I am not sure who first used the expression “deep listening” but I confess I have come to love it.
By nature, I am not a good listener. I have always struggled with talking too much. I learned it from a young age. It is also deeply rooted in my personality type. But this is no excuse for not listening, ever. And I am convinced you cannot love if you cannot listen. So I need to listen, especially to my wife, my friends and my enemies. I can learn from them all. I now routinely ask God to give me the spirit and skills of “deep listening." I still fail but I will never stop trying to develop this disciplined spiritual and emotional skill.
Pastors routinely complain that congregations are resistant to change. In my early days in ministry I first heard the seven last words of the church: “We never did it that way before!” Many (most) pastors, sensing the call of God to serve and change the church in good ways, feel trapped in power struggles that hinder real mission.
This leads me to share about a leadership tool I recently discovered called pastoral ethnography. It is simply a strategic way of listening in a disciplined and attentive way to church members and congregational leadership. It involves a research process that allows conversation, not as a top-down exercise of power by the pastor but as a process in which members are enlisted to help do research into the life and practices of a church. By becoming a researcher the pastor can develop listening skills that will take his or her ministry much, much deeper. Mary Clark Moschella, a teacher at Yale Divinity School, and the author of Ethnography as a Pastoral Practice, says, “Attentive listening and deeper understanding constitute the beginning of growth and change” (Christian Century, July 26, page 28).
Pastors, and leaders, who practice “deep listening” skills and research can find out why members often behave the way they do and believe what they do. The reasons will very often surprise you. When the people better understand their past, and their own views, they are better prepared to be the missional church God called them to be. This is never precisely the church the pastor or a denomination may want them to be.