A time for listening

When we were students at Chicago Theological Seminary, the seminary operated a preschool for children aged 3 and 4 years old. Susan and I both took a class in the Christian Education department that was based on the work being done at the school. In the class we had the opportunity to observe the interactions in the school and also the opportunity to work with the students under close supervision. In preparation for our working with the children, there were specific things that we had to learn. Susan later became an assistant to the director of the school and gained much more experience working with the children. I had an additional opportunity to spend time in the school when I visited to take photographs that were part of a study being made by the school’s director that were eventually incorporated into a book about teaching young children.

One of the skills we learned and practiced extensively before we were allowed to work directly with the students was active listening. We would practice with our peers the process of listening and then repeating what had just been said. The emphasis was not on parroting what we had heard word for word, but rather reflecting the meaning. When we practiced with other students they could give us direct feedback on how well we had listened and reflected what they had said.

Active listening involves more than just hearing the sounds that come to one’s ears. It also involves careful looking for non-verbal messages communicated through facial expression and body language. All of those signals then need to be processed in the brain of the listener before being reflected to the speaker.

I have used my active listening skills throughout my career as a pastor and have frequently been very grateful for the training and practice I was able to receive during the time I was being equipped for the ministry in school. Active listening has been important in areas of ministry well beyond education and faith formation. During my final years as a seminary student, I worked as a professional counselor with the Wholistic Health Center in Hinsdale, Illinois. I was assigned center clients by the center’s director and offered counseling as part of an overall health management program, working closely with a doctor and a nurse. When people came to the center, being able to carefully listen and accurately reflect what I had heard was an important part of the healing process for clients. I worked with both individuals and families, having previously trained as a family counselor during my clinical pastoral education.

One of the surprises that came to me early in my pastoral career was how critical active listening is to assisting those going through grief. I learned when visiting those who had experienced the loss of loved one to ask a few questions and do a lot of listening. As I did so, stories of their loved one began to emerge. Those stories were important information that i used in planning funeral services. Frequently my eulogies and funeral sermons were examples of active listening. I shared with the wider community the stories that the families had shared with me. After a funeral service, I learned to visit with those attending the funeral as they were sharing lunch or refreshments in the fellowship hall. I was frequently delighted to hear some of the stories that I had heard from the immediate family and then incorporated into the funeral service being told from fresh perspectives all around the room.

I wasn’t the only one who experienced resurrection moments in the storytelling. Grieving family and friends frequently reported to me that the process of telling and listening to stories about their family members was one of the ways that their beloved lived on in their lives.

Books about telling stories and storytelling workshops are quite popular these days. I have read many of the popular books and I regularly listen to several story telling podcasts. Midway through my career I did post graduate work at the University of Wyoming in adult education and I took an additional course on stories. As I reflect on the energy and time that I invested in storytelling over more than four decades, I realize that as important as are the skills of telling stories for pastors, an effective pastor has to be much more than a skilled storyteller. Before the stories are told, a pastor needs to be an effective listener.

The skills I learned as a student have been critical to my work as a pastor. They include simple, common sense things as facing the speaker. If you are listening to a child, get down on their level so that you can see eye to eye. If you are speaking to someone who is seated, sit down or squat so that your eyes are on the same level. Pay attention to gestures, facial expressions, and non-verbal clues as well as listening to words. Allow for pauses and silence without becoming anxious. Don’t interrupt. Lay aside judgments and do not rush to conclusions about what you are hearing. Don’t think about what you are going to say next. Don’t impose your opinions or solutions. Ask questions.

Active listening requires practiced focus. I learned early when I was working as a counselor that I needed to be awake and alert. A lack of sleep or an extra long day made focused listening more difficult. Sometimes I was too tired to be as effective as I might have been. Active listening is the polar opposite of multi-tasking. When counseling and planning weddings or funerals with families, I use a notepad to record some of our interactions. However, I am very careful to not get ahead of the process. I don’t start planning a wedding or funeral when i am with the family. I take time to carefully listen. The notes I write are specifically to remind me of the conversation we are having. I am careful to write what I am hearing, not how I am responding or what I am thinking.

As important as storytelling was to my career as a pastor, even more important was careful listening to others’ stories. In those stories is the hope our world needs today. In those stories is the experience of resurrection.

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