I get it. Even as you stand at the back of the room readying yourself to greet the flock, converse with and care for those you are called to shepherd, your mind is gearing up. Those who need to say more than a pleasant ‘hello’ have a certain look in their eye, don’t they? Almost as though the mental effort of planning what they want to say leaves a residue on their expression. You can see them coming a mile off, and your own mind begins to wind up.
As a pastor, it often feels as though words are the main tools of the trade. We read words. We write words. We speak words. All of these involve mentally formulating words, even while we read, write, and speak. We are dominated by words. But as I approach two decades of pastoral ministry, I’m discovering the depths of something I regret not learning earlier. ‘Listening’ is an essential word ministry.
Don’t mishear me. I’m not saying preaching, counsel, or a wise word in season is of lesser value. But I have undervalued the significance of pastoral listening. In years gone by, while I would never have expressed it this way, I only ever listened long enough to gain the information I required to formulate my own response. I listened to speak, not to understand. I listened to express, not to exercise empathy.
Pastors do not preach into a vacuum. Not all the flock are the same, not all require the same diet. We are called to preach, yes, but preach to particular people. The whole flock may have general needs, but the individual lambs need someone who knows their needs. So take time to listen.
One of the most significant personal needs a person has is the need to be heard. When you are truly heard, it opens up new depths of relationship not easily replicated. Consider Psalm 116.
Psalm 116:1-2 (ESV)—I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The Psalmist rejoices in the fact that he was heard. The Great Shepherd heard, he inclined his ear. What a beautiful image. The God of all eternity bending his ear toward his children. The great I AM who was before all things, sustains all things, and is above all things, leans forward and listens. What does the Psalmist say then? “I love the LORD. I will call on him as long as I live.” You are not God, you are not the Chief Shepherd, but you are his under-shepherd and he has asked you to care for his sheep.
Speaking is an essential part of the ministry, and you study and prepare well to do so. But listening is also an essential part of the ministry. What are you doing to prepare yourself well for this? Here are a few considerations to help develop your listening skills:
1. Prepare a listening environment. What I mean by this is, decide beforehand that this is a time for listening. Identify the distractions that will inhibit good listening and set up what controls you can to manage them. An example of this that I’ve needed to be conscious of is how my phone affects my listening. Turn it to silent and put it out of view. Make sure the person you are listening to knows without a doubt your sole focus is on them. This also includes preparing your own heart to listen. Pray quietly before you begin that you would honor the speech of another by preparing your heart and mind to be in ‘receive’ mode.
2. Practice clarifying questions. “Tell me what you meant by that? Why do you think that is? Is there anything more I should know about that?” These types of questions make your speech a servant of your listening. Along with questions that clarify, using statements that reflect what was said helps the person know you’ve heard them. It also gives them a chance to restate their thoughts if you still haven’t been able to grasp what they are truly saying.
3. Get comfortable with silence. Most pastors I know, including myself, are uncomfortable with silence. But not all words bubble to the surface easily. Some hidden thoughts take silence to uncover. It is not our job to fill the silent spaces in this world — silence is often the most revealing space the Spirit of God can work in.
4. Listen for what is not said. A skill most useful in listening is that of noticing what isn’t said. While someone may have much to say about certain topics, sometimes it is the ones avoided that say the most. Keep careful note of these silent topics of conversation, then, after listening well to what is being said, use clarifying questions to direct the conversation back to subjects that were skirted.
5. Ask how the person would like you to respond. Sometimes, listening is all that is required, but usually, a response is expected. I have found that asking what the person would like from me before I unload my thoughts can help direct my response, and often, reveals more of their motives for the discussion. More often than not, the desired response isn’t all that is required, but I’ve found it a good starting point. On a few occasions, I’ve found that responding with, “You’ve given me a lot to think and pray about. Is it okay if you leave this with me for a short time before we meet up again and talk about this further?”
Listening is an essential word ministry. As you would prepare to preach, brothers, I exhort you, prepare yourself to listen. Your flock will love you all the more, you will be better equipped to fulfill your calling, and many will give thanks to God for his love for them through you.