By C. John “Jack” Miller
My belief is that comparatively few leaders in the church today are really sharp listeners.
I know I have an ongoing struggle with listening, especially when issues are being considered that are very important to me. I get afraid that the wrong ideas will prevail. At such times I have an overpowering urge to talk rather than to ask questions and listen for answers from others. It seems supremely important that everyone be immediately brought to perfect clarity by my powers of illumination and persuasion.
Sometimes what makes this confusing for me is that the Lord has given me a measure of insight as a leader. I do have almost thirty years of experience in planting and growing churches. But my mistake is that I want to persuade now without first gathering in all the knowledge I need and do not see the importance of taking time to hear others, to learn from them, and to reveal my love with a sympathetic response to what they are thinking.
Really patient, attentive listening is another way of saying “I love you and respect you.”
Not listening or half-listening is contrariwise, my saying, “I have a much higher view of my opinions than I have of yours.”
Expressed in that bold way, my not listening is exposed as egocentricity, perhaps even hardline pride.
Once Dave Powlison gently admonished me, “Jack, you are a born persuader as a leader. It’s a good gift, but persuasion should follow listening and asking questions. Give balance to your leadership by delaying your persuading until you have had time to ask questions and to listen closely to the answers.”
I could agree with that in principle and did not have so much trouble applying it to meetings where issues were not major.
But when the concerns being considered seem foundational to me, it is hard for me to listen closely, or to refrain from breaking into someone’s speaking. I feel a compelling need to get the problems and lines of thought into clear focus now. It’s almost as though I try to act as the head of the church.
I know that may sound pretty silly. Who, after all, is so stupid as to think he can replace Christ as Lord over the church and its mission?
Still the history of the church has very few pages that are not blotted by the megalomania of church leaders.
It is simply that we are prone to fall in love with our own authority as official leaders and unconsciously distance ourselves from Christ as the real Head of the church.
We begin to try to control the church or the members of the team and end up in personality conflicts with brothers and sisters who either dislike our control or want to impose their own control upon us.
When this happens, we are inwardly swept by anxieties. The irony of it all is that the more we try to control the work in our own name, the more the work and its problems control us. We begin by trying to own the work of God and end up with the ministry owning us. Perfecting the work becomes our bondage, and the bondage manifests itself by our losing the capacity to patiently listen to others and to be corrected by them.
Indeed, when we get into this perfectionistic frame, we can fall into some very nasty bondages in our leadership. We hate criticism, we get preoccupied with trivia and are willing to fight major battles over minor issues. We feel threatened when anyone disagrees with us or introduces an idea that is unfamiliar.
I once knew of a church situation where a pastor and his associate gradually developed such a rotten relationship that more than once they beat on each other with their fists!
So I want you to join me in having confidence in our human depravity as leaders. Do not be surprised to find your corruption expressing itself in perfectionistic self-will in your own leadership style. Expect to encounter in yourself defensiveness, dominance, and poor listening practices.
But I also urge you to have a much greater confidence in Christ’s capacity to release you from such bondages.
He is the crucified Head of the church, the only One who knows how to perfect it! Just to know that fact, to rest upon it, and to build upon it, is to be released from the bondages which duty imposes upon our spirits.
You find His liberating grace through honest confession of sin and fresh release by surrendering the government of the church to its Head.
Excerpt taken from Letter by Jack Miller written Feb., 1986. You can find the letter on page 136 of Heart of a Servant Leader.