Pastors get stuck in the preaching rut. Even when they’re not preaching, they’re preaching. Personal conversations, counseling sessions, and even family devotions can easily morph into Sunday-style sermonizing, even if it’s by sheer habit. Preaching, as necessary and life-changing as it is, can actually be the pastor’s weakness, especially if it’s done to the neglect of active, intentional, and careful listening. Listening is a lost Christian trait, and sadly, it’s pastors and church leaders who have been some of the first people to lose it. Leadership, counseling, and preaching must include loving listening to other people.
What Keeps Us from Listening?
Pastors need to realize is that there is a time to preach, but there’s also a time to listen. Unfortunately, most of us are much more inclined to preach than we are to listen. What is it that keeps us from being better listeners? In a word, it’s pride. We love ourselves–along with what we say, think, and do–more than we love other people. As painful as it may be to hear it, pride is the sinful barrier that keeps us from listening to others. Pride is like cancer. It is a vicious and malignant sin, yet it has a whole variety of manifestations. Here are some of those manifestations–the pride-infested barriers to listening.
- What you have to say is more important than what the other person has to say. Since pastors are preachers of the Bible–the most important revelation in all of history–they may think that whatever they say about the Bible is going to be more important than any one’s problems. After all, the Bible is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training” (2 Tim 3:16), right? Right. But how will you know what to teach, what to reprove, what to correct, and how to train until you’ve listened first?
- Sharing your knowledge is more important than listening to the other person sharing his or her struggle. Hey, you’re a smart cat. Maybe you even have mighty M.Div. But your vast knowledge of the Bible doesn’t justify your ignorance of the other person’s life. Your knowledge is useless unless it is insightfully applied to someone else’s situation. The cliche is overused, but true: your people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. Listening is caring. Listening is loving.
- You’re busy, and don’t have a whole lot of time to spend listening to someone’s pity party. If you’re a pastor, you’re a pretty busy guy. When it comes to listening to someone talk about struggles, sin, confusing issues, and complicated sin habits or family situations, it takes time. And you probably aren’t too inclined to spend your time doing that. You’d rather fix, fix, fix. Please understand, pastor, that listening is crucial to any effective personal ministry.
- It takes a lot of energy to try to unravel someone else’s problems. We tend to be lazy in the way that we function in ministry. We find a few pat phrases, neat Bible verses, and nice books to recommend, and that just about sums up our “counseling ministry.” Besides, it’s a whole lot easier to do that than it is to hear, listen, and try to understand. Listening to other people talk about their messed-up lives is depressing, and it might even make you feel obligated to help them. (Can you see the cancerous pride in this attitude?)
- And one final point: You’re just so awesome that you can’t help but listen to yourself talk. Yeah, some pastors are like that. I hope you’re not one of them.
Learn to Listen Better.
Learning to listen better starts by realizing that listening is better in many situations. Listening is healing. Many times people already know the answer to their problems. They just need to talk to someone about it. Sure, you may not want to hear all about it, but they may need to tell you about it. In fact, you may not even have to say a word, but by the time they walk away from the ‘counseling session,’ they’re saying, “Wow! I had a really good talk with Pastor.” What they may not realize is that they actually had a really good time talking…because simply talking about one’s problems helps. You need to listen. Once you’ve heard the situation, feel free to offer biblical counsel. Listening is the way to help. Adler, in How to Read a Book, writes, “Do not say you agree, [or] disagree…until you can say, ‘I understand.'” We can paraphrase his wise words for our situation: “Do not give counsel to someone else until you can say, ‘I understand.'” As John Piper points out in his recent book Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God, “Asking questions is the key to understanding.” You don’t understand anything until you’ve listened to everything that the other person has to say.
Here are some helpful realizations in the lesson of listening.
- Realize that listening is a character quality of God. Have you ever stopped to think about the fact that God is a listener? He’s the best listener there is. When we pray, God is listening. God is so interested in listening to us that He actually commanded us to pray, obligating Himself to listen. He wants to hear us. How arrogant it is to neglect listening to other people! We serve a listening God.
- Realize how significant the other person is. Philippians 2:3 says, “In humility count others more significant than yourselves.” According to God’s people-estimation system, you’re at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to significance. Even if you’re the pastor. Other people are more significant than you, and it will do you well to heed that significance and listen to them.
- Realize that listening is learning, and learning is growing. The only way that we learn anything is by listening to something or someone–college professors, the news, life events, God’s Word, other people, etc. Everyone has something to say, and everyone has something to teach you. Listen and learn. By learning, you will become a more effective shepherd. Realize that you’re not a good preacher until you’re a good listener.
- Realize that you have a whole lot to learn. Even though you may have spent a lot of time and a whole lot of money on your training, you still have a lot that you don’t know. There are some things that simply can’t be learned in a seminary classroom. Some of the things you haven’t learned may be some of the more important facets of ministry–learning about nitty-gritty situations, specific sin problems, and complicated scenarios of fallen people. You need to listen to them. You need to learn other cultures, find out what makes other people tick, try to understand different age groups, political parties, economic situations, etc. You learn by listening. Maybe there are some things you’ve just never learned before. Even about the Bible. Even about God.
Get Practical About Listening.
Implement some intentional listening into your ministry. I recently heard about a pastor who was preaching a series on marriage. One of the planned messages for the series had to do with challenges that women face in their marriages. The pastor is not a woman, and in order to better understand the challenges that women face in marriage, he and his wife met with a number of women. They asked questions, they listened. Instead of turning the meeting into a Bible study or preaching challenge, the pastor diligently took notes the whole time. As a result, his preaching on the subject was way better than it would have been had he never taken time to listen.
The next time you’re in a counseling situation, rather than start hurling Bible verses, busting out books, giving homework, or wielding mighty theological arguments, just listen. Rather than thinking about the next thing you’re going to say, think about what they other person is saying. Then, think about the next question that you can ask in order to better understand them.
This is not a plea for Freudian pastoral therapies. This is not an effort to persuade you to water down your counseling to namby-pamby ‘searching,’ or touchy-feely theology. This is simply a plea to love better by listening more. Apply the Bible and its robust theology more effectively through the practice of pastoral listening. God’s Word tells us that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pe. 4:8). This doesn’t mean that your loving other people will pardon your own sins. Rather, this verse teaches that the way to help restoring and helping another person is to love them. Part of loving is listening. That’s your job–to love, to listen, and to shepherd the flock better.