Listen to me, pastor!

The need for and qualifications of a healing pastoral ear.

Misheck Kirimi is a local church elder in Nairobi, Kenya.

When Deborah, a middle-aged, divorced woman was found dead in her room with a lethal syringe still dangling on her thigh, the local counselor recalled two significant facts he had observed about her. First, although Deborah was affiliated with a near by church, she had no close friends. Second, she had a distressing tale that she had to share with someone who would listen. She found nobody responsive enough with whom to share her story, and in a way that is what killed her. Probably the only ears that ever listened to her were those of Sly, her tomcat.

Our churches, homes, and workplaces are full of Deborah's people in dire need of being listened to. "It is impossible," said renowned Christian psychiatrist Paul Tournier, "to overemphasize the immense need humans have to be really listened to, to be taken seriously, to be understood."1 The world is thirsty for quality listeners. Teenagers talk to the wrong people because adults have no time or will to listen. Spouses confide in the wrong ears because they don't find patience or grace in the ears of their life partner. Nowhere do we see more clearly the don't-care attitude that has permeated our culture than in our low tolerance to the "tales" of others.

This is why, at least in part, effective listening is a minister's premium skill. Good listening adds quality to pastoral services because people perceive it as ultimate proof of love and care for them. Unlike talking, listening is "selfish-proof." It is not "I" centered but "other" oriented. By listening actively the minister tells the talker, "what concerns you is important to me also . . . because you matter. I want to share your pain and happiness."

The ministry of listening

People come to church to listen. They also come with a big desire to be heard. In a size able number, that desire and need is the main reason for coming to a church. People have a tale, and it must be told. People simply need to feel the sense of significance that is offered them by a listening, caring ear. If the church has no provision for this, they will tell it else where. Some people may be ultimately lost, not because no one talked to them, but because no one actually listened.

Recognizing these realities elevates "listening" into a ministry a service of love that the church exists to offer. Unfortunately, the "talking ministries" have increased tremendously at the expense of the listening ministry. It's time we readjusted the scale.

One practical way to overcome this limitation is to begin to create a culture of attentive listening in the congregation. A minister can turn the church into a listening community. Parents can learn to listen to their children, children to their parents, spouses to each other. Everyone can learn to listen. The result will be improved relationships.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey writes that "to relate effectively ... we must learn to listen. And this requires emotional strength. Listening involves patience, openness and a desire to understand highly developed qualities of character."2

Listening to heal

When it comes to mind-healing listening, we don't merely listen to what is said; we listen to the person who is saying it. Here the "messenger" is more important than the "message." We must be genuinely sensitive because talking is often so personal that inattention equals disrespect or disregard for the talker.

Although many people hear when we speak, only a caring person listens. The difference is that hearing is done with the ear while listening is done with the mind and heart. Pharaoh Ptahhotep instructed his officials to listen to pleas of clients patiently and without rancor, because a petitioner actually wants respect and attention to what he says more than the accomplishing of that for which he came.

Listening with this kind of concern heals emotional wounds. Not doing so can in fact create wounds. We talk our problems away when we know someone who cares is listening. Naturally, knowing that another human being is aware of how we hurt makes the hurt endurable. Similarly, knowing that someone is aware of our joy makes that joy more intense. Either way, a "listening someone" makes life better.

Qualities of a good listener

For someone to actually disclose themselves, the listener must demon strate four qualities.

1. Confidentiality. The speaker needs assurance that he or she is confiding in the right person, someone who can be trusted with the deepest secrets without the risk of leakage. The majority of Seventh-day Adventists rate their pastors high with regard to confidentiality. Listening pastors gather vast amounts of information concerning the day-to-day problems of their flock. This increases their efficiency in ministering to those needs, not to mention the trust that is built on the basis of which all sorts of further doors of ministry may be opened.

Some of what the pastor hears brings him or her personal trial. Being privy to some classified information can be overwhelming, creating in pastors the pressure to share it in turn. As persons of integrity, they resist the temptation to do that. They can safely vent the pressure by recycling the story at its source.

2. Patience. A speaker/parishioner might not go to the root of his or her problem during the first or second counseling session. Early sessions are usually spent quietly, even unconsciously, assessing the credibility of pastors testing the water before step ping in. Can the pastor be trusted? Is he or she "safe" and actually interest ed in me? Does the pastor care? How much can I disclose to him or her? Only when these questions are answered can the listener start to dis close useful information. In the presence of this kind of caution it is common for listeners to jump to conclusions before the tale has been fully told. "I know what she's going to say" is an attitude that portrays the typical lack of patience. James W. Gibson and Michael Hanna write, "You can deal with this problem if you learn to be patient. . .. Wait until you hear what others have to say, then make a critical judgment. . . . Being patient may mean biting your tongue in order to keep yourself from interrupting."3

3. Attention. Many listeners let their thoughts wander or descend into lethargy when another person is talking. Unless the speaker is exceptionally gifted or the subject acutely important to the listener, 80 percent of what is said goes to waste. Most of us are awake only when we're talking. As soon as it's our turn to listen, we tend to slide into indifference. Real listening is a highly active skill.

The very name "shepherd" carries with it a connotation of patience. Some sheep are slow, clumsy, thank less, and always getting lost. A pastor may have to listen to speakers who are slow, boring, unintelligent, unintelligible, or in error. When pastors patiently listen to such people, they live up to their title. Writes John Powell, "If you raise your eyebrows or narrow your eyes, if you yawn or look at your watch, I will probably retreat to safer ground. I will run for cover of silence. . . ."4

4. Involvement. Gibson and Hanna say that emphatic listening allows us to identify, to understand, and to reflect the feelings, needs and intentions of another person. This kind of listening equips listeners with information that gives them a feel for what it is like to be in the shoes of the speaker. Only then can they assist the speaker to explore and pick the best solutions to the presenting problem.

Learn to listen

Pastors need to deliberately hone their listening skills. J. Michael Bennett, an expert in listening, writes, "No one could count the tales of woe that have as their central point 'I thought you said....' No one could tally the jobs ruined, the classes failed, the battles lost, the hearts bro ken, the money wasted, the lives damaged as a direct result of poor listening skills."5 Listening experts compare good listening skills to good reading skills. If reading is listening with the eye, listening is reading with the ear. Like reading, listening can be difficult. By far the greatest hindrance to skillful listening is a false belief that we are already good at it. What we forget is that listening is quite different from hearing. It requires active discipline.

A study by Gary T. Hunt and Louis P. Cusella found that many corporate employees did not seek to improve their listening abilities because they mistakenly believed that they listened well.6 The first step in learning effective listening might be the admission or suspicion that one is not such a good listener.

Active acquisition of information from speakers be they be boring or entertaining greatly improves our professional and personal decision making processes. Moreover, listening makes our services more responsive to the personal needs of those we serve.

1 J. Michael Bennett, Four Powers of Communication: Skills for Effective Learning (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1991), 51.

2 John Powell, S.J., Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? (Miles, 111.: Argus Communications, 1969), 5.

3 Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), 37.

4 James W. Gibson and Michael S. Hanna, Introduction to Human Communication (Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1992), 66.

5 Powell, 56.

6 Bennett, 47.


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Misheck Kirimi is a local church elder in Nairobi, Kenya.

March 2001

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