A church member or counselee sits down with his pastor. He opens his mouth to share his burdens and struggles. So, what thoughts are going through the wise pastor’s head as the person begins to speak?
He’s thinking …
1. I’ll give a better response if I listen first
Wise pastors know the more information they gather from a person, the better response they’ll be able to give. When we listen, we’re better able to understand what a person truly needs. And we have to listen in order to know what is helpful to build that person up (Eph. 4:29).
But maybe what’s going through your head is … “I already know what this person is about to say.”
And maybe you do know what the other person is going to say. Perhaps you have a lot of experience addressing the feelings/issues this person is sharing. Or it can be driven by arrogance: you assume you know what the person is about to say. Or maybe you’ve heard this person tell you about the same problem many, many times.
“While counselors certainly recognize there are recurring themes in people’s lives and some common patterns in certain behaviors and problems,” shared marriage and family therapist Dr. Ramon Presson with CareLeader.org, “good counseling and good listening strive to hear and understand nuances.” We have to learn to enjoy the pleasure of understanding, which comes in large part by listening (Prov. 18:2).
2. I don’t need to prove my competence
Let’s say the wise pastor has just read a great book on the same issue the person is dealing with, or he’s recently walked through this experience with someone else and has excellent new insights, or perhaps he knows a fitting illustration about this very thing (people loved it in his last message). While it’s tempting to jump in and share what he’s learned, the wise pastor knows that listening well is more valuable—and demonstrates his competence better—than talking too much. Proverbs 10:19 says, “Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.”
But maybe what’s going through your head is … “I need to demonstrate that I’m capable of helping.”
Perhaps you think you know just the right words to say to this person—you’ve recently read that great book, learned new insights, and know the perfect illustration—and maybe you can’t wait to share what you’ve learned and see the counselee’s eyes brighten in understanding and head nodding eagerly at your perfectly executed advice. We do want validation. We have insecurities. But we have to be careful not to use hurting people to validate ourselves! We are looking for God’s approval. We want Him to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt. 25:21).
3. I can reflect God’s character by listening
A wise pastor reflects God’s character. Dr. Larry Crabb shared, “I learned in my counseling experience that I don’t want to treat the patient; I want to be with a person. Here’s the important point: God says, ‘I’m going to be with you’—Immanuel, God with us—‘I’ll never leave you; I’ll never forsake you. I’m not going to solve your problems right now, but I’m going to be with you in the middle of them.’ Can I represent that kind of attitude when I’m sitting with the person I’m counseling?”1
But maybe what’s going through your head is … “I have a truth that will help this person.”
We know that people need the truth to be set free: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). We know that the Word changes people: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). We know that the Word is sufficient to help people with any problem they face: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
All this is true, but God listens to His people. “From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears” (Ps. 18:6b). “I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy” (Ps. 116:1). Consider, too, the book of Job, the psalms of lament, and the fact that God asks us to pray. He listens. You should too.
4. I can’t do this alone
The wise pastor recognizes that he can’t listen to everyone’s problems. He knows that as much as he would like to show care to his flock by giving individualized attention and personal care, he is only one person.
Even if his church is small, he realizes that he shouldn’t bear everyone’s burdens; it would be emotionally taxing. Plus, he knows that handling it alone would keep his church from operating the way God designed His church to work (Gal. 6:2; Eph. 4:11–12, 16; 1 Thess. 5:11; Exod. 18:13–26).
But maybe what’s going through your head is … “I’m the pastor—it’s my responsibility.”
Here’s the funny thing. You probably don’t have time to listen to everyone in great detail. So interrupting people, rushing them, makes sense on one level. But be careful not to take too much ownership of the idea that since you’re the pastor, it’s your responsibility to help everyone who comes in your door. You have to equip others to help you share the load. You have to teach others how to listen well. A helpful resource is Listening and Caring Skills in Ministry: A Guide for Groups and Leaders by John Savage.
We may have our reasons for not listening. But in light of Scripture they aren’t as persuasive.
Wise pastors listen.
To learn more about listening, be sure to read Jeff Forrey’s Confessions of a Poor Listener and Dr. Ramon Presson’s Pastoral Counseling Is Not a Game Show.
- Church Initiative interview with Dr. Larry Crabb, April 2013.