Every ministry leader needs to be a good listener. Unfortunately, listening is a lost art. This is especially true in an era where opinion and individualism are valued over practically everything else. Everyone wants to be heard, but it seems that few want to listen.
The challenge for ministry leaders and pastors is that we should be the listeners for our followers and flock. It's taken me a while to figure out how to be a better listener, and while I still struggle from time to time I have learned a few simple methods to help be a better listener.
I remember when I was about 20 I was having a conversation with an older gentleman about music outside after church. After 10 minutes of my non-stop talking, he finally said, “Will you please shut up? It's not much of a conversation if you don't let me talk too!”
That was a wake-up call for me. Suddenly I understood, it's frustrating for the other person if you don't let them speak.
So, when you're listening to someone, stop talking. Completely. And if you do decide to speak, ask follow up questions that allow the other person to elaborate on what they are saying. Even better, paraphrase what the other person is saying back to them. This lets them know that you are listening and understanding their point of view.
Perhaps the Apostle James said it best, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” (James 1:19)
The posture of a listener is also important. If you're seated while listening, lean forward. This tells the other person that you are interested. Eye contact is critical too. Look at the person that is speaking to you, not past them. Also, be wary of body language that signals boredom or loss of interest. Don't fidget with your hands, don't look at your watch, and please, please do not look at your phone.
Good listening is about putting the needs of other people first. It's really about humility. Allowing another person to take center stage in a conversation is challenging. The Apostle Paul writes about the model of humility in Philippians 2:3-4, “…in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” He says this is how Jesus acted toward others and we should too. Imagine what a good listener Jesus must've been!
This might be the hardest part of listening. Good listening takes time. The challenge for ministry leaders and pastors is that we feel like we don't have a lot of time and so we aren't always the best listeners.
Plenty of times I have sat with people who are sharing challenges and problems in their lives with me. Often, they don't get to the point right away. In my head, I think, “get to the point so I can solve your problem quickly!” But helping them “solve” their problems is not why they've come to see me. Isn't it God's responsibility to solve problems anyway? They just want to be heard.
Eugene Peterson says, “Pastoral listening requires unhurried leisure, even if it's for only five minutes. Leisure is a quality of spirit, not a quantity of time. Only in that ambiance of leisure do persons know they are listened to with absolute seriousness, treated with dignity and importance.” (Read Eugene Peterson's article at Christianity Today)
The brother of Jesus wrote, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Notice that he is not saying you'll be forgiven (that comes from God), but healed. There is something very powerful that happens when we talk to each other about our problems, challenges, and sins.