Conflict is not a four-letter word but it can feel like it. Conflict is inevitable in all aspects of life involving human relationships. This is certainly true in the church. Often in the church, conflict can be more frightening than an axe-wielding maniac and more dreaded than a category 5 hurricane. Unfortunately, in established churches we hear horror stories of impossible members and impassible disagreements. Perhaps this is one reason why so many young men entering and training for ministry seem to have no desire to lead or revitalize an existing church. Instead, more and more are expressing a call to plant churches.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me or take my last statement as negative or insulting. We need church planters. But, we also need men who are willing to lead and breathe fresh life into our existing churches. I suspect this is going to be even more apparent and increasingly the case in the SBC over the next 10 to 15 year for several reasons.
Regardless, however, in any pastoral situation and milieu conflict resolution, unity, and the ability to lead forward is a must. And, the great news is I believe this is not only possible but probable. A church cannot only get through these situations but they can learn to use them to produce and grow in congregational health and discipleship. However, in order to do so a culture of listening has to be created in the church. And pastor, you cannot wait for someone else to be the trailblazer; it must begin with you.
In this article, I offer three essentials for creating a culture of listening in your pastoral ministry. Candidly, most of the time I have learned and grown in these the “hard way.” One of my goals here, then, is for you discover these from my experiences so that you avoid some of the mistakes I have made along the way.
First, Set the Tone of an Open Door Policy.
I have never been a pastor that was afraid of honest criticism and helpful critiques. By this, I am not referring to consistently disgruntled members or people who are constantly unhappy with anything and everything. I am not sure if people who fall into this category are credible as it relates to genuine congregational concern. And, I am quite certain that most conversations with them are time wasters and non-productive.
No, what I am talking about here is being open and available to have a conversation with anyone who has an honest concern, a valuable question, or a helpful perspective on a blind spot or genuine conflict in the church. I believe any leader who desires personal growth and congregational health must not be afraid to engage in these areas. These conversations can be extremely sharpening and edifying for the pastor and helpful and productive to the church. But, the question is how do you foster these types of conversations and engagements?
I believe an obvious starting place is communicate clearly and regularly that you have an open door policy to both your key leaders and the congregation. Even though this clearly is not enough for setting this tone, it is absolutely necessary. In other words, certainly plan to do more than this, but do not do less than this. Specifically, you must not only say you have an open door policy, but you must show that you have an open door policy with consistency.
One way I have done this in my pastoral ministry is not to wait until a question has been posed before I offer to answer questions. One practice I have regularly employed in recent years is to give a “pastor’s report” at all my major leadership meetings and business conferences. Then, I conclude these reports with a question and answer time. I have found that this action of being transparent and available creates a atmosphere of genuine trust. It always makes me appear approachable, even to those who otherwise normally may be hesitant to speak with me about honest concerns or questions. This process goes a long way in setting that “open door” tone.
Second, Learn to Listen to Hear not Simply to Respond.
Before I explain what “listening simply to respond” is, I must confess that I am really bad at it. By listening simply to respond, I mean that when you get into an argument, a discussion in which opposite views are being communicated, or simply a conversation in which someone is trying to state his case, you stop listening as soon as you think you know what he is saying or the position he is espousing. Instead of hearing everything the other party is saying and the subsequent reasoning, you use the remainder of the time the person is talking to formulate your response.
Often this creates a scenario in which the conversation is little more than dueling dialogues. The amazing thing is, since you did not listen to him finish, you do not really know what you think about his statement. You may not have heard it thoroughly and you certainly didn’t consider it honestly and openly. At a minimum, this action does not value the other person’s perspective. But perhaps even more detrimental is that it does not value the other person. And, it certainly is not conducive for healthy and productive communication. Here, I am not pointing my finger at anyone else. I may be the world champ of practicing this behavior! And, it is not a pattern or a behavior that creates a culture of listening.
Instead, we must refuse and deny the tendency and temptation to listen to respond. We must practice and learn to listen to hear . . . and understand. I believe there are a couple of steps that can help us do this. First, relax. A conversation or discussion is not a game to be won and your communication partner is not an enemy to be defeated. So, take a deep breath, literally. Allow them to talk without feeling the need to respond. Sometimes choose not to respond. Second, practice active listening before engaging in combative responding. Before offering any kind of response, repeat back in your own words what you believe he has said. Offer your response, positively or negatively, only after you confirm that you have heard him correctly.
You will be amazed how much this seemingly simple process will help you as a communicator, pastor, and leader. Furthermore, you may begin to see the culture of listening develop and yield fruit even quicker than expected in your congregation.
Third, Start Talking “With” Rather than “At” Others.
This may be an outgrowth of the problem that was described above, listening simply to respond. As mentioned previously, when we fail to listen to hear, our dialogues become more like duels. In this scenario, we do not have conversation partners but enemies to be eliminated . . . at any or all cost. We do not talk with one another but at one another.
What I mean by this is that we throw our words at others like darts or arrows with the intent to harm, discredit, and perhaps even annihilate our target. We don’t care if we are even heard by the other person. We certainly have no desire to hear back from him. Perhaps the social media age has tutored us in this type of behavior. At a minimum, it has dehumanized others and taught us this type of action is tolerable, acceptable, and valuable. It is difficult to imagine a more destructive pattern in relationships and a less conducive environment for communication.
When this type of communication, if we even want to identify it as such, creeps in among brothers and sisters, a potentially fatal problem arises. Until this pattern is eliminated and replaced, any hope for creating a culture of listening is only a pipe dream. We must regain the practice of talking with one another. This is first and foremost a mindset.
Here we view our conversation partner as one who inherently and intrinsically has value, who God can use to edify us, and who has the right to be heard. Yes, I should have the right to express my concerns and disagreements with him, but only in a spirit of love, grace, and humility. And, I genuinely must want to hear his concerns — really hear them. I must offer him the same opportunity that I am demanding, perhaps before I myself claim this right.
Pastor, you must eliminate the culture of talking at one another in your church. You must create a culture of valuing others and of talking with one another. And, it must begin with you. This is an invaluable and essential step for creating a culture of listening through your pastoral ministry in your congregation.
Does this have anything to do with preaching? Yes — it will effect your ethos. Will people hear anyone who won’t listen to them? Will people hear anything in a church in which listening is not highly valued? The honest and obvious answer to both of these questions is probably not — especially not from the pulpit.
Pastor you can do this! You may have to go against the grain. You will probably have to go against your normal tendencies. Perhaps you will even have to go against the current culture of your church. But the results, benefits, and blessings are worth it. The church is worth it. Church revitalization is worth it. And the Kingdom definitely is worth it.
For many reasons, I believe a culture of listening goes a long way to impact many areas of health in the local church. Not least of which are vision, worship, and discipleship. My prayer is that this encouragement helps you lead your people well and “Preach the Word” for their edification!