Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Teaching and Selling
distributed 4/27/12 - ©2012

There's a big difference between teachers and people who work in sales.

The difference has nothing to do with academic degrees. It might have some bearing on the fact that motivations change when one group gets a salary, and the other works for commissions.

The core of the difference has to do with the intention of the individual for us. A professor wants us to learn ideas. A salesperson wants us to make a decision. Students ask their teachers, "Will that be on the test?" In sales, the test has to do with who is holding the cash at the end of the day.

Both teaching and sales can be reputable professions. But those who excel in one area may be dismal failures in the other.

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One of my seminary professors gave me a valuable insight into how teaching and sales mix as parts of pastoral ministry.

In the introductory preaching class, we were told to have a clear statement of purpose for every sermon, a purpose that could be expressed in a single sentence. There were three acceptable ways to start that statement: 1) to teach ..., 2) to convince ..., or 3) to persuade ...

My preaching prof was aware that pastors move back and forth between teaching and sales roles. Sometimes, it is appropriate and necessary for a sermon to teach about an idea, or to convince the listeners about the validity of an idea. Other times, though, the pastor moves into a different style and tries to persuade the audience, to get them to make a choice or take an action.

The preacher needs to use different methods to accomplish those goals. Persuasion is not achieved by lots and lots of teaching. More and more information does not lead anyone to make a choice. Persuasion takes sales skills, not teaching skills. Teaching and convincing happen in the head. Persuasion happens in the heart and the guts.

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In my conversations with pastors and lay leaders, it seems that churches have two core problems that keep us from being effective in persuasion, in getting commitments and bringing about transformation.

1. We often deal with eco-justice with styles best suited for teaching or convincing. It is rare that we move into persuasion, into that difficult level of calling on people to make choices about how they will use their resources, and how they will live.

Our churches may have sermons and classes and newsletter articles about climate change, industrial agriculture, and water conservation. We fill lots of heads with facts and figures, with intellectual perspectives and knowledge about political agendas. But we rarely move into hearts and souls with a style that will lead to decisions.

As we convey our message, the members of our churches might be more inclined to ask, "Will that be on the test?" than "How do I sign up?" We focus on content, not on choices.

Persuasion requires that we actively engage our folk. We have to have an intimate feel for what they want and for what motivates them. We need to be able to communicate how the "product" we have to offer helps them achieve their deepest desires. We can convince the members of our church that it is good and right to be environmental stewards, and to live more lightly on the planet. They may know that, but still feel any desire to "buy" the just and sustainable world that we're selling.

When we are being most effective, our ministries will mix information and transformation. We will build our persuasive calls for action and change on a strong foundation of teaching and convincing. But it is essential that we see information as the basis for the essential call for action. We're not going to make much progress toward a more just and sustainable world with a crowd of well-informed, but unmotivated, people.

2. When we do bring a sales approach to our efforts, we're not good at "closing the deal." Lots of us know that we need to ask for a decision, but few of us are gifted in making that pitch or getting the desired decision.

We may provide classes and materials to tell people about solar power, and how it is a responsible choice financially and environmentally. We'll tell them about creative options for getting solar panels installed, but never ask for a decision. The closing line of the session is "now you know" instead of "which contractor are you going to call?"

We need to be willing to push into risky territory when we ask folk, not to "consider" a proposal, but to make a decision. I've heard that the top sellers at a car dealership probably won't ask "do you want it?", but "what color would you like?" or "when do you want it delivered?" In our churches, we need to have a list of attractive options for how our members can change their behaviors and their lives, so that we can ask them to pick one or more of the choices.

Pushing for a decision is a hard stretch for those of us who are better at teaching that at sales. But it is a skill that we must cultivate if we are going to be effective in our efforts to bring our eco-justice convictions into the life and ministry of congregations.

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Last week's Notes proposed a spectrum for environmental engagement: oblivious, informed, concerned, compassionate, committed and transformed. (One reader suggested "kinship" with Earth community as a seventh stage, or as a particular form of transformation.)

Oblivious is not an acceptable option, I hope. The stages of informed, concerned and compassionate have to do with what we know and feel. They relate to the categories of teaching and persuading. Commitment and transformation call for sales, for making choices that lead into action. If we're not calling for those decisions, then we're not getting the whole job done.

Teaching, convincing and persuading are all part of the complicated job of ministry. May God strengthen our skills in both teaching and selling, and help us to discern the best opportunities for using each of those approaches.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

"Teaching and Selling" updates a Notes of the same title distributed on November 2, 2001.

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