Listen. That is the first thing that every leader should do. Before they plan anything, they should listen. Before they announce anything, they should listen. And certainly, before they change anything, they should listen. Luis Bush, respected missiologist, reminds us that “Listening is indispensable for collaboration in mission because it unveils the ways and means of God’s working on earth.”1 In other words, effective listening is the doorway to the heart and to the mind of God. This should be item one on the agenda of any new leader.
To listen, according to Merriam-Webster, is “to pay attention to someone or something in order to hear what is being said, sung, played, etc.” It seems like such a simple thing, such an obvious thing. It seems like common sense. But ask a church member, office worker, or school teacher, and many of them will tell you that common sense is not as common as it used to be—at least not in this area.
More damage is done than you can imagine by leaders who lead before they listen. What is worse is the fact that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And if the first impression is that the leader’s agenda came fully formed, trouble usually follows. Leaders, especially new leaders, need to listen before they leap. Michael Papay, the CEO and cofounder of Waggi, comments that listening is “the most important ingredient for building strong leadership, healthy relationships, and thriving organizations.”2
For instance, my primary care physician is a longtime friend. In fact, he was a member of my church while he attended medical school at Loma Linda Medical School. I have visited his office more times than I can remember for annual physicals and ailments large and small. But as familiar as he is with my body, he never offers a diagnosis or writes up a prescription before he examines me. I would think he had lost his mind if he did. But that is what some pastors routinely do in their local churches. My physician exam- ines, evaluates, diagnoses, and then prescribes. That is a good procedure for any leader.
When leaders neglect the listening stage, even if they experience success, often that success will never be fully shared or appreciated. It is painful to listen to successful leaders who are never really honored by their church or organization. No matter how hard they work, regardless of the trappings of growth or success, they are rarely thanked or appreciated. At times, it is as if there is a negative cloud always hovering over them. The problem can often be traced back to those early days. First impressions are lasting.
The Hippocratic oath is a great example of practical wisdom. A wise physician knows that the primary responsibility to a patient is to “first, do no harm.” That is not just good wisdom for physicians; it is great counsel for pastors, presidents, principals, and anyone else called to lead. As gifted as you are, and as desperate as the situation may seem, in most cases, you have the luxury to take your time and listen. The old carpenters put it another way: “measure twice and cut once.” The meaning of that proverb is that we should listen, plan, and prepare well before we act.
William Ury, cofounder of the International Networking Organization, along with former President Jimmy Carter, is an acknowledged expert in negotiating and conflict resolution. He has negotiated with individuals and institutions as varied as Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and the Harvard Business School. He considers effective listening to be the golden key to forging healthy individual and institutional relationships. He describes this as the essential, but often overlooked, half of communication. His TED talk in 2015, titled “The Power of Listening,”3 has been amazingly popular. People are beginning to wake up to the benefits of listening for healthy relationships, churches, and businesses alike.
Tony Alessandra is in great demand as an international expert in the art of listening. He has coined the phrase “power listening” for the institutions and businesses that he trains. He identifies four benefits of active listening. It
1. improves the environment at work, at home, and in sales;
2. reduces relationship tensions and hostilities;
3. saves time by reducing mistakes and understanding; and
4. reduces employee turnover.4
Of course, there are certain important distinctions between a local church and a typical business. I would argue that it is generally more difficult to lead a church than most businesses, because the pastor must lead a volunteer army. But there are similarities that make active listening important to the success of both.
Now in the spirit of full disclosure, I might not be the best source for this subject. I was always impatient in the listening stage; especially when I confronted issues that I was confident I had the expertise to handle. But I have learned. And the older I get, the more convinced I am that a leader who misses or mishandles this listening stage is in for a rough leadership ride.
For some young pastors, it is almost impossible to resist the urge to immediately launch that great idea or proven program that fascinated them in seminary. They have studied long and hard, and the time has come for them to move from vision to action. Yet this urge to skip the listening stage can be a challenge for veteran pastors also. They have experienced some level of success in a previous church and assume that what works in one place will work in another. It’s not necessarily so.
Why is it so important to look and listen early in your assignment, regardless of the organization? Why is listening the first order of business for any effective leader? Because when you are assigned a new responsibility, no matter how gifted you are, no matter how experienced you are, there are at least three things that you don’t know:
1. You don’t know everything
The Barna Group, in partnership with Pepperdine University, released an important study in 2017 titled “The State of Pastors.”5 It makes the case that there has never been a more difficult time to lead a local church than now. Why? Because of the complexity of it all. Pastors are struggling because the churches they pastor defy one-size-fits-all solutions and easy answers. The world that we minister to and work in today explodes with complexity.
As with pastors, so with leaders in other vocations. It is just as complex and challenging these days to lead a marketing firm, a nonprofit hospital, a charter school, or even a family. Complexity challenges us all. But do not make a difficult task an impossible task by attempting to handle it without counsel, without conversations, and without listening.
It became clear, as I was introduced to the last church I pastored, that practically everything I did as a pastor, someone in that church could do as well, if not better. Two of the former pastors of the church were members, along with their spouses and families. Professors from La Sierra and Loma Linda universities were sprinkled throughout the congregation. The director of the Counseling Department at La Sierra was there and at least two homiletics professors. There were doctors, business-women, musicians, spoken word artists, and retirees. An early decision to listen and learn before I launched my ideas was one of the best decisions I ever made.
2. You don’t know everyone
It’s all about relationships. It’s cliché but it’s still true: people still do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. You never lose when you invest time in getting to know names and faces. One of the most undervalued ministries is the ministry of presence. Just being present can make a powerful impression. It provides the soil for relationship building. It creates the capital that you need now to get things done later.
The sobering reality for the talented new pastor is that he or she is not the actual leader of the church. Of course, the role, responsibility, and authority of pastor have been assigned, but it is impossible to “assign” effective leadership. It is not assigned; it is earned. The actual leaders are those who have built themselves into the lives of the congregation through relationships. It will take time for the pastor to move from aspirational to actual leader, but it is time well spent.
This is especially true for a new generation of ministers who have, unfortunately, been labeled as strong preachers but weak pastors. Here are some quick suggestions:
• Work on remembering names.
• Show appreciation publicly.
• Attend meaningful social events.
• Never miss a wedding or funeral, if you can help it.
• Spend time with children and seniors.
• Be yourself.
3. You don’t know everywhere
Each church and organization has its own culture. Culture is the way things are done, based on shared values and history. It takes time to learn things are done, based on shared values and history. It takes time to learn this important truth. What is valued in one culture is vexing in another; what is rewarded in one culture is rejected in another. A leader must take the time to look and listen, in order to understand the organizational culture.
I was assigned to a particularly complex and challenging church that demanded attention to the culture. There were unseen laws and landmines that I needed to uncover. I went through a listening exercise that served me well. I announced to the church that we would be meeting together at a popular local restaurant to discuss the past, present, and future of the church. We made arrangements with the restaurant to meet there twice a week for dessert.
We organized a simple schedule that allowed members to come to the restaurant on a day that was best for them. We reserved a nice spot, and members chose desserts that we paid for. It took a while because the church was fairly large, but week after week we listened. We learned valuable information about the church and what the members felt about it. The information was extremely valuable later as we explored the mission and vision of that local church. It was not cheap; but the investment was well worth it.
These are some things I have learned, mostly the hard way, about active listening for effective leadership. I have not mastered these tips, but I have seen them work:
• Pick a positive location to listen.
• Remove distractions.
• Give your undivided attention.
• Stay focused.
• Keep an open mind.
• Do not interrupt.
• Ask questions.
• Take notes.
• Summarize what you think you have heard.
I am privileged these days to spend quite a bit of time working with leaders and local churches. I am regularly struck by how critical the early days are to the success of the leader. The late Steven Covey was fond of saying that we should begin with the end in mind. He was right. If you take the time to plan and prioritize listening early, you will reap the benefits later. Trust me.
1 Luis Bush, “The Power of Listening,” Abstract, Missiology 33, no. 1 (January 2005): 17–28.
2 Michael Papay, “The Power of Listening: What It Means and Why It Matters,” Huffpost, October 27, 2016, huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-power-of-listening-what-it-means-and-why-it-matters_us_58129614e4b08301d33e079b.
3 William Ury, “The Power of Listening,” TED video, 15:40, published online January 7, 2015, ed.ted.com/on/TXnUdvou.
4 Tony Alessandra, “The Power of Listening,”YouTube video, 42:19, published by Various Artists—Topic, December 17, 2014, youtube.com/watch?v=lamZAwEf8SY.
5 Barna, The State of Pastors: How Today’s Faith Leaders Are Navigating Life and Leadership in an Age of Complexity, 2017, barna.com/themes/pastors/.