Religious leaders are often socialized to be better at speaking than at listening. It is understandable that preachers want to preach, teach, and lead with their voices and their carefully honed understandings of scripture and theology. Listening is difficult because it requires us to give up the role of expert and become a learner again. The act of letting go of the status and control that come with being an expert is difficult. But the work of creating a space in which new and honest speech can emerge in a community is theologically crucial.
Listening is a form of empowering love, a gift of time and kind regard, that leaders can both practice and nurture in faith communities.
The need to listen was artfully described by Dietrich Bonheoffer, who wrote Life Together: “Just as love of God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them …. Christians, especially ministers, often think that they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.”
Listening is indeed a great service, a primary duty of love. It brings honor and recognition to the speaker. Listening gives another the chance to experience his or her inner knowing. Listening can be a means of grace, as it brings forth stories through which people make sense of their lives and become aware of the larger reality.
Theologian Rebecca Chopp suggests that language “can birth new meanings, new discourses, new signifying practices.” (The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, God, New York: Crossroads, 1989, 14). The power to speak is no small matter; it cannot be taken for granted that everyone shares this power. In congregations and in groups, as in the wider society, the power to speak is not evenly distributed. Some sit silently at the margins of shared life, assuming that they have little to say that is of value to the group. Others speak boldly and confidently, perhaps unaware that their confidence and power to speak are privileges not shared by all.
In congregations as in the wider society, the dynamics of social power and economic privilege often dictate who may speak. An employer’s voice trumps an employee’s; a landlord’s voice, a tenant’s; and in many arenas, such as in U.S. national politics, social factors such as class, gender, and race still influence the selection of leaders empowered to speak on behalf of the people. The kind of “emancipatory transformation” that Chopp describes requires listening to those whose voices are not well heard, and supporting marginalized persons in gaining the power to speak.
The power to speak, to tell one’s own story, is integrally related to the power to change. The process of naming one’s current situation and worldview may give rise to deeper knowing and the longing for change. The power of sacred stories and symbols, intersecting with our particular human stories, challenges our ways of thinking and being and makes room for the imagination of new, alternative visions and actions.
Consider the importance of inviting a person, particularly a person who is in some way marginalized, to hear herself or himself speak. There is a power that comes through speaking, through hearing one’s own voice and having others listen and bear witness to one’s story. This kind of listening is a form of empowering love, a gift of time and kind regard, that leaders can both practice and nurture in faith communities.
When we attempt to support a person or a group’s power to speak, we cannot know or predict the outcome. Frightening as this may be, we know that listening is a pastoral duty. To the extent that we can listen to the people, trusting that genuine speech will emerge, we can support the empowerment of people. To the extent that we make efforts to include the quieter characters, the members who are in some way marginalized, we can support “emancipatory transformation” within the group through this practice. Attentive listening to “the least of these” — those whose social power is more limited than others’ — can help us redress inequalities within the group. This practice also helps us gain a larger collage of viewpoints. In it all we strive to hear the truth of stories being shared as we invite others into liberative and life-giving speech.
This article is adapted from Mary’s new book Ethnography as a Pastoral Practice (Pilgrim Press, 2008).