Bad Listeners

“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:” (James 1:19)

Yesterday I was watching old reruns of Monk. I don’t know if you remember the show about the OCD detective. Tony Shalhoub is brilliant, but that really isn’t what this post is about.

Anyway, one scene in the show was the detective interviewing a witness in her home. While she was trying to tell him what she saw and what she experienced, he was extremely distracted. The items on her coffee table were out of place and disorderly. Monk, suffering from OCD, couldn’t hear a word she said until he rearranged all of her knick-knacks.

I’ve been thinking about that. Why are pastors such horrible listeners? Yes, I am talking about you – particularly Reformed pastors. This is a critique of my own tribe. I also have struggled with being a good listener, so these things are coming from my experience.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone and they weren’t listening to anything you were saying? You can see the exact moment they shut down. They have already figured out what they were going to say, and anything else you might say is not relevant. I think it is a problem for pastors. We are really bad at listening.

Why are we such bad listeners?

I have a few suggestions:

  1. We are OCD with theological error. We completely miss someone’s trauma, but woe to the uninformed that uses the word “potluck” (you mean “pot providence”) or “My father was a good man” (THERE IS NONE GOOD; NO NOT ONE!) Just like Mr. Monk, if all of the theological ducks aren’t neatly lined up to our liking, we shut down. Seriously, when was the last time you allowed a theological mistake to just pass you by. Even the attempt to “let it go” causes our muscles to twitch, our words to stammer, our eyes to water…
  2. We forget to remember that Jesus was moved with compassion for the multitudes – like sheep without a shepherd. Are you compassionate enough to actually let someone tell you their story – even if it makes you uncomfortable, even if you don’t know what to say, even if it takes several hours? Jesus was moved with compassion. So should we be.
  3. Most of us heard Jay Adams tell us that after 6 or 8 sessions you have a discipline problem. We feel this urge to rush through, tell people what they need to do and move on. Depressed? Get over it. Still depressed? Church discipline! Angry at your rapist? Quit being bitter. Get over it. Move on with your life. We are convinced that we HAVE to give the solution, give the cure, tell them what to do to make this uncomfortable feeling stop. But only a fool answers a matter before he hears it. Listen first. Then speak. It’s what the Bible commands.

I was at a church years and years ago. There was a young man visiting. After the service, I was talking to a couple of the elders and this young man came up to us and asked “Is there a grocery store around here? I need some food”. The elders looked stunned, and then said,

“We don’t shop on the Sabbath Day.”


This is what I mean. Where is the compassion? Where is the discernment?

Be compassionate. Be educated. Be like Christ. Listen.

The hardest thing for a pastor to learn is this: You don’t have to talk all the time. You don’t have to have answers all the time. You don’t have to fill the air around you with a miasma of ignorant pious slogans. You don’t have to correct everyone that is wrong.

But you do have to listen. And you do have to be compassionate.

Let’s practice:

“Potluck, potluck, potluck, potluck.

“He’s a good man. He’s a good man. He’s a good man.

“God loves everybody. God loves everybody. God loves everybody…..

“Last Sunday I went to a restaurant…”


Let it go. There is a time and place for correcting theology, but remember that we would be in a far better place to do that if we first learned how to listen.

(By the way, Jay Adams was wrong here. Most people haven’t even gotten to the real issue until the 6th  session. They start out by seeing if you are trustworthy and willing to listen. If you shut them down the first session, they won’t come to you with the real issue. I believe that this is a major reason why nouthetic counseling has been so disastrous with trauma and assault.)


Filed under Pastoral ministry

22 responses to “Bad Listeners

  1. Totally agree about the Nouthetic counseling. I was in it. My marriage was in shambles. I was told to memorize verses and submit. I left so angry every single time. Although my husband was the determined winner, he thought it was BS too. I still struggle to trust now that we’ve left the church and are seeing a counselor. I fear rejection and have trouble trusting the counselor with my feelings. I feel like I’m better off dealing with it all myself. In theory, talking it out sounds good but I just feel judged. And I’m tired of the disappointment when I do share because, well, I’m not a polished speaker and things come out all messy. I wish it was ok to be messy. Even people who aren’t pastors struggle with that. The world is keen on appearances. Just look at Facebook. There are so few places I trust anymore.

    • The “messiness” is common and normal for those who have been through what you have been through. This is why good listening, with compassion and understanding, is so crucial.
      Thank you for your comment.

    • Messy Speaker

      Thank goodness someone else isn’t polished and things come out messy. And people jump on those raw, non-polished, messy words and go to town on such. Makes a person go silent and loathe they ever tried to say anything. (perhaps that’s the point of other’s doing)

      • Seems that way… One person I can think of that does that (shuts me down or tells me I’m too sensitive) grew up trying to keep up appearances with their drug addict sibling. The family was Christian but the drug addiction was hidden.

  2. anonymous

    Yay! Another post! Love reading your blog.

    So many people are really bad listeners. Sometimes I think people cannot listen or be present because of the chaos that is going on in their own personal life. But this is very insightful as to what it’s like for the pastoral professionals to listen to laymen…. pot providence? Never heard of such a thing, it was always potluck. I think the signup sheet even said potluck, But perhaps potluck is nails on the chalkboard for pastors.

    Nouthetic counseling is a disaster. It’s a horrible setup for abused and battered women, and other trauma victims/survivors. Why? Because the wrongdoing is not theirs. Victims don’t need to change. No change that victims make is sufficient to stop the abuse, no matter what, as such is just an illusion, deliberately created and maintained by the abuser.

    Just saying ‘nouthetic counseling’ leaves a horrible taste in the mouth. No, no, no. Not for abused persons. Nope. Never. Not even if the counselors promise to be good listeners. Nope. The whole setup is faulty.

    The last things a victim needs to hear are admonitions as to how they are not doing something right, not being good enough, not acting appropriately, not handling things better, etc. Victims do not have discipline problems, but rather they have a child of satan bent on destroying them, tormenting them, harming them, etc.

  3. Amen,amen,amen! That’s why God gave us two ears and only one mouth. We’re supposed to be listening twice as much as we are speaking! Not just pastor’s, but all of us.

    People tend to have all the answers they need, and they often have the Holy Spirit speaking to them,too. What they really need from us is simply to be heard, validated, and encouraged to listen to what God is leading them to. In abuse cases especially, a huge problem is not being heard and doubting yourself because you’ve been worn down for so long.

    But God bless all the pastors who actually do get this truth! There are literally hundreds of them, a veritable army out in the world who really do listen and encourage you to listen to that Still Small Voice that is often already telling you just what to do.

  4. I love the analogy with OCD.

    And I know some Presbyterian pastors (and quite a few presbyterian laymen) who are OCD with theological error.

    I wish blokes would listen more and not interrupt women so much!

  5. Love this; thank you Sam. And you hit on nouthetic counseling, one of my favorite kinds of false teaching to expose. Well done.

  6. Bunkababy

    I learned a new thing reading your post. Neuthetic counselling.i didn’t know it had a name.
    I went to a professionally trained MSP who happen to be a Christian. I did not try, it just happened.

    If he had tried any neuthetic methods on me I would have been out of there like a shot. I had people use those methods and they had failed.
    I needed tangible answers from the to help me realise, cope, and deal with the shattered parts of me. And that was not in the Bible.
    Alas God knows what we need and arranged what I needed from who I needed it.

    I just wish Christians were not so boxed in by their own limited imaginings. It’s quite simple. God made your brain, mind, soul, emotions etc. He has given people knowledge of these workings. Use them.
    That’s what are brains are for to use them.
    Anyhow, Sam I pray your recovery is going well. And I pray God ministers to your heart and mind and fills it up with his goodness.

  7. Bunkababy

    I had a well meaning pastors wife hell bent on telling me i had to give out of my brokeness.
    I had forgotten all about that. It makes me angry even to think about it now.
    It made me feel so invalidated with my trauma and pain. It made me feel like a loser, unable to give out of my brokeness.That I must be wrong about my own mental capabilities. And yet inside I new she was wrong.
    I think she gave me the book Hinds feet in high places. I never read it.
    I dont know what it is about but I think it had to do with being broken.

    My point is when you are barely able to function to cope with trauma, be a wife and mother, all the while encapsulated in fear of drowning in your own nightmare, how are you to give?
    Its so unfair to be saddled with such guilt.,jeez that messed me up. Ugh

    • That “give out of your brokenness” mantra can be loosely interpreted, “Get with the program and stop being a pain.” It isn’t Biblical. Churches should be full of believers who are in a stronger place and able to help the ones in crisis, but as long as the church at large refuses to acknowledge the devastation of trauma and simply tells people that their problems are their own sin and need for repentance, there will be very few who truly understand and can offer genuine meaningful help to those who are struggling with what was done to them in the past.

      • Bunkababy

        Thanks Rebecca. You know I value your insight! I still think I have to deal with that. And to top it off I realised my daughter has had that thrown at her. Having a brain injury and chronic pain limits her and she has mentioned feeling guilty, for not being more than she can. Ugh

    • Dear Bunkababy, I am so sorry…

    • So much bad teaching out there. I haven’t read it either. But it doesn’t sound so good.
      Think about your baptism. The water washing you clean. This is what it points to…Think of your guilt as the mud going down the drain. This is all of your shame and sin and guilt, Christ has washed it away. He has made you perfectly clean. Nothing can change that. All the shame from actual sins, and the shame from the sins of others that stick on you – Christ has washed it away.
      I pray that you might know that healing, and be free.
      There is so much guilt and shame in neuthetic counseling today, and very little gospel. Please remember the gospel. The baptism of regeneration and the washing away of sins.

    • anonymous

      I’m sorry to hear about that, too, Bunka Bay. Australian, yes? 🙂

      I wonder if the so-called ‘strong’ have no idea what it’s like to be traumatized and truly do believe it to be a moral failing on the behalf of the victim that she isn’t snapping back and getting over it and all. It’s wrong. Perhaps the ‘strong’ have the misbelief that it could never be done to them, they’d never allow themselves to be broken like that, they’d pull out of it, but that’s ignorance on their part.

      Anyone can be broken by abuse and trauma. It is a matter of when, not if. We are all susceptible to being broken. And until a person experiences it firsthand, has their soul, mind, body, and psyche trashed, they don’t know the devastation and the injuries that come with it. Nobody tells a person who is paralyzed to ‘get up, and quit being such a crybaby, your lack of faith is why you aren’t walking, and you chose to not walk.’ But invisibly shredded psyches, marred and traumatized brains don’t present in the same undeniable way that paralysis does.

      My prayers are with you Bunka Bay. Love reading your comments and when you share things about your life.

      • Bunkababy

        I’m Canadian. Thanks for all the nice comments. I actually think I opposed her on the issue. “Yeah, I think if you had happen, what happened to me you might rethink that give out of your broken stuff.” Said nicely of course. But she stuck to her guns. I think I wrote her off after that , lol.

        I speak a lot about my past experiences, and have had significant healing from God.
        Usually when I respond to Sam the Lord has used his words to tap on some buried memory or feeling I need to address. This being one. I actually thought I’d gotten over this. Clearly not. Forgiveness for stupidity might be in order…..see, not over it yet…lol I’m gonna have to stew on this awhile.

        It’s all good. I’m in a better spot.

  8. Pingback: Bad Listeners - The Aquila Report

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