One of the attributes that a pastor is commonly expected to exhibit is the ability to listen. To the extent that listening is the heart of prayer, all Christians need to be listeners. To the extent that listening is the heart of learning, all humans need to be listeners.
And so I have always felt uncomfortable with the idea that listening is somehow a core competency of the pastor. It seems like the result of someone sitting down thinking it was very important to write out a list of “core competencies” for pastors!
I was trapped at a party once with an older woman who it turned out was a sort of lay pastor. This wasn’t one of those church parties we have in our luxury catacombs in Belfast with go-go dancers and 30 year old whiskey so it was strange to meet someone with a job like mine, who could dare to use or even understand the concept of “vocation”. Sadly the conversation wasn’t much fun, hence the trapped comment. She decided to take me under her wing. She advised me on my job when I hadn’t asked for advice. She had told me what training I needed to get to be competent.
It’s always good to assume the people you have just met are not competent at what they do. That’s a true sign of someone with pastoral skills.
She went on and on about the specific pastoral skills that could only be attained through this particular course of study, the only course of study she had so far undertaken. What I ended up learning from this person was how important listening was. It was healing. “By listening, we actually see people”, she intoned, with her head tilted and her eyes locked on mine. That my ears have no optic ability is probably down to my lack of training and is the root of my incompetence.
I can’t quite invest the path I am on with such professional aptitude. Listening is part of what it means to be a human and to the extent that pastors are expected to be nothing more or less than human, they must listen. I can’t quite go along with the transformative potential of simply listening as listening. Surely a bright 12 year old could point out that it is the hearing that counts. Taking people as if they are actually people, image-bearers of the living God, is what we’re called to do. Not applying a set of auditory reception periods to their dilemmas.
So in lieu of having any three step guides to achieving “competency” as a pastor, I have instead a David Foster Wallace quote on listening, courtesy of Wesley Hill:
This remains largely theory, but my best guess as to [my dad’s] never dispensing wisdom like other dads is that my father understood that advice — even wise advice — actually does nothing for the advisee, changes nothing inside, and can actually cause confusion when the advisee is made to feel the wide gap between the comparative simplicity of the advice and the totally muddled complication of his own situation and path. I’m not putting this very well. If you begin to get the idea that other people can actually *live* by the clear, simple principles of good advice, it can make you feel even worse about your own inabilities. It can cause self-pity, which I think my father recognized as the great enemy of life and contributor to nihilism.
In my short life I have found that listening is only the raw material of hearing but that the great temptation to be avoided is that once we have heard, we feel we ought to or have a right to respond. Most of the time I am not in a place to advise. Practically all the time, no one wants me to advise. And so listening is just the beginning of the process towards shutting up.
And in there we might have taken a step towards being a pastor, a pray-er and a person.
Your Correspondent, As big as Brando but he takes direction