Pastors are listeners. Through all the efforts to provide care and counsel in the face of lockdowns, mandates, regulations, and congregational division, listener posture and listening practice have remained a priority for the pastor. You’ll notice people want to feel listened to, not just heard. They want to have their concerns understood and appreciated. To have their stories be the focus of attention. For their voices to rise above the noise.
If you have sensed this desire in people, you may also have felt how difficult it can be to listen. Listening is hard work! It tests the mind, the heart, the will, and the body. Below are five barriers to listening and ways to overcome them from Kairos Care: A Process for Pastoral Counseling in the Office and in Everyday Encounters, written by Aaron Perry, PhD, Associate Prof. of Pastoral Theology and Leadership at Wesley Seminary.
Chaotic Content. Listening is challenging when the speaker doesn’t have a point or plot. We are linear beings–we want the story to unfold and the tensions to resolve. But speakers often seek out the listening pastor because the experience hasn’t resolved or because they can’t discern a plot. This can create scattered communication and chaotic content as you try to follow and make sense of the narrative.
Overcome this barrier by remembering Christ faced chaos on the cross. On the cross, Christ brings meaning to meaninglessness. His death is a divine mystery revealed and prophecies fulfilled. While order and structure might not be discernible, keep faith that God is bringing a point and a plot to the experience and that they might even be clarifying as you listen. Do your practices of spiritual formation help you to handle another person’s unresolved tension or ambiguous experiences as you listen to them?
Hurry. Speed is an anesthetic. Just as we rip Band-Aids off in a hurry, so we hustle through the wounds of life to avoid the pain and the reminders of mortality. It is tempting to rush our listening, especially when we are asked to listen at inconvenient moments, like just before the worship service starts.
Overcome this barrier by admitting you can’t listen in a hurry. Good listening takes time. Ask for the person to make an appointment so you can give them your full attention. Don’t schedule meetings without margin between; avoid squeezing in necessary but complex conversations—especially in the name of productivity! (Remember: People aren’t products!) When do you find yourself hurrying? How does hurry limit your presence and hinder your listening?
Attitude. In his sermon, “On Visiting the Sick,” John Wesley pointed out a painful and humbling reality: “One…reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them.” How easy it is to be ready to listen to some, but not to others, to hold an attitude that resembles a kind of value-matrix: I can listen to him but not to her. I must make time for that family, but that other one isn’t a priority. Of course, pastors must always prioritize their limited resources—like time and attention! Yet be reminded that if Christ has made a way for all persons to come into the presence of the Father, then He has certainly made a way for people into the pastor’s office.
Overcome this barrier by training other potential listeners in your church. How can the work of Christ for you–bringing you into the presence of the Father–encourage you to be appropriately available as a listener?
Offense. If we listen closely enough, eventually we will be offended. Certain words and attitudes can so easily trace over the listener’s healed scars with surgical precision, re-opening old wounds. Old wounds can become plugs that stick in our ears to keep us from listening.
Overcome this barrier by continually reminding yourself that all offenses–whether suffered or committed–are nailed to the cross of Christ. Practice forgiving others and yourself. If an offense keeps coming to mind in your pastoral work, take it to a trusted friend who can pronounce forgiveness over you and who can be a listener for you. Draw strength from the fact that Christ is never shocked at what you’re listening to. We confess that Christ descended into hell and emptied it of its power. How can this truth empower you to forgive yourself and pronounce forgiveness over others?
Scarcity. Not only does listening take time, it also takes skill, practice, and emotional bandwidth. If I am finding myself without the resources to do what Christ has asked me to do, then it might be that I am not doing what He has asked me to do. God has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3).
Overcome this barrier to listening by practicing the means of grace–allow God to grow your soul. At the same time, diligently inquire of Him whether you are doing all—neither too little, nor too much—that he has asked you to do. Where do you need to grow (skill, practice, emotional strength) to become a better listener?