Leaders Listen

by Shane Scott

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

Leadership in the kingdoms of the word is much different than in the Kingdom of God. Worldly leadership focuses on obtaining and maintaining power. Godly leadership focuses on giving, on serving the needs of others. Jesus is the ultimate model of this servant-leadership, which we seek to emulate as leaders in the local church and in the home. But in order to serve those we lead, we must first know what they need, and in order to do that, we must listen.

The need to listen before speaking is not unique to leaders. The Bible is filled with admonitions to all of us that warn against speaking more than hearing.

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking,
but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Proverbs 10:19).

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2).

A closed mind and an open mouth is a disastrous combination for anyone, but especially when it comes to reacting to others before we listen to them.

“If one gives an answer before he hears,
it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13).

In addition to these basic admonitions about listening to each other, the Bible also calls upon us to empathize with each other, to feel what our brother and sister feel as well hearing what they say. “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). In order to be of one mind we need a deep sense of understanding, compassion, and humility. It is not enough to intellectually grasp what others say. We must truly see the world through their eyes. Only then can we serve and lead.

Acts 6 records an excellent example of servant leadership. “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1). Jewish Christians who spoke Greek (Hellenists) were not being taken care of like those who spoke the traditional dialect.

You can see how this problem could have easily mushroomed into a disastrous division. The apostles knew that they could not carry out their mission and handle the burden benevolent ministry as well, but it is clear that they listened to those who had the complaint. Not only did they respond to it, they made sure that those who felt left out were included in the solution: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” (Acts 6:2b-3).

The apostles listened to the church, and by doing so, they understood what they needed to do to best serve the church, and as a result, they found a mutually beneficial solution:

And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them (Acts 6:5-6).

There’s an important lesson here. Churches are going to have problems, just like marriages or any other interpersonal relationship. But if we approach these problems as servant leaders, we can transform those problems into opportunities to strengthen the relationship, so long as we seek to understand the needs of those we lead. It is no coincidence that the next statement in Acts 6 is a description of even greater growth: “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).

I am blessed to worship at a congregation with spiritual shepherds who truly take the time to listen to those they lead. We have regular congregational meetings in which they discuss our work together and take questions from the flock they serve. And when they make major decisions, they solicit feedback from the church. All of this takes time and patience. But our elders understand that as painstaking as this process may be, it takes less time to genuinely listen than it does to try put the pieces of a congregation that fragmented because of inconsideration back together.

And of course, this same principle applies to other leadership relationships. Husbands, for example, are explicitly called upon to “live with [their] wives in an understanding way” (1 Peter 3:7). I know that the worst mistakes I made in my marriage were failing to truly listen to and understand what my wife needed. And no matter how sincerely a husband may want to love his wife, if he does not listen to her, he will inevitably substitute what he thinks she needs for what she actually needs, and that sows the seeds of frustration and resentment.

This became especially clear to me one afternoon when Kristi was off work and at the house while I cleaned my CPAP machine. It has rubber tubing that needs to be cleaned regularly, and the first day I got it (years before Kristi and I married), the nurse said the best way to clean it was to fill the kitchen sink with soapy water, immerse the tubing, rinse it, then sling it around to get the water out. So that’s what I did for years…until the day Kristi was off work. She walked into the kitchen as I was in mid-sling, and when she saw me, she screamed “What are you doing?!?!?!?!”

I said, “I’m cleaning my sleep equipment.”

She said, “You are slinging water everywhere!”

I said, “So what, it’s just water.”

She said, “It leaves spots!”

I said, “What are you talking about? It’s just water!”

She said, “It leaves little white spots everywhere.”

I said, “That’s crazy! I did this in my place for years and never saw any spots.”

She said, “That’s because you lived in a crummy apartment!”

(Now it was getting good, and we were bobbing and weaving like boxers!)

And then she said, “Besides, that’s Venetian plaster by the sink, and if it gets wet it’ll be ruined!”

I said, “Why would you put something that can be ruined by water by the kitchen sink!”

So that was our first pitched battle. Now here’s the thing. The real issue that day was that Kristi had been off of work and cleaned house. If you knew my wife, she was a meticulous housekeeper. My slinging that hose around spewing water everywhere was to her mind incredibly inconsiderate, as if all of her hard work that morning didn’t mean anything to me.

I learned an important lesson that day. I needed to listen, to understand, to empathize, much better if I was going to be the leader God intended. But by showing my wife that I truly wanted to get where she was coming from, and to meet her needs (and protect her Venetian plaster!), I was doing more than keeping the kitchen dry. I was showing my wife that I truly had her best interests at heart, and that in turn made her ready to embrace my leadership (just as Paul described in Ephesians 5:22-28).

That is the irony of worldly leadership. Leaders who ignore or brush aside the concerns of those they lead will eventually not have anyone to lead. But godly leaders, those who listen because they seek to serve rather than be served, will enjoy flourishing relationships built on mutual understanding and benefit. So elders – fathers – husbands, talk less and listen more.

“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes,
but a wise man listens to advice” (Proverbs 12:15).