I have had two excellent personal doctors over the past years. Both are well-trained and professionally competent. They are both respectful and helpful. The difference is in the way they listen.
The one came in briskly, records in his hand, and would go straight to his computer and sit down, and asking some questions about how I had been since I last came. If I had a new concern he would offer a prompt diagnosis and course of action. But that was it. I understand, of course. the peer pressure he was under to see another patient every few minutes.
The other does not have as many years of experience, but is equally well informed. What matters to him is to have time to be with me as a person. He comes in. Smiles. Sits across from me. Asks how I am doing. Remembers something we talked about before. Then does his professional tasks without rushing, thoroughly, efficiently.
They both care. But with the second one I feel like as if I have been received, noticed, valued, and listened to. And what a difference that makes.
Do you know what it is like to be listened to – to have someone listen to you without hurry, without an agenda, deeply and with care?
What would it be like to go a lifetime without having someone listen to you in that way?
Once I was asked to prepare and present a citation for a good friend, who was being recognized for his contributions to the school where he served and taught. I asked him to come by our house and to tell me about his life – not only his professional achievements but the events and people who had guided him along the way, and opened doors for him.
For nearly two hours I listened, asking a few questions from time to time, as he described those people who God had sent into his life. He told me of the two older women who encouraged him to go into ministry when no one else believed in him, of the very liberal church leader who had the grace to support him for ordination when others dismissed him as too conservative. At the end of the two hours, he told me with tears, “No one has ever listened to me tell that story for so long.”
I was glad to listen, because I have had so many, men and women, who have listened to me across the years – my wife Jeanie, friends like our leaders in the Mentoring Community, who have helped me along through the darker times and have rejoiced with me in the very good times.
Listening does not only help others. There is a reciprocal, mutual blessing that comes from deep heart listening. The one who truly listens finds their own heart stirred in the very listening to the other.
Spiritual mentoring – the call to listen
At the heart of spiritual mentoring is the art of listening: wholly and holy listening.
The late respected management guru Peter Drucker asserted that “The first leadership competence is ‘the willingness to listen.’” And in Leaders Warren Bennis wrote that “The leader must be a superb listener … successful leaders we have found are great askers and they do pay attention.”
Yet listening has often been overlooked as a key attribute of leaders. When I was young in ministry I remember spending time with several well-known leaders. After long conversations I realized that I knew everything they did, but they knew almost nothing about me! They never asked a question. Starting then I determined to be a listener to others – and later on especially to listen to younger leaders coming along.
If listening is of great value for leaders in any field, it is most especially so for those of us who are sensing a call to mentor these younger leaders who are seeking guidance as they serve God’s kingdom purposes.
We are called to serve as a community of friends on the journey – followers, companions, and learners – together in the way of Christ. We are followers of Christ as our leader, and the Way home to the Father. We are companions with those who seek to lead like Jesus and to lead others to him. We are learners helping each other to grow in the art of spiritual mentoring.
If this is our call and rule, then we need indeed to become a community of “superb listeners” who are “great askers, and who do pay attention.”
A central mark of our community will be a commitment to help each other to listen: to God, to our own hearts, and to each other.
Spiritual mentoring/direction is not a program, or a technique, or a profession. It is an art: the art of listening to and with others in the presence of Another.
As the Celtic spiritual leader Aelred described times of holy listening in the presence of God: “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, in our midst.”
Spiritual mentoring is a gift from God, for others – a gift of listening.
Like any art it is also a practice, an attitude of the ear, mind, and heart and soul. And so we can learn through practicing the gift.
The mentoring ministry at this gathering of younger and emerging leaders is a time of listening together so together we may discern God’s calling for us and them in the great task of world evangelization.
God Speaks, We Listen, Then We Speak
The entire Bible is the record of God speaking in human history and calling on his people to listen. Isaiah provided this remarkable insight:
The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word
that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear
to listen like one being taught. The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears, and
I have not been rebellious, I have not drawn back. Isaiah 50:4,5
God wakes us first to listen, then to have a word for others. What is this “word that sustains the weary”? It is the word that is apt, right, timely, helpful, convicting, sustaining. I think of many “words that sustained me” just when I needed them from friends and loved ones.
They came from people whose ears God had wakened and whose tongues God had instructed. Notice in the passage from Isaiah how divine guidance is offered not merely for our lives, but to help our weary fellow traveler.
I know that God has been given me this “word” at times for those who come for spiritual direction. I also know it has come from what I myself have learned and lived, and especially through the hard times.
Our Model: The Great Listener
Our model above all is Jesus who was the Great Listener. You remember his words about listening?
He who has sent me is true, and I speak to the world those things which I heard from him. I do nothing of myself but as my Father taught me, I speak these things. John 8:26,28
As the late Henri Nouwen described Jesus’ posture:
We will never understand the full meaning of Jesus’ ministry unless we see how
the many things are rooted in the one thing, listening to the Father in the intimacy
of perfect love. Show Me the Way 90
Jesus listened carefully to others, as shown in his conversation by the well with the woman from Samaria. Count the words spoken in this story, and you will find that she spoke four times as many words as Jesus did. He spoke powerful words, but he also listened. Jesus also blessed those who listened to him, like the servants at the wedding in Cana (John 2:5), the disciples who obey his commands (John 15:7), and Martha who sat listening to what he said. Luke 10:39,42
Learning to Listen
One of our greatest needs is to learn active and attentive listening. I like to think I am a good listener yet I have often found it difficult to listen attentively, in part because when I was a child my mother punished me by lecturing me, often and at length, so that I learned to daydream and let my mind wander. I have learned that listening takes much practice.
If we want to be effective servants and helpful leaders we must learn to listen to God, to those close to us, to strangers, and to our own hearts.
Listening to our own hearts. “Praying is first and foremost listening to Jesus, who
dwells in the very depth of your heart” wrote Nouwen. Every day we need to set aside some time for active listening to God.
Listening to others. This is one of the greatest gifts we can give. When I listen carefully, with nuanced attention, not to frame a reply but to understand, I am saying “What you think and feel is important. Because God takes you seriously, so do I!”
Listening in sharing our faith. Speaking skills are important in witnessing to others, but so are listening skills. A layman, an engineer, described evangelism as “listening in on the conversation between someone and the Holy Spirit, and speaking when given permission by that person, and the Holy Spirit.” As Keith Miller put it, when we listen carefully to another it is like running our fingers around the rim of a cup until we come to a cracked place – the place of need – where we can help them to connect to Jesus.
Listening to those we lead. As Drucker and Bennis said, the best leaders know how to listen. They don’t just talk about “my vision” but about “our vision” because they have listened and the vision is owned and shared by others.
To listen to God in his Word and through his Spirit – to our own hearts – to others – to the world is crucial. Spiritual mentors must be good listeners.
So let my prayer and yours be: Lord, teach me to listen
Adapted from an essay written for mentors for the Younger Leaders’ Gathering of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 2015