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Listening Ministry

Andrew Pritchard

"What! . . . listening ministry?" "Yes! You heard me right (I hope!) . . . listening ministry!" "Well, we have people with a speaking ministry — preachers, teachers, evangelists, prophets, exhorters . . . and I know about healing ministry. But what is listening ministry?"

In her book Listening Ministry - Rethinking Pastoral Leadership1 Susan Hedahl gives good grounds for thinking that the conversation above could really have taken place. In surveying major books on pastoral theology published in the last 65 years she finds plenty of material on speaking but a dearth of material on listening. In addition her survey of colleges and seminaries found no courses on listening.

Perhaps ministry formation was more balanced in the seventeenth century, where we find the French pastor François Fénelon advising others on the provision of spiritual counsel:

Speak little; listen much; think far more of understanding hearts and of adapting yourself to their needs than of saying clever things to them. Show that you have an open mind, and let everyone see by experience that there is safety and consolation in opening his mind to you.2

Or centuries later, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasised the same point, but with even stronger words:

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians because Christians are talking when they should be listening. He who no longer listens to his brother will soon no longer be listening to God either

. . . . One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it.3

criptural examples of the importance of listening, God's injunction to his people to listen and God's challenge to them when they refuse to listen are many — from the resounding and majestic "Hear O Israel . . . "4 of the Shema to the prophetic call "he who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches"5 in Revelation; from the voice of God which shakes the earth6 to the voice of God that was not in earthquake, wind or fire but was in the "gentle whisper"7; from the "famine of hearing the word of the Lord"8 prophesied by Amos to the incarnation of "the word made flesh".9

Listening to God is foundational to our faith. While we are to speak and to proclaim we can only do this authentically and with integrity when we have first listened and are continuing to listen. As Eugene Peterson reminds us so well, "appearances mislead: prayer is never the first word; it is always the second word. God has the first word. Prayer is answering speech; it is not primarily 'address' but 'response'."10

We need to realise of course that what we mean by 'listen' and 'listening' is more than sound waves on eardrums. Even a cursory reading of the Scriptures referred to above shows that active receiving, understanding and obedient response is involved. Further, listening is not only about the ears. We listen with our eyes, with our heart — it is a holistic activity characterised by receptivity that requires response. The International Listening Association defines listening as "The process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages."11

Ministry in Scripture and in the history of the Church is focused in two distinct but complementary directions. First ministry is to God, secondarily it is to others.12 Listening ministry, likewise, will find expression in complementary ways: contemplative living and compassionate living. Listening ministry is an incarnational spirituality — an enfleshed, lived spirituality.

Contemplative Living

Listening ministry towards God is contemplative living. Margaret Magdalen says, "Contemplation is not, as people often mistakenly believe, chiefly a matter of advanced techniques in prayer . . . . It is primarily a way of looking and listening, of beholding, marvelling, considering."13 A wonderful example of contemplative beholding and its effect is given in the familiar "But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord."14

The word 'contemplation' is derived from two Latin words, con: 'with' and templum: 'the place of meeting the sacred'. So, contemplation is an opportunity for a meeting between us and the scared one. The word 'contemplative' comes from the Latin contempari: to gaze at, or to look deeply into.15

Creation is an abundantly fruitful place for contemplation. The writer of Proverbs draws lessons from his observation of the ant, the coney, the locust and the lizard.16 Jesus, too, keenly observed and reflected on what was happening around him as we see in parables like that of the sower and the seed.17

However, we should note that even when our observation of God's creation leads to understanding, appropriate response is not guaranteed.18

Humans are naturally contemplative. You have only to watch a baby straining to see what it is that made that sound, fascinated with the mobile suspended above the cot, enchanted with the cat making its way past or engrossed in exploring the texture of mashed food with mouth, fingers and hair! Perhaps it is our educative and socialisation processes that quench this natural contemplative ability of the child. As adults we have to relearn this ability, sometimes with great difficulty. Perhaps this is another layer of meaning in Jesus' words, "unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven".19

So how can we grow in contemplative living?

Opening our eyes and ears

We grow in contemplative living by opening our eyes and ears to creation and to what is going on around us. Perhaps it is in the small things that we often overlook — insects, bird and animal life, the growth (and death) of plants. Or maybe it's in the big things, when with the Psalmist we lift up our eyes and see the hills20 — or perhaps it's a cloud formation, a sunset, a wild and raging seascape. Often it's in things of beauty, yet there are lessons too in the distorted and marred.

Reflecting on our experience

We grow in contemplative living by taking time to reflect on our experience of life. We often say we 'learn from experience'. Unfortunately, all too often that is not true. We actually learn by reflecting on our experience. We can then make wiser choices as a result.

Socrates said, "The unreflected life is not worth living. No virtue or ethical action is possible without knowledge." Journalling21 is a great way of reflecting on our experience of life and learning from it. Regularly reviewing your experience with a spiritual director is another good way. Making a silent retreat is another.

Exploring new ways of praying

We grow in contemplative living by exploring the riches of ways of praying which were perhaps more familiar to past generations: Lectio Divina, Centring Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, for example. Books by New Zealand authors addressing these and other helpful ways of praying have been published recently.22

Compassionate Living

Compassionate living grows out of contemplative living. Compassionate living is founded on listening to God. It grows from listening to and responding towards others. Jesus saw the crowds and was moved with compassion.23 He turned aside in the midst of a journey, stopped, attended to two men clamouring for his attention, had compassion on them and restored their sight.24

Compassionate living may find expression in acts of kindness, in hospitality and caring for the needs of others. It may find expression in ministry to the sick, through visitation and encouragement, through prayer for healing.

Counselling, spiritual direction and ministry supervision

Listening ministry that leads to compassionate living may find expression in roles that require more formal training and accountability: counselling, spiritual direction and ministry supervision for example. Douglas V Steere's statement, "To 'listen' another's soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another",25 is descriptive of each of these listening ministries.

In counselling our listening is focused on helping the other person address a problem, deal with an issue or make a change in the way they are living.

In spiritual direction we listen with the other person to what God is doing in their life; together looking at what God may be saying, exploring the implications and accompanying them as they decide how to respond.

In ministry supervision our focus is on the person in the context of their ministry, celebrating and affirming the things that are going well, examining options and exploring possibilities where they feel stuck or frustrated and encouraging them to give adequate care to themselves, the minister who is ministering to others.

These are listening ministries in which training, formation and accountability is required if we are to minister safely and effectively.

es, listening ministry! Ministry based on contemplative living. Ministry that results in compassionate living. Ministry to God and to others.

Perhaps, paradoxically, when we Christians are better at listening our message will more readily be heard!