A while back, a friend of mine told me that he liked his pastor. He especially enjoyed his preaching, but he tried to avoid spending time with the pastor in social settings. This surprised me. I’ve listened to a few of his pastor’s sermons. When preaching, he seems like a dynamic, insightful person, with a good sense of humor—someone my buddy would want to take to lunch or invite to his house for dinner. “So what’s the problem?” I asked. “He likes to talk. Not much of a listener” my friend said.
My friend went on to describe long-winded soliloquys by the pastor on topics no one in the group was interested in. Evidently, it had become something of a known quality among the pastor’s congregation that he liked to talk and wasn’t as interested in what others had to say.
At the time, I suspected that without a change in behavior—if this pastor did not learn to listen and listen well—his ministry would not endure. And it didn’t. Today, that pastor is not a pastor, and my friend says he is much more enjoyable to talk to.
Of course, listening can be a challenge for all of us. Being a good listener requires humility. It does not come naturally to sinners whose instincts are self-glory and self-promotion. From the womb, we find ourselves inherently interesting, and we find others less so.
Until we die, we will struggle to obey Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
Yet even if we struggle to practice the art of listening, I imagine all of us—especially pastors—would acknowledge its value. I am sure that’s true of my friend’s pastor. During counseling, he has probably encouraged spouses to listen to each other. When talking to the children or youth at his church, he has, no doubt, connected obeying parents (see Eph 6:1–2) with listening to their wise counsel. And if he’s ever taught from the book of Proverbs, he’s probably exhorted his congregation to listen well. In a sense, the entire book is about the value of listening to the right sources. It’s filled with verses like:
“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” (Prov 18:2)
“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13)
“Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov 29:20).
Beyond Proverbs, the pastor will also talk about the value of listening if he ever teaches from James, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (1:19). And when he preaches on the life of Christ, he will have plenty of opportunities to tell his congregation about times when Jesus tells a crowd, “Hear me, all of you, and understand," (Mark 7:14) or starts a parable with the urgent command to “listen!” (Mark 4:3).
Thankfully, there are countless pastors that do listen well. They see listening as essential to their calling to love and care for their flock. They model wise, thoughtful interaction with others. Yet pastors can stumble in this area and fail to practice what they preach. Why is that? I’ll suggest three elements of the job that can make the pastor particularly vulnerable to poor listening habits. I’ll also give three practical ways pastors can sharpen this essential skill.
The Description of the Work
The first vulnerability is built into the job description for pastors. Speaking in front of a crowd, not listening among a crowd, is an essential part of the job. In fact, the ability to teach is a qualification for ministry: the one ability Paul says an elder must have (see 1 Tim 3:2). Monday through Saturday, pastors study and think about what they are going to say in front of their congregation. Sunday after Sunday, they deliver sermons, which means they are the only ones talking in the room. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with this set-up. In fact, there is everything right with it! It’s exactly how God designed it and how it should be for churches who love God and His Word. But if a pastor is not careful, the craft can become absorbing and people can become a background, a stage, for the performance of delivering sermons. His love for preaching can turn into a love for speech-making. He might like to be an authority figure, he loves the craft, or he simply likes the fact that a crowd is hanging on his every word. A pastor must guard against this. He must continually remind himself that in preaching, he is no more than a mouthpiece, a herald of the King.
The Nature of the Work
The second reason pastors can forget the importance of listening is because of the absorbing nature of their work. Most men go into pastoral ministry because they want to devote their lives to the worthiest of causes. They want to spend every waking moment doing something that matters. And ministry matters. Proclaiming the truth is the most noble of tasks. And for that reason, pastors can become consumed by their work. They find studying, preaching, counseling, and leading more interesting than anything else. In contrast, the work their congregation do can seem less important, even a waste of time. Why talk about working in an office, or working with your hands, when you can talk about the work of the gospel, discipleship, evangelism, and the church that God is building, “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15)? Technology and social media can feed pastors addiction to the work of the ministry. On the Internet, there is always another controversy that caters to pastors and seems like an essential theological debate. And on social media, it seems a prominent figure is always misusing Scripture, or advocating for a position that needs a good, pastoral response. If a pastor is not careful, he can find himself in an echo chamber, convinced that the cares of his world are the only cares of the world—or at least the only ones that matter. This can hinder his ability to listen and respond to his people.
The Responsibility of theWork
The third reason a pastor can be particularly susceptible to the charge of not listening is because of the responsibility of his office. He is called to shepherd and care for others. He is to impart truth and speak with wisdom. Because of that, the expectation can be for him to talk, and everyone else to listen. I’ve often seen a group of people act one way, then change their body language and words as soon as the pastor enters the room or joins the conversation. This happens because a lot of believers see their relationship with their pastor much differently than they see their relationships with other Christians. That is often a good thing. Pastors should be given respect, honor, and submission (see Gal 6:6; Heb 13:13; 1 Thess 5:12–14). But a pastor is not only the spiritual leader of his congregation. He is far more than the calling that separates him from his congregation. He is united with his people in their love for the truth, their need for it, their sin, redemption, sanctification, and pending glorification. It can be easy to forget that common ground and focus more on the uniqueness of the pastoral calling. And when that happens, listening becomes harder. Pastors need to make sure the responsibility does not intentionally or unintentionally cultivate relational separation with his people.
So how can a pastor avoid those pitfalls? How can he sharpen his listening skills and minister to his congregation more effectively?
Recognize Your Dependence
First, the pastor must reject the idea that he is omnicompetent. The call to pastoral ministry is not the call to business, organizational structure, curriculum development, or marketing. Others in the congregation are likely more effective in those areas. He must learn to say no, and say I don’t know, when asked for his input or advice in areas that he knows little or nothing about. He must instead listen to those with the expertise in those areas. This will have a two-fold benefit. It will cultivate affection from other leaders in the church who want to contribute to the work of the ministry and do so in the way God has gifted them. And it will free the pastor from an exhausting work-load to focus on the few things the Lord has called him to: preaching, teaching, discipling, counseling. To reject an omnicompetent ministry philosophy is to embrace humility and force oneself to listen to others.
Read Other Books
Second, the pastor must read widely and develop a love for truth in all of God’s creation. Reading is intentionally listening to someone else’s story. So reading outside your area of interest—theology—means you are listening to people more like your congregation than you. At least once a month, I’d encourage a pastor to read a book that has nothing to do with pastoral ministry. Read a work of history. Read a book on business, especially a business that someone in the church works in. Read a memoir. And yes, read fiction! It will develop empathy, an ability to understand life from the perspective of someone else. This is invaluable, particularly in counseling. It’s also crucial for everyday conversation. A widely-read pastor will be better equipped to engage in conversation and ask follow-up questions. Reading widely, and thinking outside your own area of expertise, can make people more interesting to you and can make listening easier. It’s also humbling. Reading teaches you how little you know, and helps you realize that you need to depend on others to cultivate wisdom.
Leave the Study
Third, the pastor must not spend all his time on ministry tasks. He must develop interests and passions beyond the work of the pastorate. This starts in the home. An effective pastor puts away his phone and focuses entirely on his family. He takes an interest in what they are interested in. He makes eye contact. And at times, he does nothing. He is simply with his family. Beyond the home, a pastor serves himself and his congregation well by cultivating interests and, yes, a hobby or two. Exercise is crucial. Sports are not a waste of time, especially if done with nonbelievers or members of the congregation. And anytime a pastor can work with his hands, it’s useful for his mind. No matter the area of interest, the important thing is to mentally refocus so that he can better focus on serving his people. Taking regular breaks from ministry will train the pastor to not always see himself as in a ministry mindset. And it will better prepare him to simply talk to his people and listen to them, no matter the topic.
The Value of Listening
Good listening habits don’t come naturally. They must be cultivated. That’s true for all of us, pastors included. But strong listening skills have saved marriages, healed church tensions, connected parents and children, and led nonbelievers to see the love of Christ. So let’s be people—and pastors—known for the ministry of listening.
[Editor's note: This post was originally posted in November, 2020 and has been updated.]