Unsolicited Advice for Pastors: How to Shut Up

st_seraphim_of_sarovFirst of all, my apologies to anyone scandalized by my punchy, click-baity title. Here’s a more graceful way of saying it, from St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Silence is the cross on which we must crucify our egos.”

Every now and then, when I talk to pastors of various faiths, I get questions about counseling and psychology. Certain themes come up more frequently, such as shame, addictions, grief, or how psychology frames LGBTQ+ issues. These questions often come up from interactions between pastors and parishioners. When parishioners approach pastors with tough questions or situations that seem hopeless or impossible, I think many pastors immediately feel the need to say the right thing. In their minds, they may be asking questions like:

“What do the Scriptures say about this?”

“How do I put this in the most sensitive way, given this person’s background, temperament, etc.?”

“Am I representing my faith with integrity?”

“How will this come across?”

“WHAT SHOULD I SAY?”

I have observed and participated in enough of these conversations, as a lay person and even briefly as an ordained minister, to offer one simple piece of advice: Many, many pastors will instantly improve these interactions substantially by focusing most of their energy on shutting up.

Perhaps that sounds unnecessarily harsh, but that is how I have to say it to myself, while counseling, to create the best atmosphere for true healing.

Shutting up is actually a skill. It’s something that has to be learned and practiced over long periods of time to get right. It’s not something that comes naturally to people, especially smart and respected people (like those who go into ministry).

In my generosity, here are some of the secrets of counseling that I paid six figures for, and worked five years in doctoral school for. Ready? Get a piece of paper and write these down:

  1. Let them finish.
  2. Don’t interrupt.
  3. Listen to what they are saying, rather than trying to formulate a response while they’re saying it.
  4. Let your face communicate genuine interest rather than eagerness to respond. Practice in front of a mirror if you have to.
  5. Seriously, let them finish.

This probably seems so painfully trite and obvious to you, dear reader, that it may surprise you to know that so many pastors get this simple thing wrong, that I think it’s probably one of the biggest obstacles to true healing that pastors face.

(In fairness, this is not a problem that is unique to pastors. It’s a people problem. But there’s a reason why counseling is a professional occupation that people pay for: just talking to people about problems isn’t enough, because most people are bad at listening.)

This ties into my little theory that suffering is caused, among other things, by broken communion. This is why therapy seems to work – it works best when client and counselor build a trusting relationship, regardless of what techniques and theories the counselor is using. When a parishioner comes to you with painful, confusing, difficult questions and situations, they may not be looking for answers at all. They may simply be looking for communion.

A simple way to break communion is to make the interaction about how smart you are and how you know all the answers. These kinds of interactions often leave the parishioner annoyed, confused, brushed off, and invalidated. The parishioner then may choose to look elsewhere for comfort.

The inverse of this is true: we build communion by communicating genuine caring about another person. This could be as simple as letting them talk.

The best pastors I know, across denominations, and those that had the strongest and best influence on me, were those who simply let me finish talking and genuinely showed that they cared about what I was saying. I don’t even remember what they said to me – I just remember that they cared.

So pastors, for the love of God (literally), do yourself a favor and practice silence, as St. Seraphim suggested. Maybe if you first seek to listen and understand, the answer will just come.

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