I have been writing about skills needed for leadership over the last few months but one of the most over looked skills is the Art of Listening.
One of the ministry models that are used in the Gospels is Jesus sitting and listening to people, really listening to people. When Jesus would come to town, he never just walked around greeting people and not listening. He sat with the woman at the well and listened to her story, Jesus spent time with those he was ministering to just listening.
When I came to St. Michael eight years ago, I spent time listening to the story of this church. How the people who founded the church would work all day in the mill and then walk up the hill and physically build the church. Each stone that was placed here was placed by hands that truly loved their faith and their church. I listened to the parishioners tell me their story about how they feel about their faith, their fears, desires and what they hope for the future. Spend time just listening to their story because their story is important. We are in the people business and the people are the most important part! How can you lead people if you do not know where they have come from?
One of the first visits my bishop made to St. Michael was the year after I was ordained. He came and spent three days here. He met with people, regular folks not just the leaders of the Church and he listened as they told him their stories. He will ask me how this one is and how that one is and how their children are. He remembers those stories and is truly interested in their lives and what is going on with them. How can you lead people if you do not know them?
Church leaders have limited time and many, many responsibilities but none of them are more important than the people that God has given us to care for. Recently I was in a discussion about the qualities of a bishop and what I think should be the first thing a new bishop does upon assuming his role in his new diocese. I responded by saying that he needs to take the time and visit each church in his diocese. He needs to have conversations with the people, not just come and preach and sit at the head table at the banquet, the time for the imperial bishopric is over, and bishops are servants first. Sitting at the head table can make the bishop seem aloof and unapproachable. Step down off that platform and walk with the people, sit with them, and listen to them. The bishop should visit each parish, large and small, rich and poor say little and listen a lot.
The modern church has lost the true vocation of the bishop. He has been turned him into a CEO when he should be a shepherd. He is the pastor of all of the parishes in his diocese.
But what about the Art of Listening?
Listening is an Art that needs to be taught and practiced just like the other pastoral skills that are so needed in the church today. I had the honor this past year of supervising four seminarians at our nursing home for their field education placement. One of the lessons that I tried to teach them is to listen, really listen to the person you are visiting. Sometimes we feel we have to always drive the conversation and say something profound, well sometimes there is nothing profound to say. Simply sit there and listen to the person tell their story. If they stop talking, just wait. Sit there until they speak again, let them drive the conversation. Ask questions, but make sure you are not interrupting what they are saying and that the question is relevant to the situation.
The first words of the Rule of St. Benedict for Monasteries is “Listen” Listening is an important ministry tool that will, hopefully, keep us from making mistakes in ministry. Take the time to learn the skill of listening and take the time to listen, really listen to what people have to say. We do not have all the answers but if we listen we just might learn something.
Are you listening?