Several years ago, I led a group of young adults from the United States on a journey to explore our relationship with the Presbyterian Church of Ghana. After a wonderful worship service and dinner hosted by a congregation in Tema, we were sitting at tables with the church leaders. One of the congregation’s elders turned to me and said he was impressed that I listened so well. I thanked him and asked him more about his kind compliment. He smiled and said that in his experience Americans are not the best listeners. He said that often when you see two Ghanaians together, one is talking and the other is listening. When you see two Americans together, one is talking and the other is waiting to talk.
For 15 years I was privileged to serve as a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary. One of the last courses the seniors are required to take before they graduate is titled Final Things. In it, we professors try to prepare them for whatever ministry to which God is calling them. One essential practice we highlight is listening.
"Be the one who is listening, not the one who is simply waiting to talk."
Too often, new pastors enter a congregation already certain they know what the people need and what needs to happen. Instead of acting on these assumptions right away, we encouraged the seniors to just listen. When one of the students pressed us and asked how long they should “just listen,” my colleague who was co-teaching with me said “about a year.” The class laughed out loud and then became quiet as they realized he was serious. He encouraged them to visit the older members of the congregation and listen to their stories. He encouraged them to sit on the floor with the younger members of the congregation and listen to their hopes. He encouraged them to listen and to preach and teach what is being heard from the people and from God.
Time and again throughout the Gospels, Jesus shows us that he is a good listener. When he goes off by himself to pray, he shows us the importance of taking time to listen to God. When he is confronted with a woman caught in adultery by the religious leaders and they ask Jesus to condemn her, he kneels down and draws in the dirt. A New Testament professor friend of mine says she thinks Jesus was listening. He was listening to the self-righteous voices of the religious leaders, listening to the beating heart of the humiliated woman, and listening to the Holy Spirit. To the rich young ruler, to Jairus whose daughter had died, to Mary and Martha whose brother Lazarus had died … to all of these and more, Jesus listened.
Leaders listen. It is a spiritual practice. To listen to another is to honor them as a child of the living God. As a Japanese American, my culture values “face,” and one way to lose face is to interrupt another while they are speaking. This is an act of arrogance because you believe what you have to say is more important than the one who is speaking.
As a leader in Christ’s church, think about the high compliment of someone describing you as a “good listener.” To sit and listen to another, to really listen and hear them, is countercultural in our social media society. To be truly heard is a gift. Work at giving the gift of being heard in the days and weeks ahead. As the Ghanaian elder illustrated for us, be the one who is listening, not the one who is simply waiting to talk. Good leaders are good listeners.
Rev. Dr. Rodger Nishioka serves as the senior associate pastor and director of adult faith formation at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas. Prior to joining the staff at Village Church, he served as a professor of Christian education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.
This article is the first in a 12-part series focusing on PC(USA) leader formation as a part of the Year of Leader Formation: Investing in Ruling Elders and Deacons. Additional resources are available at www.pcusa.org/leader-formation/.