Listening is the primary and essential way that pastors plumb the depths of the lives of people both within the congregation and in the greater community. In pastoral ministry listening is a given; pastors are expected to be good listeners. But in a congregation, where there is much to consider, communicate, decide, and do, leaders may be tempted to underestimate the extraordinary value of listening. After all, listening is such an ordinary thing. Leaders often need to remind themselves that when we spend time listening we are doing something indispensable. Listening keeps people from shutting down, withdrawing, and distancing themselves because they do not feel heard and valued. Listening fosters a stronger bond among the congregation’s members, a unity of spirit in the community of faith, and a willingness to risk and disclose the self. At its best, listening creates trust as people share experiences and ideas and come to realize that they also share values, desires, and dreams.
Holy and active listening demands many venues and numerous means of listening so that all voices are heard. It occurs in the ordinary and routine tasks of ministry when pastors are attentive to both their own and others’ yearnings, weariness, questions, and supplications. It occurs in the fellowship, worship, and celebrations of congregational life when people spontaneously share their joy, excitement, convictions, and thanksgivings. Pastors should be alert to the possibility that any encounter, conversation, gathering, or meeting might prove to be an opportunity to hear and learn something vital.
People may not say anything directly or outright. Therefore, pastors often listen best by observing, overhearing, and being attuned to people’s feelings and the mood of the room. Pastors sometimes listen best by inviting someone else to ask the questions. Determining the best ways and places to listen is tiring work. Remaining open to all voices, opinions, emotions, and reactions is even more exhausting. Listening to everyone includes listening to those who say things about the pastor and congregation that are difficult to hear and might even be untrue. It involves listening to people who question motives, have their own agendas, and understand their role to be obstruction.
For this reason, holy and active listening is imperfect. Our listening is influenced by our own needs, feelings, aspirations, experiences, and preconceptions. Our listening is influenced by what we do not want to hear because sometimes we do not want to change our understanding and undertake the subsequent changes in either our ministry or the congregation that a new understanding would lead to. As we listen, we may be distracted or preoccupied by what we will do next. We might move too quickly to solve rather than to hear problems.
We may be tempted to listen for reality as we would like it rather than for the way things actually are. We might find ourselves listening to confirm what we already think rather than remaining open to being surprised by others, to God speaking through others, or to the discovery of something new. Our listening is influenced by the questions we ask. A congregational leader once gathered inactive members to ask, “What is it about our pastor that keeps you from being active in church?” That leader’s assumption was obvious. And as important as the way we ask questions are the questions we do not ask. For example, how often do we invite people to name the ways they experience God’s presence in the congregation, or to identify the grace of God at work in the congregation?
Together with other leaders, as pastors listen to people’s words they also listen for “holy screams for new life, or sighs too deep for words.”1 That is to say, pastors listen for what is said beneath the surface and beyond the obvious. An active listener invites the person speaking to say more about what he or she is thinking and feeling without attempting to steer or close off the conversation. This kind of listening requires pastors and other leaders to be prepared to listen to people at length and in depth and not to be content with merely listening long enough to frame a problem and formulate a solution. The pastor’s goal, in fact, is to cultivate a habit of deliberately listening to every aspect and activity of human life—individual lives, the life of the congregation, and the pastor’s own life.
This kind of active listening takes skill and practice. It involves expressing interest through caring behavior, using appropriate facial expressions and posture, posing open-ended questions, and closely observing nonverbal cues. Active listening depends on the listener’s ability to paraphrase, clarify, probe, comprehend, confront, and sort all that the listener receives. Active listening calls for courage; it asks us to be willing to hear things that startle the teller, the listener, or both. Active listeners are natural; they do not appear to be performing a skill; they are authentic and do not seem rehearsed. Active listeners remain patient and approachable. Active listeners also give attention to physical place and emotional space so that people feel welcome and safe.
Holy listening demands that we engage in listening to discover the presence and activity of God in the joys, struggles, and hopes of the ordinary activities of congregational life, as well as the uncertainty and opportunity of change and transition. Listening is holy because we expect to hear the voice, presence, or absence of God. Holy listening demands vigilance, alertness, openness to others, and the expectation that God will speak through them. Holy listening trusts that the Holy Spirit acts in and through our listening. We discern and discover the wisdom and will of God by listening to one another and to ourselves.
From a Christian perspective, holy listening also takes the incarnation seriously; it dares to believe that, as God was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth, so God is embodied in other people and in the things around us. By expecting God to speak in and through the congregation itself, holy listening prevents us from searching so hard for an extraordinary and miraculous epiphany that we miss God with us. Holy listening also reminds both pastor and congregation that they are valued children of God, called and gifted to attend to what is meaningful to God’s life and work in the world.
The work of holy and active listening can be overwhelming. The size of the task, its intensity, and the recognition that pastors will miss something or someone, however hard they try, often leave pastors feeling inadequate, incapable, and deluged with work. Listening, however, is not an additional task, but something pastors are already doing as part of their ministry. God not only speaks as we listen; God helps us to listen. More than a means of determining how to preach and lead a congregation, holy and active listening is itself an act of proclamation and leadership.
1. Jean Stairs, Listening for the Soul (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 15.
Adapted from When God Speaks through Change: Preaching in Times of Congregational Transition, copyright © 2005 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce go toour permissions form.
When God Speaks through Change: Preaching in Times of Congregational Transition by Craig A. Satterlee
Homiletics professor and parish pastor Craig Satterlee reflects on how to integrate significant transitions in a congregation’s life into the preaching ministry of the church. Issues considered include: (1) the benefits and risks of using preaching to address transition, (2) how to incorporate transition into the form, content, and delivery of the sermon, and (3) how transition affects the preacher’s ability to proclaim and the congregation’s ability to receive the message.
Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony by Lillian Daniel
In Tell It Like It Is, pastor Lillian Daniel describes how introducing the practice of testimony into the worship life of the church she led strengthened lay leadership, fostered more intimate community, and drew the congregation closer to God. Tell It Like It Is includes some of the testimonies worshipers heard and reflections from both those who spoke and those who listened to these stories about God at work in the world.