Most of us preachers, me included, enjoy talking. If we don’t enjoy talking, we ought to quit. Seriously, I’ve heard from one layman that preachers enjoy talking so much that sometimes they aren’t good listeners. I don’t know if this is statistically true, but some preachers are much more into talking rather than listening. Their love of gab is obvious because after a while, when we go back to a previous discussions, they do not recall anything that was said by others. It was mostly because he was too busy talking the entire time while dominating a discussion. I’ve pastored in the past and have done so on and off on consulting basis with this or that organization. I’ve learned some hard lessons myself, making many mistakes along the way. This is what I learn: preachers need to turn off the homiletic mode when they come down from the pulpit.
Most of us in the academics are very much into facts and logic. Many are borderline obsessive compulsive. Without our OCD, a sickness many of us love, we couldn’t survive our PhD programs. One layman who has become a really good friend told me, “Dr. Sam, I don’t know how you stand the rubbish discussion in Bible studies when you’re an expert in the Bible.” While I can’t consider myself an expert, I’m probably a few steps ahead of my friend. This dear friend is very intellectual and finds most studies hard to swallow. What is my solution?
Whenever I sit in small groups, I tend to be the quiet one. I make a lot of observation about the discussions and very frequently small group discussion can go very much off topic. Sometimes, the interpretation is far off. The worst ones however are the ones that are true in a cliché sort of way but depart very far from the biblical text. Many of the biblical texts they study, I’ve already written articles or books on them. It takes an extraordinary amount of patience at first for me. Then, slowly over time, I see these as pastoral moments of observing how people feel, think and live. Although in my ideal world, the Bible study would be more like the Society of Biblical Literature discussion, but the church is not the SBL. Therefore, instead of jumping in and saying what I really think, I suggest the following steps.
First, you can do nothing but listen. Sometimes by listening, we find out how exactly people think. We can file that information away. The only time I jump in is when blatant heresy that goes either against the denominational teaching of that church or against the wider scope of orthodoxy (e.g. trinity). Other than that, I can let it slide quite a lot. Patience is a virtue developed over time when we have a pastoral heart. We have to understand that people gather on Sunday for 45 minutes or so to listen to our preaching. We already have a captive audience. Even if they don’t want to be there, at least they aren’t at home watching NFL or whatever program that happens to be on for Sunday morning. They’re there to listen. Use that time to educate. The small group or one-on-one pastoral time is not necessarily the best place to educate. Sometimes, lay people just want to air their opinion. The best way to educate them on how to do better Bible reading is to demonstrate by preaching.
Second, you can say something in a roundabout way. Sometimes when the group loses focus, I would take one small point they make that will link to the insight within the text. I think this is a very effective and non-offensive way to bring in your educational moment without losing the pastoral moment. People generally appreciate it unless they’re stuck in a stubborn rut. Usually when people are stuck in that rut, their feelings are attached to the convictions they’ve just shared. Feelings are tender parts of the human psyche. This is why I always think whether feelings are involved before I put my two cents in. Most of the time, because I’m the expert, people don’t really argue, but it doesn’t mean that feelings are not hurt. Some people simply do not enjoy being dressed down in public. In such a case, I just let stuff go.
I hope the above will allow ministers to also learn about being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. Those are qualities for everyone, even ministers.