Listening is one of the most important skills you can develop in ministry.
But most of us simply talk too much. You may have heard before, “God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we talk.” That’s true for those of us in ministry too.
People don’t fail in ministry because they don’t know the Bible well enough, can’t plan well, or struggle as leaders. Most people in ministry fail because they’re insensitive to people. They’re not good listeners.
Poor listening causes broken relationships, costs money, and leads to mistakes. It can ruin ministries.
But there’s good news: You can improve your listening skills. Here are eight strategies to help you become a better listener.
Don’t judge by first impressions.
First impressions aren’t just unfair; they’re also expensive. They can influence all aspects of your ministry—which leaders you choose to invest in, which pastoral care needs you meet, and so on. Often prejudices impact decisions.
The Bible says, “Don’t judge by appearances. Judge by what is right” (John 7:24 CEV). Notice the comparison. You can either judge by appearance or by outward experience.
You need to be able to work with people to be a leader. To do that you need to be sensitive to them. That means you need to not make prejudiced first impressions.
Take time to listen.
Listening takes time—time you may not feel you always have. But the Bible says it’s foolish not to take that time. “Do you see someone who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for them” (Proverbs 29:20 NIV). We can’t really think through what someone is saying if we speak in haste. As a spouse, a parent (and grandparent), and a leader, discipline yourself to take time to listen, and you’ll improve your relationships.
Withhold criticism and judgment at the start.
When people come to you as their pastor, they often just need someone to talk to. They need to unload. So don’t evaluate what they’re saying until you’ve heard it all. It’s easy to respond with a verse or some catchy saying—especially when you’re confronted with something you don’t like. But you need to first hear people out. The Bible says, “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13 NIV).
You’ll be criticized as a pastor. You can guarantee that. When that happens, don’t get defensive.
Proverbs 19:11 says, “A person’s wisdom yields patience” (NIV). Patience demonstrates wisdom. If you want to be a wise pastor, stay calm—even when you’re trying to understand immature people and those who misjudge your motives. But, as the Bible says in 2 Timothy 4:5, “Keep your head in all situations” (NIV).
Listen with empathy.
Jesus modeled empathy when he listened to people. Remember the story of the rich young ruler? He came to Jesus sincerely, believing he had done everything he needed for God’s approval—and yet the Lord didn’t respond with criticism. The Bible says in Mark 10:21, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (NIV). We should do what Jesus did.
One way we can do this is by focusing on feelings. They’re often more important than what people are saying to us. While people are often illogical when they’re distraught, the emotion they’re suggesting is legitimate even if it’s not rational. Listen to what they’re feeling.
Be an active listener by asking creative questions.
We become good listeners by learning to ask creative questions. Good questions help to draw out what people are really thinking. Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out” (NIV). As a pastor, you need that kind of insight to draw out people’s values, goals, and dreams.
Ask clarifying questions: Who? What? When? How? Stay away from, “Why?” It’s often a judgmental question (and most people can’t answer it anyway).
Paraphrase and summarize.
When you’re able to recap what people have told you before giving your perspective shows you’re a good listener. It’s a skill you can develop if you work at it. It’ll help you in counseling sessions and meetings. Most people can’t summarize what other people say, so if you can do this, it will show people you really care for them.
Recognize the healing power of a listening ear.
Healing—the heart of what ministry is all about—comes when people feel accepted, loved, and fully known by others. That’s what listening is all about. When you listen to someone and let them unload, there’s healing power in it. James gets at this when he writes, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16 NIV). Confession implies listening.
Do you want to see God heal people through your ministry? Learn to listen.
Good leaders are good listeners.