A year ago, my friend and ministry co-laborer Corey Williams wrote a poignant article here on the blog about the need for pastors to practice the art of listening. As Corey helpfully points out, pastors can neglect to listen to others because their understanding of ministry (rightfully) revolves around speaking—proclaiming Jesus in the pulpit, engaging with fellow leaders, and counseling others. Besides prompting conviction in my own life, the article sparked more reflection on the need for a listening posture—particularly for those of us aspiring to pastoral ministry or still forming the grooves of our habits in spiritual leadership.
Listening is not just a physical action. It’s more than opening your ears, making eye contact, and processing the information you hear. Good listening leads to understanding, action, and growth—understanding that truly engages the heart and mind, action that appropriately responds to others in word and deed, and growth that acknowledges and redeems the value of every conversation. This listening posture necessitates humility, but it also produces the same. The ministry of listening, then, shows to how engaging with others deeply has profound spiritual benefits. Through listening to others, God teaches us more about Him, ourselves, others, and ministry itself.
As we understand both the need for a listening posture—and how often it’s neglected—we also need to realize the opportunities for spiritual growth we are missing. Who do we need to listen to more—and more carefully? When are we most prone to speak, move on, or close ourselves off when we should be listening? Here are three opportunities to practice the art of listening that, as ministers of the gospel, we must steward well.
Listening While Ministering
For pastors, the most pertinent opportunities for listening come in ministry contexts, yet they are probably the opportunities most often missed. We are too busy to listen. We are busy running leaders’ meetings, busy with counseling appointments, and busy discipling others. Of course, we are not too busy for all the speaking. We speak as God would have us speak in the pulpit, we speak with intentional and biblical wisdom to others, and we certainly speak when we need something from the church staff. When we speak in ministry contexts, we often enjoy a healthy and affirming pattern of others graciously listening to our input and counsel. Many times, those in the church want us to speak and need our input. However, in moments like this, our bent toward actively ministering to those in our church can cloud out the fact that even in situations that seem to need our input more than our ear, we must still be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19).
As we minister, we must more readily do so with a listening posture. We must be just as willing to receive wisdom, input, or an opinion as we are to give the same. A listening posture will help us minister more effectively and empathetically, but it will also open us up to the spiritual lessons and additional opportunities that come from ministering with an open ear and a receptive heart.
As counselors, we must resist the temptation to be instant spiritual heart surgeons and instead patiently ask good questions that build trust and relationship with those who come to us for biblical wisdom.
As leaders, we must not rely only on our own pre-formed assessments and opinions, but instead draw out others’ ideas and fully hear them out. As disciplers, we must ask for and hear the heart behind people’s decisions and convictions. We must be willing, even eager, for our doubts or judgements to be proven wrong. God is working in the lives of those we minister to, and our care for them must be informed by the two-way street of listening to others.
Listening to Preaching
The minister listens to a lot of preaching, but most of that preaching is to the tune of his own voice. As pastors, we would do well to make it a point to attend to the preaching of other men. When others preach in our place, we are normally elsewhere, resting, preaching somewhere else, or fulfilling another urgent ministry responsibility. If present, we are scrolling on our phones, mulling over our next preaching text, or focused on what sermon feedback we should give. If we listen to recorded sermons throughout the week, it’s often for the benefit of our own preaching. Such a self-focused intake of preaching can close our ears to the preaching of God’s Word and thus close our lives to the spiritual benefit of listening to preaching.
As we have opportunity to listen to preaching, however rare that might be in our ministry situation, we must cultivate a listening posture. We must lay our hearts bare before God and ask Him to work through His Word in our hearts just as we pray He does in the hearts of the people who listen to our preaching. Many seasoned preachers probably first felt the desire to preach while sitting under a mentor’s faithful preaching or as they listened to sermon cassette tapes. What an eager and appreciative appetite there was for preaching! Let’s never forget that mindset—that purposeful and prayerful listening posture toward the work of God through others’ preaching.
Listening While Living
For the minister, there is a goldmine of potential opportunities to listen hidden in the everyday. In our dedication to ministry, we are quick to tune out what we don’t think of as actual ministry. At worst, we’re too busy, thoughtless, or disengaged to listen well to others around us when those conversations don’t relate to ministry matters.
Whether or not we listen to others when the conversations seem trivial is both the bare minimum and the extra credit for what others consider as characteristic (or hypocritical) of Christians, let alone a pastor. It establishes or disrupts others’ expectations of us.
Whether it’s our wives or children, the barista behind the counter, or the worker ringing us up, we have a tendency to prioritize our listening efforts for overtly ministerial duties in a way that leaves only the leftovers for everyday interactions that God might use for great kingdom purpose if we would only open our ears.
The ministry of listening in our daily lives is a small but crucial aspect of how we “walk in wisdom toward outsiders” (Colossians 4:5). As we engage others by listening to their requests and responses, we will ask good, thoughtful questions, be more aware of their well-being, and better understand the concerns of our community. This kind of everyday listening is the fodder for Gospel friendships; it’s how trust and rapport are built and genuine human connections are made. From others’ perspective, it’s the difference between being another brusque customer interaction and a thoughtful, caring, there’s-something-different-about-him sort of witness. If we open our ears and hearts toward others as we go about life, God will show us great opportunity and encouragement in otherwise ordinary interactions. We will cultivate a heart for the lost from one conversation, acknowledge God’s sanctifying work in another, and see spiritual needs we wouldn’t have noticed.
Listening Coram Deo
Developing a listening posture begins with our hearts. We must ask God to help us consider others more important than ourselves and therefore others’ words more important than our own. Although this may seem counterintuitive to those whose task it is to speak—to preach the Word in season and out of season—it is a worthy endeavor to devote ourselves to listening to others more attentively, more continually, and more generously.