Listening, then responding

Editor’s note: This column shows the practical use of listening advice Tom Ehrich has explored in previous columns. For further background, see the Church Wellness Report columns in the September 29 and November 10, 2008, issues.

Two large congregations recently did the Listening Church exercise that we recommend.

During each service on a certain Sunday, Church Wellness Project team members passed out 3 x 5 cards and asked each worshiper to name the one question he or she would ask of God. There was minimal introduction, to avoid tilting the answer; and minimal time allowed, to avoid over-thinking.

One congregation’s team reported that members at all five services were enthusiastic about being asked. Another said worshipers at the non-traditional service were enthusiastic, whereas others were polite.

What comes next is key:

First, each team should report back to the congregation on the questions they asked. It’s important for members to see the range of interests and yearnings around them. Appreciating diversity is critical for any faith community.

Second, worship leaders need to acknowledge that they, too, have listened. One pastor in Kentucky was so moved that she began preaching on questions asked. It might take months for program planners and worship leaders to integrate the questions members are asking and to use them in planning. But it’s important right away that constituents believe their questions are being heard and valued.

The longer-term outcome will vary. If there is a wide gap between members’ questions and what they hear in preaching, worship, and program, narrowing the gap could take a while. If members are suffering from the recession, for example, but leaders have decided to keep any mention of recession out of worship, then there’s a large hill of perception and relevance to climb.

But even in that extreme instance, transparent and open discussions about members’ questions and whether preaching, worship, and education should address those questions will contribute to a healthy system.


Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is publisher of On a Journey, and founder of the Church Wellness Project.