Loving Starts in Listening
"In 18 years of parish ministry and twelve years of church consulting, I have yet to meet a pastor or lay leader who didn't want to be effective," says Tom Ehrich.
"They want to do the job right. They want to have healthy churches. Often, however, they haven't been shown where to start and how to proceed."
One sign of this is a basic, and thoroughly flawed, paradigm that seems active in many churches. It is that clergy ought to provide what they want to provide. If they feel called to promote a certain activity or educational pursuit or liturgical focus or pastoral emphasis, they have a right to do so.
"Express yourself," some say. "Go where your heart is. Do what you know how to do."
With the spread of lay ministries, many laity are feeling called to do the same.
The result, more often than not, is a disconnect between what service providers want to do and what their constituents want to receive. Members feel stifled, unheard, ignored, patronized and unloved. Imagine being thirsty for water, and someone offers you salty crackers because that is what they felt called to offer.
The best practice is to listen first. The wise leader starts by listening to fellow leaders and then, with them, listening to the led. A smart leader could guess what people would say, but a wise and compassionate leader gives them the opportunity to say it. Feeling heard and respected is an essential condition for agreeing to work with someone and/or to follow them.
Yes, listening can be time-consuming. But not listening and then having to deal with missed signals, unresponsive constituents, failed programs and conflict will be even more time-consuming and costly.
Listening doesn't mean being slavish to fickle opinion. Leaders do need to lead. It means knowing what your people are worried about -- job security, public schools, retirement savings, loneliness - and then offering ministries that respond to those worries.
It means honoring different languages, different ways of receiving spiritual guidance, different pathways to faith shaped by life experience.
Effective pastors know this to be true in pastoral care. The best expression of love and mercy starts in being present and listening. The same is true in all aspects of ministry. Ordination or election to a church council doesn't confer a license to do whatever one pleases. It confers permission to listen and then to respond.