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The Next Faithful Step

Leadership Begins with Listening

Scott Cormode, Fuller Theological Seminary

In an article for Fuller Seminary's E-news for Pastors, the Fuller Youth Institute presents the results of their research on Sticky Faith. Here, they describe how youth ministry has to change in order to help teenagers keep their faith as they go off to college. When people read such an article they often react by saying to themselves, “Things need to change at my church.” And they are right. But then the next question jumps up. “What’s my first step? How do I promote this new idea?” Whether it is Sticky Faith or some other new program, leaders usually begin at the same place. They usually begin by speaking. But I am going to argue that leadership begins with listening.

If you ask kids about the work of a leader, you get some interesting insights into the stereotypes we carry in society. Not long ago, I met with a group of Girl Scouts who were doing a project on leadership. So I asked them, “What do leaders do?” One of the basic answers came up quickly. “Leaders tell people what to do.” And that’s a pretty good description of a basic stereotype about leadership. And it’s not just the Girl Scouts who think that way. Within the last month, I’ve had three phone calls from current and former students who were taking new jobs as pastors. And each one asked me, “What’s the first thing I should say?” I’ll tell you what I told them. Leaders need to speak. But that is not where leadership begins. Leadership begins with listening.

At its core, leadership is a connection between people. We as leaders are not allowed to see people as tools that we can wield to our own ends. God made each person in God’s image and endowed that person with a dignity that leaders must respect. We cannot see people as means that allow us to accomplish our goals. But, if we speak first—without listening—we assume we know where the people are and what they need. But we are likely only seeing them through our own biases and agendas. If we speak before we listen, we treat people like stereotypes—we have to treat them like stereotypes because we have not yet listened to them long enough to know what they think or believe.

Leadership begins with listening. If you want to institute a change, listen to the people entrusted to your care. Find out what matters most to them. For example, if you were a youth minister interested in changing your congregation’s basic ideas about youth ministry, you would have a range of people that require your attention. You would need to listen to the youth, to their parents, to the volunteers who staff your program, and to the board that oversees your ministry.

When you sat to listen to them, you might ask them to tell stories about their own experiences (good and bad) of youth ministry. Ask them about their hopes. Ask them about their fears. Listen for their expectations. And especially listen for stories.

Let me give you an example. I happen to be the parent of two teenagers. If you were to sit with me, you might hear me talk about hopes (I want my children to learn about the Bible and to grow in relationship with God and other Christians or you might hear me talk about my expectations (I think that the youth ministry staff should regularly take my kids out for coffee/soda or some such thing and build a relationship with them).  But there is something behind my statements. They each imply a story. You can picture a scene in my statements. When I say “grow in relationship,” you picture friendships as part of ministry. Or, in my expectations, I alluded to a scene—one in a restaurant or coffee shop.

Leadership begins with listening. Collect the stories in your head—the stories that tell you what matter most to people. Don’t start by speaking. Start with listening.