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 soliloquies 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. To be 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. And 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, that see that 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.