Editor's Note: This article has been excerpted from our Training Tool Shepherd New Believers.
How do we develop attentive, mature people in our small groups? Here are four pastoral practices that are hidden, quiet, undervalued—and surprisingly powerful.
Listen Without Filtering
We know all about the power of listening. We may even teach it. We also know how to fake it.
I used to visit a busy medical clinic with top-flight doctors. I noticed when I had an appointment and the doctor stepped into the exam room, he would keep one foot angled toward the door. He was listening to me, seemingly intently, but his body was saying, "My HMO has asked me to keep appointments brief. I'm leaving as soon as I can."
Similarly, I can nod and give someone eye contact and say, "Um-hmm," but my head may be filled with noise. I may be hurting from a conversation the hour before: How could he say that! I may be wondering, Will this person be good to recruit for leadership? Or deeper still, my soul may be clamoring, I would really love it if you would think I'm spiritual.
"To truly listen is to become smaller," says my senior pastor. "It requires death to self."
Oh, only death? That should be easy.
For me, what most resists dying is the idea from leadership seminars to scrutinize the time we spend with people and do a sort of cost/benefit analysis: Will this person become a new leader? Is this investment in them worth my time? In leading, time is an investment. But in pastoring, time spent with a person is a gift, a grace, a broken bottle of perfume. To listen without filtering is to give our best time and energy to this person, right now, knowing full well nothing may come of it for my organizational agenda, and that's okay.
French writer Jacques Philippe says, "In every encounter with someone else, however long or short, we should make him feel we're 100 percent there for him at that moment, with nothing else to do except be with him and do whatever needs doing for him. Good manners, yes, but also heartfelt availability. This is very difficult, since we have a strong sense of proprietary rights to our time and easily tend to get upset if we can't organize it as we choose. But this is the price of genuine love."
One day, reading Mark 8, I noticed that when Jesus talks with people, he mostly asks questions. I added them up and found 16 questions in that single chapter. Following that model, I am trying to ask more questions of the people I pastor. Sometimes I send questions to people ahead of time, before we meet. Two of my favorites are (1) "What do you like about the kind of person you're becoming? What do you not like?" And (2) "When was a time you felt most alive and in the zone?"
If I ask questions like these and then listen, spiritual gifts emerge, surprising even the person who has them. Hope pushes up through parched soil. People start sentences with, "I've never told this to anyone before, but …" and then continue on; their back muscles literally loosen as a weight, carried for years, rolls off in confession.
I was startled by this, and one day, I mentioned to a therapist in our congregation, "I've been having these wonderful conversations, and I can't believe how candid people are with their pastor."
She looked at me. "Kevin, you don't get it, do you?"
"Um, I guess not. What don't I get?"
"People want to have these kinds of conversations," she told me. "They just don't know where they can, where the conversation will be safe and meaningful."
Safe and meaningful begins when we listen without filtering.