A few years ago, when I was the lead pastor of a church I had planted, I found myself in the middle of a minor conflict with some of the people who had planted the church with me. They were expressing concern and questions about the direction the church was moving.
One of them (we’ll call him Steve) had just sent me a long email detailing some of the concerns he had, and I remember feeling agitated by the email. In my view, it was obvious where we needed to go as a church and I was annoyed by all the questions he was asking.
Listening when I’d rather argue
I scheduled a meeting with Steve, and started to “load up my guns,” listing the comprehensive reasons for my position, anticipating counter-arguments, and creating a watertight case to convince him once and for all!
It was a minor miracle that I also thought to pray before this meeting, but I did. And it was in those few minutes of quiet, waiting on God to give me some additional ammo, that I got a surprising nudge instead.
I felt God nudge me to throw away my arguments and go in to the meeting with only one goal: to really listen to Steve. Just seek to understand his perspective and why he’s concerned. That’s it.
The results of listening
I have to admit I was a little disappointed I wasn’t going to get to present my brilliant arguments, but I followed the nudge and just listened.
As I did so, I noticed a couple things:
- My compassion for Steve expanded. Instead of seeing him as an adversary, I realized he was a friend, and that it wasn’t easy for him to voice his concerns. I became deeply grateful for his friendship and partnership in the church.
- My perspective changed. Most surprisingly to me, I realized that the way I was seeing the issue wasn’t “objective” or “true.” Listening to Steve’s concerns changed my perspective on what we were doing, and allowed me to see him and our church more clearly.
Good preaching starts with listening
Pope Francis recently said some fascinating and helpful words about preaching. Part of his advice for pastors is that they learn that good preaching always involves listening to your people:
Listen to the lives of people. If you do not listen to people, how can you preach? The closer you are to people, the better you will preach or bring the word of God nearer their lives. In this way, you link the word of God to a human experience that has need of this word.
The more distant you are from people and their problems, the more you will take refuge in a theology that is framed as “You must,” and “You must not,” which communicates nothing, which is empty, abstract, lost in nothing, in thoughts. At such times we respond with our words to questions that nobody is asking.
Preaching is essentially an act of leadership, and Francis’ advice to listen extends into everything we do as leaders. If we’re going to lead like Jesus, listening must become as important to us as it was to Jesus.
Learning from Jesus’ questions
We can learn a lot from Jesus’ discourses in the Gospels, but I think we can learn even more from his questions. Jesus wasn’t asking rhetorical or “leading” questions. Instead, he was expressing genuine curiosity about people, and trying to help them get in touch with what was really going on.
- What do you want me to do for you?
- Why do you call me good?
- Where are the others? Were not ten cleansed?
- Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?
- Who touched me?
- Why did you doubt?
- Who do you say that I am?
It wouldn’t be a waste of time to sift through the Gospels and write out every question Jesus asked and see what you notice.
3 reasons good leadership starts with listening
So why does Jesus lead this way? Why is listening so vital for good leadership? Here are 3 reasons why all good leadership starts with listening:
1. Leadership is about discernment not just decisions
We often think of a leader as the one who has to, in the end, decide. And deciding certainly is a vital aspect of leadership. It’s important to embrace the responsibility and accountability that come with making decisions.
But leadership is also about discernment. It’s about learning to pay attention, as a community, to what God is doing and saying in our midst, instead of just trusting our “gut instincts” or the latest survey results, hoping that decisions by themselves will get us to where we need to be.
2. Leadership is about love, not just results
As a leader, it’s easy to look at the church or team you’re leading and think that the goal is to get people to “do things.” We measure our effectiveness by how well we influenced people to do something we thought would be a good idea.
But part of leadership in the way of Jesus is realizing that we win when we love those we are leading. And listening is an act of love. It’s a way of practicing presence with the person in front of you who bears the image of God.
For Jesus, self-sacrificing love is the goal of leadership, not necessarily the pragmatic results we are wanting to see.
3. Leadership is about learning, not just knowing
One of the predominant lies that leaders believe is that their job is to be an expert. The person who knows things. The person with answers. The person with the best advice.
But leaders must be learners. One of the ways leaders can go first is to be the chief learner in their church. The person who asks the most questions. The person who practices curiosity first.
Questions for reflection and discussion
So if all good leadership starts with listening, here are a few questions to help you take action this week. Leave a comment below to join the discussion!
- What in you resists the idea of listening first as an act of leadership?
- Would those you lead say that you listen well?
- How can you intentionally practice open listening this week?
P.S. For more vital paradigm shifts for leaders, check out our free audio course 7 Vital Paradigm Shifts For Leading Like Jesus.