Listening for the soul

Four panelists raise hands to their heads.

The following is an excerpt from a presentation at the annual MCEC Pastors, Chaplains, and Congregational Leaders event that took place on January 20 at Redeemer University College in Hamilton. The theme of the event was “The Skill and the Soul of Listening”. In the above photo, panelists demonstrate “listening from the head” (left to right): Matthew Bailey-Dick, Tanya Dyck Steinmann, Roberson Mbayamvula, and Jim Loepp Thiessen.

I have come to experience listening as a spiritual posture rather than a communication skill or tool in my pastoral toolbox. I could also say that listening is a muscle and like all muscles it needs to be exercised in order to be helpful.

It is a little like yoga. When we first attempt yoga, the poses seem awkward and difficult to maintain but with time and practice, we slowly strengthen the muscles required to maintain the pose - eventually we can actually relax and deepen the stretch.

I really love Jean Stairs’ description of pastoral listening as listening for the soul. In her book Listening for the Soul, Stairs writes:

Listening for the soul is the primary and essential form our pastoral care takes when we are concerned with fostering spiritual depth in the lives of those within our faith community.

 It is about letting our ears be awake and attentive to the voices of yearning, weariness and supplication in the form of words, holy screams for new life, or sighs too deep for words.

To listen is to wait with a posture of alertness, in anticipation of hearing something of the voice and presence of God, who longs for us to be whole and abundantly alive. (pp.15-16)

So what does this posture of alertness look like for me?

Listening for me has a lot to do with self-awareness. Being in touch with my three intelligences:  my head, my heart and my gut.

Yoga pose with hand to forehead.Head

For my first of pose of listening, I place my hand on my head. I become aware of all the thoughts that are racing through my mind and all my cognitive knowledge. While I appreciate all the strategizing, advice giving and problem solving that my mind is eager to do, I invite my mind to pause, to become quiet. I take a deep breath or two and just sit in silence for a moment.


Yoga pose with hand to heart.Then I check in with my heart, which is my second pose of listening. Tuning into my heart helps become aware of my feelings. Sometimes these feelings can interfere with my ability to be a good listener.

When I first started off doing pastoral care, any time a church member would come to me with something, my body would stiffen up. My mind would start screaming, “Say something smart!” And my heart would cry out, “Please like me!” It wasn’t helpful!

I have learned that by paying attention to the anxiety, judgements and attachments I carry, I can gently lay them aside and get myself out of the way, so that I can actually focus on the person sharing with me. This allows me to hear what is said but also to hear what is not said. God then helps me to see the potential for healing and growth.  

Some listening practices that keep me in tune with my heart are:

  • Connecting to God in nature – a simple walk outside clears my head and opens my heart to beauty, joy and creative possibilities.
  • The Daily Examen – a prayerful reflection that comes from Ignatian spirituality that helps me become aware of the moments during the day when I felt connected to Love or to God and the moments that I felt disconnected from Love and from God.  
  • Spiritual Direction – my spiritual director listens to me and accompanies me as I share about my spiritual journey, helping me to notice my personal reactions and God’s presence and activity in the midst of it all.

Yoga pose with hand to stomach.Gut (Belly)

For my third pose of listening, I place my hand on my gut. This is where I listen to what my body is saying. Maybe you think this is strange, but our physical reaction is a powerful way of knowing. It’s our instinctual centre. Our body often knows something before our mind even has the time to process it.

Understanding listening as a posture has shifted my approach to pastoral care:

  • From helping or rescuing to holding and reflecting
  • From judgement and anxiety to compassion and curiosity
  • From coercing to companioning

Listening is a muscle that I exercise using spiritual practices that deepen and stretch my faith. But more than anything, it is a sacred stance that allows us to bears witness to the way that God is at work in our lives and in our world.