The forgotten key to effective leadership

Second in a five-part series on pastoral leadership

Doug Burrell is a Baptist pastor and ministry consultant in Rome, Georgia.

What will cause your congregation to follow your leadership? Will they follow you simply because you are the pastor? Will they accept you because you have a great vision and you are a persuasive preacher? Will they trust your leadership because of your training and experience?

Undoubtedly your congregation will follow you a certain distance as a result of each of these. But whether they take a comfortable stroll or go on a journey of faith may depend on something pastors sometimes over look: the art of good listening.

A minister friend tells how his 3-year-old son taught him an important lesson. The father was sitting in his favorite chair, reading the evening paper. The boy was enthusiastically talking to his father, who was half listening while he continued to read the pa per. The 3-year-old sensed he wasn't getting through and said, "Listen to me, Daddy!" The preoccupied dad half mumbled, "I'm listening. Go ahead, son." That was when the 3-year-old crawled into Dad's lap. The boy then deliberately took his father's face into his tiny hands, looked directly at his father, and said, "Listen to me with your eyes!"

Parents who listen to their children earn their trust and excel in parenting. That's a job that can't be done with a newspaper in one hand and a remote control in the other. Similarly, if you are going to be an effective spiritual leader, you must be an effective listener. Here are four powerful "secrets" for improving your listening.

Secret 1: people are hungry to be heard

We live in a culture that would rather talk than listen. Everybody seems to have instant answers. They are ready to advise you whether you want it or not. They overwhelm you with information. But people don't need information. They need someone who will listen to them and who will understand what they are saying and feeling.

I have been surprised how eager people are to have someone who will listen to them. Total strangers have poured out their souls to me while we waited in a line or a doctor's office. Sometimes I've simply asked, "How are you doing today?" The replies vary from "I'm fine" to "Terrible, my dog died yesterday!" People I've just met often give me their opinions on politics, the church, or the school system. Sometimes they complain about their in-laws.

One day I stopped in to have a dough nut. The gentleman next to me at the counter wanted to talk. Levi spoke with a mixture of pride and sadness as he reflected on the job he had enjoyed for nearly 20 years—before he was "let go." He was struggling to find his new place in life. He wasn't looking for advice that day. He just wanted someone to listen. Levi isn't much different from the people we pastor. They don't always want or need advice. They just need someone to listen. And if we listen, soon enough so will they.

Listening is a powerful and too-often unused tool of ministry. Think about physicians for a moment. All their knowledge of medicine and the human body, all their experience with other patients, and all their research and knowledge of the latest in medicine are useless until they listen to you tell what ails you. Should a doctor say, "I've seen enough patients now to know what you need," would you feel comfortable? The power and importance of listening in ministry is no less important. A failure to listen is a failure in professional responsibility.

Secret 2: be a good listener

Most people are not good listeners! It's estimated that in 70 percent of all communication people filter out or change the in tended meaning of what they hear. If you want to test this claim, just quiz your congregation on last week's sermon. Think about your own conversational experiences with people. Are you really listening closely when someone else is talking to you? Or are you thinking ahead, waiting for your turn to talk? Are you preoccupied? Do you forget a person's name almost as soon as he or she has said it? Do you find yourself doing most of the talking?

Think about how you tend to listen in various situations. Ask several trusted friends about what kind of listener you are. You can become a better listener by becoming more aware of how you tend to listen. If you want to take this a step further, you might consider completing a Personal Listening Profile1 to give you a more objective view of your approach to listening.

Secret 3: use more than one listening strategy

To be an effective listener, you need more than one strategy in your listening "toolbox". Here are five of them: appreciative, empathic, comprehensive, discerning, evaluative.2

The first two of these are more emotional. The last three focus more on facts. Each strategy must be integrated when it is appropriate. You probably listen "appreciatively" when listening to your favorite mu sic or are watching a video. As a pastor, you will often need to listen "empathetically" to persons who are hurting. This style of listening helps people know that you care about what they are feeling. After some time you may move with them to a more analytical way of listening, the "comprehensive" approach. In this strategy you seek to organize and make sense of what is being said.

This approach helps you to understand the feedback you get from your minister-congregation relations committee. At the board meeting or in committee work you may need to move to a "discerning" style of listening. Here your strategy is to get the whole story, the complete picture, all the facts. Finally, you will employ an "evaluative" approach to listening when buying an automobile or listening to a political speech. These are times to set your emotions aside and evaluate the "pros" and "cons" of what is being said.

In using these varied strategies, you need to be flexible. You must think about the situation at hand and actively decide how to listen. Shifting your mental gears as you encounter different situations to meet the need at hand will make you a more effective listener and a more productive leader.

Secret 4: be intentional in listening

If we want to really hear people, if we want our congregations to trust us and fol low our leadership, we need to be intentional in the practice of listening. Listen carefully at a church dinner or at a ball game. Listen to worshipers as they enter and leave the church. Set aside some specific time to be intentionally present without being busy or in a hurry. Ask questions that encourage people to open up and talk. Ask them about their jobs, their children, or their hobbies. Invite them to talk about their relationship with God. Pray with them. Ask them about their most difficult challenges—at work or at home.

Make good listening the first priority of every committee meeting, every class, and every counseling session. At the board meeting encourage people to talk. Listen care fully to each concern and opinion.

As we listen, we will build our credibility as a pastoral leader. Our congregations will know that we care about them and will award us their trust. Good listening will help us realize more of our leadership potential.

1 The Personal Listening Profile is developed
and produced by the Carlson Learning
Company and is available through
Discovery Resources (1-800-291-3868).

2 For detailed discussion of these strategies,
see the Personal Listening Profile.
This article is the second in a five-part series.


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Doug Burrell is a Baptist pastor and ministry consultant in Rome, Georgia.

May 1997

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