In my last post, I suggested that it takes spaciousness or roominess for a community of faith to discern the moving of the Spirit and gave a few examples of how that space might be collapsed. A few of you pushed me to give concrete examples of how that space might be maintained. So, here’s a few.
Listening. I know very few congregations that have cultivated regular habits of listening. Congregations do a lot of talking, but not much listening. But listening is the most powerful way to create a sense of spaciousness. It is by definition hospitable, that is, as long as it is not connected to some ulterior motive. Listening both honors the other and slows us down to the point that we can pay attention to other things going on around us, not just those things that are of strategic interest to us. All of this creates room for the Spirit to be discerned.
I encourage leaders to listen in three ways. First, they should always have a question that they are pursuing as part of their pastoral care. I like appreciative inquiry questions, which attend to the life-giving aspects of congregational life. They always begin with “tell me about a time when…” This elicits stories, which are the chief building blocks of congregational identity. So, leaders might spend a few months pursuing a question like, “tell me about a time when you knew that this congregation was in step with God’s mission? What was going on? What was your part in this?” Leaders should share the responses with each other asking three questions: what are we learning? what surprised us? what might God be calling to to do or become?
Second, the congregation should have regular gatherings committed to listening to one another. Not congregational meeting where the leaders tell the congregation what is going on and ask for input (how are those meetings working for you?). I think these work best if there is a focus to the listening, not just an open mic where people can spew. And I think this is done best when people share in groups and then to the larger group. But the point here is that these kinds of gatherings should be regular. This should be a congregational habit.
Third, people should listen to one another gathered around Scripture. They should listen to the reading of Scripture and then share together what they heard. Again, this sharing should move from pairs or small groups and then to the larger group. And what should be shared is what one’s partner shared, which requires listening.
Regular. Habits. of Listening.
But let’s add a few more observations. Leaders should identify and protect responsible voices of dissent. Dissent keeps space open and keeps the congregation from confusing the majority position too easily with God’s will (a collapse of the space between God and us). Minority voices should be heard and considered, especially from those who can hold their positions without assigning bad motives to others or who can truly listen to the other side. It takes safe “space” for that to happen.
One more. I think leaders should always be attentive to surprises. The most practical change leadership can make is to learn to ask different evaluative questions. The default question of most leader groups is, “did that work?” This is not necessarily a bad question, but if its the only or primary question, then it creates a culture of efficiency that limits attentiveness to the work of the Spirit. Instead, leaders should first ask, “what are we learning?” And close upon that question should be, “what surprised us?” A surprise interrupts our sense of how things should be. It causes us to question our assumptions about how things work and causes us to make sense of things in new ways. I say this often, but if the strategic is your primary way of thinking of leadership, then the last thing you want is a surprise. But if your concern in leadership is the pursuit of a holy God, whose ways are not your ways, then a surprise might just be the prompting of the Holy Spirit.