Shepherds, Listen Well

Desiring God 2014 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the Vine, and the Branches: The Remarkable Reality of Union with Christ

Well, I don’t know how to do an eight-minute talk, but we’re going to figure it out. I’m probably not the first one who said that. They asked me if I would talk on listening well, pastors listening well. And so when I just started looking through the Scriptures at different verses on listening, paying attention, the phrase that I kept seeing, especially in the Psalms but you see it elsewhere, is “incline your ear.”

And I really liked that, that concept of incline your ear because, to me, it is a picture of not just hearing someone but actually caring for them, actually being inclined towards them. And you see it going both ways. So, “incline your ear” is something that you want to do for someone. But in the Scriptures, you see the psalmist, for instance, saying to God, “Incline your ear to me,” entreating the Lord to listen to him, to hear his prayers.

The Desire to Feel Heard

And so when it’s asked of God, it’s not simply a request to be heard, I think, but a request to be considered, to actually consider what I’m saying to you. To really listen, to hear what I’m feeling, not just what I’m saying. To hear what is in my heart, to be listened to carefully.

I think the more that I meet with people in the ministry and just in daily life — and you’ve probably discovered this as well in your ministries, and certainly the longer that I’m married — the more the reality strikes me that what people want is not simply to be listened to but to feel heard. They want to walk away feeling like you have actually heard them, that you know them better. That you know what’s behind what they’re saying, what’s motivating what they’re saying, something of their heart. Not just that you’re just sitting there passively listening to the words that they’re saying.

And so, underneath that is not just that people want you to hear what they’re saying, they want to feel significant. So, we all carry around this desire to be known, to be known and also approved of, really. But to be considered, to be seen as approvable.

The Pitfalls of Efficiency in Ministry

And I think that’s what pastoral ministry is really about. It’s not just having this technique, having these things to teach, these lessons. Being able to manage a church well. But actually to care for the sheep, to tend to them, to feed them, to have them feel helped, to actually help them.

And so, I think especially as a church grows or if you’re overseeing a sizable number of people, it can begin to feel like you’re at the end of a line and you’re just dispensing advice. And so, you’re at the booth or at the window and it’s almost like the ministerial DMV kind of thing. Someone has to take the number to come, and then you give them a set amount of time.

I don’t know. If you’re like me, you have a time limit. The first time I meet with someone, I typically try to give them two hours because I figure that two hours is good to get to know them, hear their story, and that sort of thing. And then if there are subsequent counseling sessions with someone, I just do an hour. And so we have that hour. And that’s to protect my time from other things that I need to do and that sort of thing.

But in that mindset or in that mode, it can just start to feel like, “Well, I’m going to fit people into these slots,” and that sort of thing. “Dispense my little advice when the time comes.”

The Danger of Efficiency and the Call to Listen

And you’re just moving people along this system. And if I’m not careful, when I’m in regular counseling with somebody, I’m constantly thinking about, “When will this end? When will this be over so I can move to the next person?”

I’m thinking in terms of this process of trying to crank people through. And in some ways the image that comes to mind is the old Play-Doh machines. I don’t know if you are familiar with those, the hair salon Play-Doh, where you put the Play-Doh and the little person, and then you squeeze it down, and all the hair goes wee. That’s what it feels like. It’s like we’re processing people, we’re just pushing them through this thing.

And in the long run, it makes us feel effective. But I don’t think it really helps people that the way that ought to be helped. And I think one of the enemies of pastoral ministry is efficiency and we’re trying to maximize our effectiveness. We’re trying to be efficient. And there’s some value to that. I’m not saying that you should strive to not be helpful or not to achieve things and that sort of thing. You shouldn’t set goals.

But you don’t see, for instance, in the Sermon on the Mount. Who reads the Sermon on the Mount and thinks, “That sounds really efficient, that’s an efficient way to live”? But that’s where you see how we’re to relate to other people.

Four Key Points for Pastors

In the six minutes that I have left or five minutes I have left, I want to give you four things to remember, pastors. And I’ll go through them as quickly as I can.

Remember How God Listens to You

The first thing is this: Remember how God listens to you. I think this is really key because it sets the precedent for how you listen to other people. This is considering the way God regards you or listens to you. That’s the indicative that grounds the imperative for how you are to then listen to other people.

When I think about how God listens to me, he’s gracious. You can come up with all kinds of adjectives here, but he’s gracious. He doesn’t tap his foot. He’s never checking his watch. He’s never trying to get me out the door. He’s gracious, he’s listening to me. He’s not too busy. When he listens to me, it’s not just to check something off his list. He’s listening because he loves me, because he cares for me, because he wants to be helpful.

He listens in a non-judgmental way. He’s not trying to solve all of the problems that I’m putting out. He wants to know my heart more than he wants to fix all of my circumstances. You know this intuitively, God is not constantly fixing all the wrong things in your life. And so when we hear someone who comes with a problem, a lot of times what we want to do is we just want to give them advice to fix the problem, how to get out of the problem, how to fix the problem. And we’re not really pastoring their heart. How do you deal? How do you worship God? How do you trust God in that problem or in that situation?

And God has our best interest in mind. He may take us through some very difficult things. He may take us through some hurtful things, but it’s always for our good. It’s always for our best. I want to remember those things when I’m listening to people. And then after I listen, when I’m responding, when I’m giving them advice or giving them counsel or giving them a word that they should hear, I want to give them things that are in their best interest, not necessarily in my best interest for my efficiency and comfort.

Remember That Christianity is Supernatural

The second thing is this: Remember that Christianity is supernatural. This doesn’t seem like an obvious point to go to when you’re thinking about listening, but I think one of the things that keeps us from being good listeners as pastors is the fact that most of us are pretty good talkers. We may not say much that’s of value, but we can say much. We’re good at talking, and so we have a lot to say. I find myself often in situations where I just don’t know what to say.

I’m thinking two years ago we had a lady in our church whose single son died of a drug overdose. He was in and out of jail most of his life. He was thirty-something years old. And they found him dead right there near us in a home. He’d OD’d on heroin, and I remember getting the call, she was there at the scene. It was my first crime scene that I had ever been at to be there at the scene of a death.

And I remember that evening she had to go, I mean this is a real thing, it’s not just in the movies, to identify the body. I thought that was just some sort of trope that’s in the detective stories, but she had to actually identify, “Yes, that’s my son.” I remember sitting in the hospital next to her, holding her hand while she waited to be led in to go identify her son’s body.

And I’m thinking the whole time, “I should be saying something. I should have words to say to her, words of comfort, words of advice.” And there was nothing. I mean there was nothing. I’d never been in that experience before. Everything that I could think to say, I could think to say all kinds of things about God’s sovereignty and God’s love and just all these sorts of things.

But right when they would get to the tip of my mouth, I mean it would just strike me to say, “That sounds really trite right now. And that just sounds like a cliche right now.” It’s true. It’s not a false thing, but I don’t think this would be helpful to her. And so, it’s in those moments, in other moments, even in the counseling room where someone says something that doesn’t shock me but puts me in a position where it’s like, “I don’t know how to fix that. I don’t know the answer to that.” Or, “I’ve never even thought of that before and I don’t know what to say.”

Those are times where we want to make stuff up because we feel like they came to me for wisdom. They came to me for answers for advice. I should have those things, and our pride wants us to have answers, to have things to say. But I need to remember the Spirit is at work here. He’s going to compensate for my incompetence. He’s going to compensate for my ignorance. He’s going to compensate for my not saying things.

This person’s joy in the Lord is not contingent on me. This person’s comfort is not contingent on me. I might be a means of that, but they’re not going to get better because I have some great words to share. I want to remember that Christianity is supernatural, that the Spirit is always at work.

Christianity, in fact, presupposes that transformation comes by the Spirit, not by our expertise or our professionalism or our wisdom. So, it’s okay, pastors, to not know what to say. It’s okay to let the other person talk as long as they need to talk. And you just sit there and listen. Don’t feel like you’re not earning your money just by sitting there. You are, by listening and listening well.

Remember That People Are Made in God’s Image

The third thing is this: Remember that people are made in God’s image. I wish that I had heard Dr. Ferguson’s talk, his last talk before I had done this, because he connected union in Christ in such a way, how we regard people as one united to Christ. I love the thing where he said, “Why should I fail to embrace one that Christ was not ashamed to indwell?” That struck me like a lightning bolt.

If you want, you can take, all people are made in God’s image. But if you want to say for those in your flock, “These are people that Christ is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters,” according to the book of Hebrews (Hebrews 2:11). If that’s true, we should remember that. They aren’t problems to fix. The people in our church are not problems to fix. They’re not projects to manage. They’re not obstacles to avoid.

And I think this is one area where we’ve misapplied the biblical depiction of the church as a flock or Christians as sheep because we think we’re just herding the sheep around. And we’re going to treat them. They’re these people to move around and manipulate and put where we need to put in the right pens.

And I think we’re constantly herding. We’re constantly group thinking. And people in that sort of mode and that sort of environment become anonymous really in some way. You just see them as this faceless crowd. And you see them as a number or a statistic or something like that. You don’t see them as individuals, unique individuals, each of whom is made in the image of God.

You could just as easily be replaced by another warm body is what I think, is when we treat people like that they could be interchangeable. You could be somebody else because I’m not regarding you as who you are. We need to remember that people are made in God’s image. And so they are special. They have an eternal destiny, either of condemnation or of eternal paradise.

And so, we need to keep that in mind when we’re listening to people and talking to people. That all people are people like us. They want to be heard just like you want to be heard. You don’t want to be written off or felt like someone’s just going through the motions with you. People have stories. They have hurts, they have fears, they have doubts, they have questions. They have struggles, anxieties, sins, pressures, stresses. And when you objectify them, you miss those things, and you end up not listening to them, even if you’re hearing them.

Remember That Christ Is Your Justification

Here’s the fourth and final thing: Remember that Christ is your justification. I think, this is just my theory, and I think some of the statistics bear this out when they do surveys and that sort of thing, most pastors have a very profound sense of insecurity. We have something inside of us that needs approval, that craves what the ministry gives us. Where our identity is really tied to what we do in ways that for people in other occupations and vocations may not necessarily be the case. Maybe artists are the closest parallel or comparison.

And so, even if someone isn’t criticizing us, that’s the most obvious example. You realize your insecurity because someone’s criticizing you and you immediately want to defend yourself and that sort of thing. But even when someone’s not criticizing you, it’s easy to hear comments that are just critical of the church or just a disappointment. We immediately take it personally. Someone says something about something in the church. And because we take that personally, because it’s our responsibility, we immediately take that as an assault upon the things that we do or some deficiency in us.

It’s easy to hear someone’s complaint about how their life is going as an indictment of the quality of our pastoring. I do this all the time. Someone’s not even talking about me, but I make it about me. Maybe about the church or someone else in the church, but I think, “Really, this is because I didn’t do this thing right or I didn’t establish this thing right or train this person well,” or whatever it is.

And when that happens, we become defensive. And when we become defensive, we start protecting. We start spinning. We start deflecting, we start rationalizing. We start shifting the blame to other people. And whenever we’re defending, whenever we’re in that mode, we’re not listening. All we’re doing is protecting ourselves. We’re hiding really, in some way.

And the way to stop defending, the way to stop hiding, and the way to start listening is to become more and more secure in Christ. When I am in tune with Christ’s declaration over me and my security is in him, I am more inclined to listen well. And I’m more inclined to receive criticism well because I don’t feel that impulse to prove myself or protect myself or promote myself.

I think if Christ has approved of me, why would I need anyone else’s approval? And if Christ approves of me, everyone else’s compliment or adulation, even if they’re speaking positively about me, it goes to the right place. It doesn’t feed my ego. It’s something that I can thank them for and appreciate, but I don’t hinge my hope on or hinge my affections on. I can regard it properly around Christ’s approval of me.

To review, good listening begins with remembering how God listens to you, remembering that Christianity is supernatural, remembering that all people are made in God’s image, and remembering that Christ is your justification.