The Ministry of Incarnational Listening

Covid 19, Current Events, Inspiration


Pastors are under more pressure than ever. In the wake of the COVID crisis, many churches are struggling. Others have not been allowed to reopen. Offerings are down and stress levels are up. What will church look like moving forward? Will folks feel comfortable enough to come back? Is it time to re-imagine church? So many questions. I don’t have the answers, but there’s one thing I do know for sure: God is challenging us as leaders to new levels of incarnational listening.

What is incarnational listening? Put simply, it’s listening with the heart of Jesus. How did Jesus listen? Intentionally and attentively. He said, “Be careful how you listen” (Luke 8:18). In these days where stress is high, spirits are low, and people are anxious and hurting, we as Christian leaders need to be careful how we listen. How you listen can make or break your credibility as a leader. Oftentimes when stress is high, leaders talk more – hoping that this will solve problems. But what if the key to finding lasting solutions is rooted in how well we listen?

So, what am I suggesting? Let’s get back to the ministry of incarnational listening.

Offer Empathy.

Create the space to listen and feel within your congregation. Empathy is the ability to identify with another person’s feelings. When you offer empathy, people feel like their thoughts and feelings make sense. Many have lost jobs during this pandemic and others have lost loved ones. Offer understanding from the pulpit and on the phone. These are some wonky days. Demonstrate to people that you care and that you are doing everything possible to keep them safe while they’re at church. The Apostle Paul writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). This is the scriptural basis for empathy. Ask the Holy Spirit for the ability to feel with your people.

Manage Your Own Anxiety.

These are anxious days for pastors. Let me validate you. You have a lot to worry about right now. But here’s the thing: if you don’t reign in your anxiety, you won’t be able to listen attentively to others. Don’t beat yourself up over your anxiety. But do practice self-care. Tune in to what’s happening in your soul so that you are more able to lead out of a calm heart. Process your feelings with a spiritual director, mentor, counselor, or coach. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal any anxious thoughts you might have (Psalm 139:23). Then commit to processing those authentically before the Lord.

Create the Space to Listen to the Whisper of God’s Voice.

Now more than ever we need leaders who have their ear tuned to God. This is especially important during this unprecedented season. Spend time in God’s presence through long prayer walks. Spend time on your knees. Tune your ear to the voice of God. Jesus said that His sheep hear His voice (John 10:27-28). With the pressures of ministry life, the constant barrage of news reports, and the steady stream of email and social media messages, it’s easy to lose your focus. Learn to prioritize the soft whisper of God’s voice.

The truth is these are crucial days for the church and for its leaders. God has not abandoned His people. He’s calling us to refocus. Church as we’ve known it may not look the same in the future. However, it’s a wonderful time to get back to the ministry of incarnational listening. Only when people feel heard and valued will they come to accept the gospel we proclaim.

listen well lead better

Steve and Becky Harling are veteran church ministry leaders, authors and speakers. Certified by the John Maxwell Team the Harling’s have served as Pastors both nationally and internationally.


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