in a small church and there never seems to be enough people to do all the jobs that need to be done. You know you need to balance family life, ministry, and other priorities in your life, but everything you do seems important. What can you leave out?

I’ve been a missionary pastor’s wife for 45 years so I’ve lived through many seasons of life. Language school with small children, starting churches and raising a family in a very foreign culture, a revolving door ministry in America, ups and downs in a church which has turned very international. Now my husband and I are drawing close to retirement and working to help our church transition from missionary pastor to local pastor. With each season of life, I’ve needed to evaluate what I could contribute to ministry and what God is leading me to do. I’ve learned that I change and my energy level changes. Church needs change. My ministry needs to change as well.

A small church has many jobs that need to be done. Some may not be visible to the average church attender, but if no one does them, problems develop. Here are some of the jobs in our church:

  • watching the nursery
  • cleaning the church
  • ordering and organizing the Sunday School curriculum
  • setting up for communion
  • cleaning out the craft closet
  • deep cleaning the church kitchen
  • teaching a class
  • greeting visitors, asking them to sign the guest book, giving them church literature
  • leading games for kids’ club
  • providing transportation to church for those who need it
  • bringing refreshments for various church activities
  • mowing the lawn
  • providing music for church services
  • tending the garden, spraying weeds, and pruning trees and shrubs
  • passing out church fliers in the community
  • pushing trash cans to the curb on trash collection days
  • church maintenance
  • providing childcare for a single mom
  • picking up kids who live a long way from church
  • counseling a needy person
  • serving as a church officer
  • directing a Christmas program
  • speaking to ladies’ groups
  • talking to people before and after services

Make you tired just thinking about it?

Maybe you are doing many of these jobs and some other ones beside and you feel overloaded. You see jobs that need to be done and wonder if you should add them to your already heavy load. How do you sort through the needs and find God’s will for you? I’ve found these 6 questions help me to know when to say “yes” and when to say “no.”

  1. Am I gifted in this area?

God may want you to do a particular job because you are especially gifted in that area. God equips us with gifts and skills so we can serve him in special ways. Serving God in an area that you can do well and are passionate about brings a special sense of fulfillment. Feeling fulfilled in God’s service in an amazing feeling, but it doesn’t always mean God is leading you to do a job, just because it matches your gifts and skills. On the other hand, God does give us the skills we need to do his work. When your skills match church needs, God may be nudging you to meet those needs.

  1. Could the Lord be asking me to grow in this area?

Maybe a church job is outside your comfort zone. You’re scared to do it, but it needs to be done. Maybe God wants you to step out and try this new job. If it really doesn’t work out, at least you would have tried. You would have learned to trust God more in the process. At the end of that time, you would know this isn’t a job God has for you and you could look for someone else to do it. But new things are often hard in the beginning. In the process of learning a new job, God may be growing you in a new area in which you can serve him.

  1. Is this job something that just needs to be done and I can do it?

In a small church lots of jobs need doing and there are seldom enough people to do them. You might find a certain job just needs to be done. You can do it and there is no one else who can or will do it. God needs servants who are ready to do whatever is needed. Since you see the need, maybe you need to be the one to meet that need.

  1. Is this job something that only I can do?

You might be the only person in your church that can play the piano, lead a puppet team, or decorate for a special event. If this is something that needs to be done, God may be directing you to do it because you are able. You may need to ask someone else to relieve you of another job so that you can do the thing that no one else can do. Many jobs can be done by nearly anyone, so if there is one thing that is really important, and only you can do it, that may be a clue that God is leading you to do it.

  1. What job does someone else need to be doing?

You might be gifted in a certain job so no one else is doing it. But what if you taught someone else to do it? That would double the people who could do it and provide a back-up person for when one of you is sick. Maybe another person sees you doing it and feels she can’t do it as well as you. As long as you keep doing it, probably no one else will volunteer. But God may want you to step aside so someone else can serve in this way. In the beginning, that person may not do as good a job as you could. Maybe she never will. But serving in a different way might enable her to grow in a new area. Your skill and willingness could be blocking others from learning new ways to serve the Lord.

  1. What job doesn’t need to be done at all?

As years go by, churches often keep adding programs, but never take any away. People seem to get busier every year and can resent the expectations churches have for them and their families. Maybe a certain program has worked well in the past, but you just can’t find people to run it. Maybe you’re running it, but you are running on fumes. You know that exhaustion is crouching nearby, ready to pounce on you, disabling you at a critical time in your life and ministry. Something’s got to go. That’s one time to re-evaluate the jobs and programs in your church and see if you need to drop something. Sometimes the must-have programs we try to maintain are not as necessary as we think.

Ministry is a privilege. Serving God is a blessing. But we all need to follow God’s leading for our lives and find the correct balance between ministry, family life, and other priorities. May God help you find that balance as you serve him today.