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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

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Quick to Listen

August 13, 2011

I realize that everyone in my profession may not share this experience, but as a pastor I find myself deeply entrenched on a regular basis in listening to others. At times to rousing, triumphant tales of God's power and might in the lives of church and community members, but more often to sorrows, concerns, fears, insecurities and doubts in what can be a cruel and unforgiving world. At times this listening is planned (i.e., someone makes an appointment to meet in my office or to chat over coffee in a local shop), but not always by any means, and the venues change as much as the topics.

There is the ministry-specific meeting at church where you kindly listen to your congregants concerns, quietly exegeting their body language, tone, and other behaviors in light of what you know about their life. There are the late-night conversations and visits to address illness or death, wayward teenager conflicts, or perhaps marital problems. There is the woman in line at the post office who in seeing the bible or theology text that you are reading decides to share with you all of her conscientious objections to organized religion. There are pre-marital counseling sessions and meetings about the color of the new sanctuary's carpet, not to mention sometimes seemingly random dialogue at the gym, the high school football game, while out for a romantic meal with your spouse, via Facebook or e-mail, and the list goes on.

You learn to take the good with the not so good, and although both harm and foul can be found every so often in what your ears are exposed to, more often than not you simply choose to respond judiciously in love, with warmth and genuine concern. You know that everyone needs someone to talk to. Everyone likes to feel that they have been heard and are valued.

Although a proud introvert, oddly perhaps I enjoy listening very much--to various genres of music, to rainfall on an overcast morning, to the crisp crack of football helmets into unsuspecting shoulder pads during the opening kickoff, and, yes, even to people. But, it doesn't come without sacrifice. It in itself is a job. A difficult job at that.

I am passionate about building a confessional bridge between the word and the world, as I traverse the rugged terrain of the pastoral office. However, I rarely have cookie-cutter solutions to all of the problems that people share with me. I say that not to my shame or theirs, rather as a matter of fact in the pool of unpredictability that is life.

Of course, I am faithful in redirecting people to their Creator, "who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us."[1] I am faithful in rearticulating to them the importance of keeping first things first, which means concentrating more fully on their identity in Christ. I share with them and remind myself of what my mentor, the Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes, said in his 2010 baccalaureate sermon for our graduation exercises at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary:

...if in fact you are engaged in the struggle that God has called you to be engaged in, then the struggle is over before it begins. The struggle is God's struggle. In other words, you are not called to prevail in your conflicts. That's God's job. Your calling is to witness, to watch exactly how God does that.

Homes are upside down, marriages are falling apart left and right (if they ever truly were "together" in the first place), and addictive living is all the rage. Therefore, co-laboring with others to find Jesus in the midst of their tribulation, blessing in the middle of pain, is a major component of my job description. But, effectively guiding others onto God's counter-cultural, redemptive access road is only possible if you have shown yourself to be a good listener. I don't know if I am a good listener or not, but Lord knows that I try. It is important to me that people both inside and outside of the church see me as a resource in that regard. Someone who they can talk to, who will listen more than he speaks.

James tells us, "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires."[2] He goes on to say, "If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless."[3] I have found that simply being quiet, just letting people purge whatever is on their heart is quite helpful. Alongside asking questions that lets them know that you care, this provides them with some relief--if only for  the moment--that what was weighing them down no longer has power over them. Not only do they have a friend in Jesus, but also a confidant and supporter in you or me.

Open ears lead others to open their hearts, minds, and doors to God. Therefore, even though it is no cake walk, requiring much patience, practice and prayer to keep things in proper perspective, I am purposing myself to be a faithful listener of others, knowing that someone to talk to may be just what the Doctor ordered to help usher in their recovery.


[1] Ephesians 3:20.
[2] James 1:19-20.
[3] James 1:26.


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