My favorite class that I'm taking this semester is an Introduction to Pastoral Care
. So far I've had two classes and I can't express how much more self aware I am. The class is basically an overview of how to care of people, how to listen and respond mixed with a little pastoral ethics. The class has really made think about the art of listening. Have you ever noticed how you listen to people? Do you interrupt others frequently while they are talking? Are you always thinking of what to say next when others are speaking? Do you have trouble keeping your personal life out of conversations that have nothing to do with you?
If you answered yes to any of these questions then you probably need to do a lot of work on your listening skills. I had never realized how horrible of a listener I was until taking this class. I frequently interrupted people while trying to think of what to say next. Most of all, I always
tried to relate my personal life to the life of the person speaking. Now most of you might not think that bringing one's personal life into a conversation is a big deal. But in pastoral care, it really is a big deal. First all, it switches the focus of the conversation from the other person towards yourself. We always think that our personal situation totally relates to the other person's situation. That's not true. We don't fully understand what the other person is going through, even if we have had a similar situation.
My professor gave us an example of one of her early pastoral care mishaps. One of the members in her youth group was constantly acting up at home and at school. She basically said that he was always getting in trouble, had issues with authority, and never wanted to listen. The boy's mother scheduled an appointment with my professor (then youth leader) just to sit and chat about her concerns. The mother needed some pastoral care. She explained to my prof. all of the issues that she was having with her son. Before thinking about it, my prof. chimed in: "He reminds me of my brother!" The mother's face lit up with hope. "How did he turn out?" the mother asked. My professors gut tightened. She didn't know what to say. Her brother was a raging alcoholic and just got out of prison for the second time. She couldn't tell the concerned mother that. She basically just swept over the question, lied and said that he was fine and continued the conversation. My professor was so embarrassed.
This experience of my professor speaks to the risk taken by adding personal experience to a pastoral care session. If we're not self aware we might say things that we shouldn't. We might just blurt stuff out. Now, don't get me wrong. There are ways to introduce personal elements into a pastoral care session. We can always learn from other people's past experience. However, you must be very conscientious of how to present it while keeping in mind the outcome that it might bring.
Another aspect of listening is clearing your mind in order to really listen to whose speaking. If you're constantly thinking of what to say next, how can you really listen? It's almost as if you have a prescribed method to help someone before you really know what they need. My professor also had a great story to accompany this less. My professor was frequently visited by a woman who was an evangelist for the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in her home, twice a week for about a month. During these visits, the woman would tell my professor everything she needed to know about salvation, life, death, and everything in between. The ironic part is that the woman never asked my professor her name. She never asked my professor anything about her life, profession, or beliefs. She just had a pre-fabricated gospel to share without even taking time to listen to the needs of my professor.
My prof. said that they ran into each other in the supermarket one day, and the woman finally asked her personal questions. My prof. told her that she was a professor at United Theological Seminary and that she'd been a pastor of 30 years. The woman was shocked and embarrassed and never came to my professors' home again. This anecdote tells us that it's so important to listen to the needs of other people before we try to prescribe them a remedy. Plus, if we already have a planned response, that leaves no room for the Holy Spirit to work in us for a caring answer.
So here's an exercise that I want you to do. This is straight out of my pastoral care textbook: During the next week, notice how people listen to you and how it makes you feel. Do they give you proper eye contact? Do they look away and nonchalantly give you "mhhhm's" of affirmation? Do they try and talk over you and does it seem like they are trying to get a word in while you're talking? Do they continue to do their work instead of giving you an moment of their time? Do they interrupt? Try and notice all the little things that people do that gives you a clue that they might not really be listening fully or properly. Then examine yourself. Do you do any of these things to other people? Have you ever had an experience with someone who wasn't listening? How did the situation make you feel? How hard is it to be a good listener?