A closed mouth is a gift to others (and to yourself)

As a pastor of a church, I spend most of my time talking — preaching sermons, teaching classes and, well, talking.

A number of years ago I was with a group of preachers from around the country when the conversation turned to retirement. Although most of us were young, the question was posed, “So when you retire, what do you want to do?”

The answers varied. One said, “I’d like to do interim ministries for churches in transition.” Another responded, “I’d like to play more golf.” Finally, the oldest in the group, a rather curmudgeonly cleric, said, “You know what I’d like to do? I’d like to shut up!”

Most of us understood.

While most preachers believe that we have been given an important message to share, we also recognize that some of the best moments in our ministries have been those times when we stopped talking and listened — really listened. Those times have been memorable because we are privileged to serve congregations full of interesting, gifted people who have much to teach us if we are open to learning. If ministry is merely a weekly monologue from the pulpit, we are missing out on an incredible opportunity to listen to the lives of those we serve. The real joy comes in learning about their lives, their struggles, their joys and their sorrows. I wish seminaries had a course for would-be pastors titled “The Joy of Listening.” It would be a valuable part of pastoral education and formation.

It’s true for all of us, isn’t it? I have observed that many of us think, on the way to a social event, for example, “Now, I’ve got to be interesting and witty. I need to impress people.” So we regale our audiences with stories about ourselves and our adventures, thinking that we will be respected and loved.

The problem is that it usually doesn’t work, because those people who are truly loved are the expert listeners — the gifted ones who don’t turn the spotlight of every conversation on themselves, but focus on the other. They are the ones who ask good questions: “Tell me about yourself. What was your hometown like? What are your dreams? What gets you up in the morning?”

I once had a friend who didn’t greet me with the usual “How are you?” — that innocuous question that really isn’t a question. Instead, he would ask, “How are you—really?” He made it clear that he was really interested in the answer, because he was interested in me. What a gift.

Now, you may say that some people are just boring. The great psychiatrist Karl Menninger said that such people just haven’t been listened to enough. They are like an old well that, when pumped, spurt-out dirty, brackish water. But if you pump long enough, the water clears and you get a fresh and quenching drink. Menninger said that if you listen long enough, people get more interesting. Because they haven’t been listened to, the first things out may sound boring, but if you stick with it, the good stuff comes.

The Psalmist told us to “be still, and know that I am God.” There’s practical wisdom in that. Take time to be still, to listen, and you never know what you’ll learn.