At our November Clergy Covenant Day, Bishop Coyner asked the clergy to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together. It has been years since I first read the book. As I read with the eyes of an older, experienced pastor, I found myself focused on the chapter on ministry. In this chapter, Bonhoeffer wrote a very short section on the Ministry of Listening. Truly listening to another person is a gift that can transform the speaker and the listener. I have a little card in my home office that reads: “Most people just need a good listening to.” If you can get beyond that dangling participle, there is a great truth in these words. My experience tells me that most of us hunger to have someone listen to us. Listening to another without interruption is an act of radical hospitality.
When I was diagnosed with cancer almost thirteen years ago, I began going to a support group at Gilda’s Club. The people in the group had many different kinds of cancer and were at various stages in treatment. Every time a new person joined the group, we all told our stories as a way to welcome the new person. I probably told my cancer story seven or eight times. No one interrupted. These were holy moments. In each telling of my story I found a new insight and a healing moment. As I listened to others, I heard their stories transformed by hope and the promise of life in the midst of disease. In a sense I was “listened” into health.
In my work with the United Methodist Foundation I spend a lot of time listening to clergy. Each fall I schedule visits with all of the new commissioned and ordained pastors in our conference. I travel to churches around the state to meet them and learn about their ministry. I am amazed at the stories I hear. We are blessed in our conference with new pastors who have a passion for the people and communities that they serve. We are blessed with pastors who not only care about the souls of the people but for the soul of the community. These pastors are listening.
Bonhoeffer says that the first thing we owe our community members is to listen to them. He also reminds us that if we can’t listen to our brothers and sisters we will soon not be able to listen to God. So much of what passes as conversation these days is a series of monologues. In prayer, we tell God what we want. In our conversations, we are often impatient and inattentive when others speak. We think we know what will be said and anticipate our response before we have heard the whole story. What if we were truly intent upon hearing our sisters and brothers and not formulating what we are going to say before they finish speaking? Keeping silent and listening with our heart as well as our ears will help us truly hear what another has to say.
I am reminded of Jesus’ telling of the parable of the soils. As he begins he says to the crowd, “Listen to this!” and at the end of the parable, “Whoever has ears to listen should pay attention.” (CEB) These are good admonitions for those of us, both clergy and laity, who are privileged to be invited into people’s lives and hear their stories. Listen and pay attention. In doing these two things we are honoring are commitment to being in covenant with each other as Christian sisters and brothers.
Mary Ann Moman serves as executive director of the Indiana Conference Rejuvenate Ministry.