We’re all looking for shortcuts, secrets, and time-tested ways to accomplish what’s important. Having been in local church ministry for decades, I’ve come to learn that two of the most effective tools have been right next to me all along.
I’m talking about my ears.
Pastoral ministry often elevates the role of our speaking. We’re expected to bring insights, answers, stories, wisdom, and counsel. Oh, and sermons. Lots of sermons. All of these focus on what we want others to hear. We’re preachers, teachers, communicators, and evangelists.
But pastoral leadership demands that we grow as listeners, not just as speakers. Listening is harder. I remember being dressed down by a minority woman after using a street slang word. She let me know that it was NOT okay for me to use that, since I didn’t belong to that sub-culture. I had to listen, or else I would have lost the opportunity to become a better pastor.
Time and again I’ve created focus groups whose primary purpose is to speak into my life in areas that I need to hear. I listen to people who are from different cultures, different generations, and different ethnicities. While these groups are usually kind and gracious, it’s always hard to listen because it reveals blind spots, and worse, in my own leadership and life. Part of why our church is a thriving multi-cultural expression of the Body of Christ is because of listening.
Church staff and key volunteers also need my ears. It’s been said that the leader is usually the last to know. Since that’s the tendency in organizations, including the church, effective pastoral leadership means seeking out the voices that might not feel comfortable speaking up. I believe in hiring high-quality, intelligent staff. And I believe their voice is important, as are the voices of our volunteer leaders. If our leaders don’t believe we want to hear the truth, most of them won’t offer it.
Then there are the endless back-stories of pain. Instead of writing off that difficult person, what if we pull up a chair and listen to their story? Unless we do that, we won’t really know them, and without that knowledge, it’s almost impossible to effectively lead them. We won’t know about their struggle with mental illness, or their marriage that’s causing them to lose sleep, or their adolescent child who’s hanging out with a dangerous crowd. We won’t know about their horrible church experience, or their abusive childhood, or their palpable fear of living in a country that’s increasingly polarized and threatening. And in my experience, most people will not tell their real story if they don’t think I really want to know. Instead, they’ll put on a happy face, go about their church activities, and perhaps frustrate me because I don’t understand why they act the way they do.
I’ve also learned about listening to those from different traditions. The echo chamber is my comfort zone, but little growth takes place there. I entered ministry with a set of beliefs that have grown and changed over the years. The willingness to listen to different traditions has helped me become a better pastor as I’ve come to understand positions and traditions that are different from mine.
There’s little chance I’ll wear out these valuable tools on the side of my head, since I frequently forget to use them, and leave them on the back shelf. But the more I use them, the better they get, and I become a better pastor. I become a better leader. And when I do get called on to speak, people can hear more clearly the message that matters.
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