Jesus explains in Matthew 12:34 that it is “out of the abundance of a man’s heart he speaks” When someone begins to talk, they reveal much more than what they say, they reveal the condition of their heart, something about who they are, and how they relate to God. When I was younger, I used to think that I could change people by talking to them, but the more that I have worked with people, the more I have learned that the exact opposite is mostly true: what the person hears is what matters. Information itself does not solve problems, what changes people is when something gets into their heart. That process is voluntary. I can only feed you what you are hungry for.
This is the reason why Jesus spoke in parables. If he had spoken plainly they would not have been able to hear or understand him. The information would have been useless to them. The parable was a riddle which by pondering it over and over would progressively open the heart of the hearer. Only once he had cultivated a near desperate hunger in the disciples did he finally start to speak plainly to them. The use of parables in pastoring is a good subject for a different post, but this post is about that fundamental first skill of pastoring — listening.
Listening first is about getting the other person to talk. As they talk you want to maintain a warm posture pretty much regardless of what they say. This helps cultivate a sense of comfort an closeness between you. The more “air time” another person gets in a conversation, the better understood they feel. They feel connected because you have heard them and haven’t judged or condemned or corrected them. You are giving them space to develop and explore who they are. Many counselors use this technique, but in a pastoral context, I believe it should be warmer and more relational. I interject into the conversation in ways that will make you feel like I am your friend and I relate to you and your story. I may draw on a story from my own life which connects with yours, so you know that we have something in common, that I am fundamentally like you and trustworthy. If you do not feel like I relate to you, that I am trustworthy, that I love you, nothing else is going to matter. Although the pastor is there to help you decode the mysteries of your life, that happens by permission. Therefore, I never enter a relationship with the presumption that I am the wise one who will solve all of their problems. People don’t like that. I want you to feel that I’m first and foremost your friend. A friend who is there with you and can help you find answers. I am not there to substitute for God in your life, I am there as a partner to help you hear and obey God. You’re going to stand before God and give an account for what you do, not me. So I don’t need to pressure you at all. All of the power is in your hands. I’m like a coach. I can’t get on the field and run the ball. Only you can.
Part of listening is the art of asking questions. Remember in Mark 8:29, when Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had just given a little speech about what others thought, but Jesus was trying to draw out of Peter what HE thought. This is exactly what the good pastor does, over and over again. I want to draw out of you, what you actually believe deep in side. I want you to confess and name your own problems, and I want to help you discover the solutions.
Unlike secular counseling, the goal of this kind of listening is not to get them to find their “own” answers. But to get them to hear God. And that is a big part of the listening you are doing as well. You are listening to God while they talk. You are listening for him to reveal certain things about the person to you, to highlight what is important and give you ideas on where to go with the discussion.
Part and parcel of this kind of listening, is “mining.” The first thing someone says is usually a surface perspective of a situation. They might have said it because that’s what they always say and they don’t feel safe enough to tell you the deeper reality. That’s why you build trust and make them feel safe. Taking over the conversation makes it hard for someone to hit the most sensitive areas on their heart, but the more you listen and love while you listen, the more safe they will feel to get to the deeper, harder truth. But you also must ‘mine’. If they themselves had already really understood the issue, they would not have the issue. You are asking questions to try to get to a mutual discovery about what is going on. It’s a puzzle where you dive deeper and deeper until you are both clear of what the real issue is.
In this deeper “discovery” phase of listening, I want to help develop a model which explains both to you and to me what you are feeling. “Why did you do that?” …. “Because I was scared”…. “Scared of what?’…. “Being alone.”…. “Have you been alone a lot in your life?” … “My mother left me alone all the time.” See in this exchange I’m diving underneath and experience to try to find out what is really going on in the person’s head… what experiences and resulting feelings and beliefs are causing them to feel a certain way? Again, this is not a cross-examination or a “guru” discussion. It’s a process of mutual discovery. I want to help you figure it out. If I give off the sense that I’m “over” you, it’s going to seriously hinder our progress, and my ability to hear from God. But My questions are leading questions, they aren’t just open ended. I’ve probably had a similar conversation before, but I still never know where it is going or assume that I have the answers. Jesus has the answers, and so again, the first person I’m listening to is the Holy Spirit. He reveals things through the conversation. The questions follow his leading to the root cause of the issue. It’s like a trail of breadcrumbs.
Once we have gotten to the root or core issue, sometimes that in itself is enough. I “say back” to you what you said. “So you have these feelings of lonliness whenever you are in a crisis?” …. or … “So there is a lot of pain there in your relationship with your mom?” Now I am help you to hear yourself. I’m helping you to give definition to your problem. As I help you to name it, you begin to get power over it. That’s a huge part of the role of the pastor in a counseling encounter… to help the person give the correct definition to the problem they are facing, so that they will no longer chase the wind, but now have an enemy with a name they can start to conquer.
This process of “drawing out” the deep things of someone’s heart through listening and helping them to identify the problem, I believe is at the core of helping someone grow, and I consider it the most fundamental skill or heart posture you need to pastor someone.