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Listening when you can’t possibly hear everyone

If you’re like me, you want your voice heard — even at the top levels of leadership. I may not be able to have lunch with the President of the United States, but I do want to feel like he’s listening to me. I don’t believe it’s an unreasonable expectation of followers to want their voices heard by top leaders.

By Sam S. Rainer III

As a leader, you should want to be at the ground level. All leaders should listen carefully, with posture of learning.

But you can’t possibly be with everyone all the time. If you lead a church of more than 75 people (the median church size), then it’s tough to listen to everyone. Even if you tried, decisions that should take weeks could end up taking years. You would become a poor leader because of an inability to steward time.

Some leaders use listening as an excuse not to make a decision. They hide their lack of vision, lack of discernment, or lack of courage to make a decision behind the guise of listening to people. But that’s not most leaders. Most leaders should listen more.

How can you listen when you can’t possibly hear everyone?

Use discernment. Not everyone wants to be heard on every issue. At any given point, only a portion of people will have strong opinions. Some won’t have an opinion. Others may not have the expertise or experience to weigh in on a particular topic. It’s not necessary to get everyone’s take all the time. The best listening leaders know how to steward time.

Be accessible. You can’t be available to everyone, but you can be accessible. Constant availability is a trap. Available church leaders are in one spot, on demand and at the command of others’ schedules. Accessibility means you’re reachable and approachable. Accessible church leaders have an intentional strategy to be among as many people as possible, but on their own schedules.

Take time. If you need an extra month to track the pulse of the congregation, take it. Dragging out a decision for a year is indecisive leadership. Taking an extra week or month may mean the difference of respecting the voice of the congregation or not.

Use others. Use staff, deacons, or other key leaders to be the — constant — eyes and ears. You can’t be everywhere, but you can have ears listening in many places for you.

Don’t hide. Leadership is a gift from followers. Don’t selfishly hoard it by hiding. Hold town hall gatherings. Attend committee meetings. Visit Sunday school classes. Hang out. Simply be among the people and listen. Perhaps people will talk about how you listen.

Follow up. Lastly, one of the best ways to listen is to follow up personally with detractors. Winning them over can go a long way for future work, and it also makes a statement to the congregation that you’re willing to hear all sides.

You can’t possibly listen to everyone. But you can make sure everyone has a voice.

Sam S. Rainer III serves as president of Rainer Research, a firm dedicated to providing answers for better church health. He also is the senior pastor at Stevens Street Baptist Church in Cookeville, TN. He writes, speaks, and consults on church health issues. You can connect with Sam at @samrainer or at his blog.


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