Listening and the Pastor
Pastors sense deeply the frustration of trying to get our message through to our people. Almost daily, our mailboxes are filled with flyers offering seminars on how we can tailor our sermons and use social media more effectively to “break through the clutter” of our communication age. Given that we have been called to be heralds and stewards of a divine message, we cannot be blamed for wanting to make sure we are being heard.
But in this jostling for the attention of the flock, we are prone to miss the importance of listening—listening not only to the Lord (which others in this issue have addressed), but listening also to our people, as well as to the advice of fellow pastors and elders. Yet it is the Lord Himself who tells us in His Word, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19). “Every person” includes preachers, too.
We must, like Paul and the author of Hebrews, have our fingers on the pulse of our people in order to gauge how best to feed them from the pulpit. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:2, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it” (see also Heb. 5:12). When I began my preaching ministry, one of my ninety-year old members gently chastened me after he heard a sermon in which I overshot the congregation. He said: “Can I give you a piece of advice from an old man? You need to keep the cookie jar within reach of the children’s hands.” It wasn’t until later that afternoon that I let his kind criticism penetrate my natural defenses, and I have been grateful for his feedback ever since. If we want to feed our people for real spiritual growth, we must know where they are at each stage along the way. “Know well the condition of your flocks” (Prov. 27:23). That takes some listening.
We must also listen carefully to our members individually to discern where they really are with Christ. Paul says to the Galatians, “My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (4:19). It is easy for pastors mistakenly to suppose that our supporters are spiritually healthy and our detractors are not. But there are always many who love the pastor who are far from Christ, and many who have complaints against the pastor that are well-grounded. We must listen more deeply, and ask ourselves whether we hear Christ being formed in our people—in their passing requests for prayer, in their words spoken from the hospital bed, in the way they voice their angst about the state of the country, do we hear the grammar of union with Christ in His death and resurrection? Do we hear the doctrine of sanctification personally embraced? Do we hear a present enjoyment of the kingdom of God coupled with a pining for its future consummation? Or do we hear instead hopes and sighs pulsing with the beat of moralistic therapeutic deism? They may lead ministries in our churches with enthusiasm and competence, but are they still terrified of dying? These are the things we must listen for not only in their words, but even in their tones.
Lastly, we must listen to fellow elders and other pastors, as much for our personal well-being as for the sake of our ministries. Being ordained does not elevate us above the warning in Proverbs 21:2: “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes.” We all know men who lost their ministry positions not because of any great moral failure or glaring incompetence, but rather on account of stubbornness or discouragement that went unchecked with debilitating consequences. In such cases, it is not uncommon to learn that these men were relationally isolated, lacking the kinds of iron-sharpening-iron relationships with elders and other pastors that could have delivered a ministry saving rebuke or a soul-nourishing word of encouragement (Prov. 27:17; 27:6; 12:25).
Years ago, J. Oswald Sanders observed in his classic Spiritual Leadership: “You can measure leaders by the number and quality of their friends.” Augustine was a man who prized friendship (reflections on friendship abound in The Confessions and in his sermons). John Calvin’s friendship with Pierre Viret (1511– 1571), as revealed in their many letters, shows Calvin’s longing for and great dependence on friendship. In our church’s recent search for a new director of music, my first question to the candidates was: “Tell me about your closest friends. Can you share any times when their counsel led you to change course?”
Pastors need friendships with co-laborers. Every Timothy needs a Paul, and every Paul needs a Titus (2 Cor. 2:13; 8:23). If you find yourself without such friendships, you would do well to begin making this a matter of prayer. Sometimes the heart needs time to be prepared for friendship, so that our ears would then be open to what a godly friend might say.
Yes, we must hear and heed the Lord first and above all. But, according to His Word, we must also listen to those under and alongside us. The quality of our lives and ministries depends on it.