I could see the deconstruction taking place as we walked the same path around the neighborhood block for the third time. It was a hot Houston day. The kind where you feel like you’ve stepped into a sauna when you step outside. My glasses fogged up and my feet hurt from walking in shoes that were not walking shoes. But I wasn’t about to say anything. This young person had just begun to open up about God and faith as we walked along, me listening and them talking more and more. After fifteen years of ministry, I have learned that this is a lot of what ministry is.
Listening to people as we walk or talk or eat or sip coffee. A good listener can help people discover truth, name their experience and express their feelings about life or God or grief. I have found that ministry is much more about listening than it is about talking. It is much more about asking good questions than it is about having the right answers. I have found that many people have within themselves the wisdom that they need to make the right choice or the best choice. They just need someone to guide them to it and help them access it. This is what ministry is to me. This is why I often find myself saying to the people I serve, “Wow. That really matters.” Or “That sure sounds important. It sounds like you have thought/prayed a lot about that.” This is what I was saying to this young person as we walked around the block of their neighborhood on that hot Texas day when my feet were sore from the blisters developing. Because of COVID, I have made more house visits than ever before. We don’t meet in restaurants very often anymore and my office at the church usually feels too formal. So I meet people in homes where we sit around the dining room table or the home office where they have work or school spread out everywhere. Or we sit on the back patio and sip ice tea. Or we walk to the park near their home or around the block of their neighborhoods. As a pastor, this has been one of many beautiful gifts in such a tragic year. As we walked, I learned that this young person was feeling distant from God. There was a barrier keeping God away, they explained. I asked them to describe the barrier. What does it look like? Feel like? How wide or long is it? Is it made up of a certain material, I asked curiously? This young person thought for a long time before they went on to describe a feeling of embarrassment. I am embarrassed to be called a “Christian,” they finally came to. It wasn’t that this person didn’t love Jesus. They were a devoted follower of Jesus. It was the label of “Christian” that they had such a problem with. They explained to me that the label has come to be associated with a slew of other labels that this person was rejecting. They told me how Christians were known more for what they are against than what they are for. This person told me how Christians are known for voting a certain way, dressing a certain way and sitting in judgement on any other religion that didn’t agree with theirs. This young person told me about their embarrassment at the reality of these things. I listened intently and finally said something like, “me too.”
This story represents a significant part of my philosophy of ministry. Did you ever write a philosophy of ministry or business or a ‘rule of life’ in school or seminary? In seminary, I wrote lots of papers like this. Now, after many years in ministry, I would write a different kind of paper. My first paragraph in my hypothetical paper describing my personal and pastoral ministry philosophy would be on the importance of listening. I would write that all humans need someone who will listen to them. And I mean really listen. Not just hear. But validate and empathize with what is being shared. Every person needs someone to lean over the table, look them straight in the eyes and hear, “This matters to me. You matter to me.”
The best listeners I know are spiritual directors. Spiritual directors have often been compared to mid-wives. They are people who help those they are serving to give birth to what God has placed within them. This work is collaborative, not hierarchal. This work can be laborious, messy and requires knowledge of the person being served. To continue the analogy, if ministry is compared to Spiritual Direction (and I believe all pastors are in part Spiritual Directors with or without formal training) and Spiritual Directors are compared to mid-wives, then the labor is the listening and asking good questions.
If you are a pastor or lay leader, how are you doing being an active and empathic listener to your congregants this week? What if you included asking good questions and good listening into your own philosophy of ministry this week?
In coming weeks, I will reflect on other portions of my ministry philosophy.