Listening Tour

Listening A headline in this morning's Wall Street Journal read, "Obama Embarks on Listening Tour: Ohio Trip to Focus on Jobs, not Health Care." The term "listening tour," was put forth by an Obama campaign spokesperson, and jumped off the page at me.

What an interesting phrase… listening tour. It's not that I have anything against listening. In fact, it's a good idea for church leaders to do some version of a listening tour from time to time. However, a listening tour cannot be mere patronage. If a leader is in fact going to do as he or she wants to do regardless of the "listening" they do, it is insulting to people and a waste of time to do so. It may score political points, but the only thing people hate more than being ignored is being ignored to their face…that is, patronized. My hope is that our President will in fact listen, and consider making some prudent adjustments to his current course.

One thing I was reminded of by Tuesday's election in Massachussetts is that when people really feel passionately about things, they often get louder and louder until they believe you've really heard them. No leader can be expected to effectively lead strictly by polls or public opinion. Such would be immensely slow, and jerk the country/organization/church to and fro with little progress. It would also surrender overall leadership to either the loudest group or the 50.1% majority every time, neglecting the 49.9%. Furthermore, I have to believe that some people are more qualified to make certain decisions than I am. So, I'm happy to let them make them without consulting me, as long as they take the responsibility seriously.

People choose leaders based on their faith in them, and should free them to do so inasmuch as they can in good conscience. However, all leaders need to keep listening, and should be listening constantly, not trying to start in the midst of crisis. I might also add that "listening tours" are difficult for leaders who are either highly arrogant, or highly fragile. Neither type of leader can truly listen. Arrogant leaders believe they always know best and are unlikely to change anything based on what anyone says. Fragile/Anxious leaders will react to criticism by overreacting and changing things to fit the preferences of the most anxious members. This will wreck a church.

Know thyself, and strive to be a well-differentiated leader. Self-differentiation is the ability to be in charge of self, even when others in the emotional field are actually trying to make a person be different from how the person really is. Such a leader remains connected to others without becoming enmeshed with or defined by them. Such healthy leaders can really listen because they don't feel threatened by others. They will not be bullied or scared into altering course because of others' anxiety. They seek input not out of personal insecurity, but because they are comfortable themselves and know what they believe. They do not react to the anxiety of those around them. Instead, they maintain a non-anxious presence. This is what healthy leadership is about. It's only kind of leader who can listen and make appropriate adjustments without surrendering leadership of government, church, etc., to the anxiety of others.

I choose to believe that President Obama's effort to listen to the people is sincere. I wish him well. On this tour, we will learn a great deal more about his leadership.

I've got a lot of growing to do as a listener, but here are some ways I've found to keep the listening tour ongoing.

  • John Maxwell once said, "Good leaders are rarely surprised." In context, he meant that leaders should be able to see things coming. Thus, if church leadership's batting average on predicting congregational responses to change is below about .800, there's a problem. You need a listening tour…or at least to get out among the people more. If you continue to get hit by trains you didn't see coming…time to do some listening.
  • Whenever I'm with members of the church in an appropriate context, I make it a habit to "talk church" with them for a while, and get their opinion on things.
  • Look for five or six people in the church whose opinion you value in a special way and stay in touch with them regularly.
  • Team-based ministry (as opposed to single leader with no team) will allow you to have voices from within the church at the table when strategy and vision are crafted. Just make sure that you have a quality leader leading the team.
  • Soliciting the input of the church on what they might find helpful or meaningful periodically is really important. It doesn't have to be a big ordeal. It can be quite simple, and it will bless your ministry. In the process of crafting the 6:33 shift at NCCC, we asked people to write down on cards what topics would be helpful to them in growing in the "Kingdom First" life. It was a good test for us to see if we were in touch with people–to what extent could we predict what would be on those cards? Our decision to adjust the time slot from 7pm to 6:33pm was based in part on substantial feedback we'd received from people who did and didn't attend our mid-week assemblies. So far, it's been a blessing.
  • If you ask people for feedback on a particular initiative…tell them up front what you're going to do with the information and do it. If you form a team to look at a particular area of ministry, let them know if it's strictly an input team, a voting team, decision-making team, etc. And then, really listen.
  • Town-hall meetings are not a good way to have civil dialogue about ministry initiatives…but they can be decent avenues for communicating information. Town-hall meetings are usually scheduled when something big has happened or is about to happen. Thus, anxiety is high. If you must go town-hall style, have people write down their questions, and have a moderator to keep a Jerry Springer incident from happening. I would also suggest spending a good piece of time before opening the floor asking and answering some of the questions you know people want to know the answer to. This keeps the lady from standing and yelling, as one lady did to me once," "WHY DO YOU WANT TO RUIN OUR RELATIONSHIPS?" It would have been better for us to simply ask and answer the question, "Some people will worry that as the church gets bigger it may become more difficult to build substantive relationships. How would you respond?" The question will get answered properly, the church will honor God in it's discourse, and the whole gathering isn't taken hostage by one anxious person. Some time, I'll have to blog about some of the greatest church town-hall meeting incidents I've seen over the years 😉 Awesome stories. I bet you all have some good ones, too 😉

Question: What do you do to keep communication lines open between you and those you serve? What do you wish your leaders would do more often?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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One thought on “Listening Tour

  1. Great observations, Tim, about political listening tours — and church ones. I know that, as a person who has sat in a pew as a “lay” person, nothing frustrates me more than to hear that the elders or minister wants to hear my opinion when I know that the decision already has been made. Even this kind of listening can be valuable because it shows respect for the opinions of those impacted by decisions as long as the church understands that this is the point of the exercise — to give voice to those opinions that might not otherwise be heard. But it’s all about the expectations created, and whether the decision already has been made or not. Clarity and honesty about this before the “listening tour” makes all the difference.