Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

It’s Hard to Listen While You Preach

Written by: on April 18, 2023

Every sailor knows that the sea, Is a friend made enemy, And every shipwrecked soul knows what it is, To live without intimacy, I thought I heard the captain’s voice, But it’s hard to listen while you preach, Like every broken wave on the shore, This is as far as I could reach…

Every Breaking Wave by U2


Julian Treasure, author of “How To Be Heard” had me from the opening paragraph when he told of his early years as a novice musician. “Becoming a musician was the natural next step, and my parents were tolerant enough to buy my first drum kit and bear the pounding from my bedroom as I tried to emulate heroes like John Bonham and Bill Bruford” (Treasure, 7). Bruford was from the band Yes and Bonham was the iconic drummer from Led Zeppelin.

I too had parents that bought my first drum set (a pearl white Ludwig Rocker II), and I too jammed in my bedroom to the rhythms of my heroes. In my particular case it was to Louie Weaver from Petra and Larry Mullen, Jr from the band from the Northside of Dublin, U2.

And, like Treasure, I too, “after years of drumming in bands…have tinnitus, a ringing sound in the ears that becomes quite evident if I sit in very quiet places” (Treasure, 22). This only contributes to the old (and sometimes true) adage that drummers are both deaf AND dumb. Another adage is that “there are musicians and then there are drummers.”

I represent, I mean, resent those remarks. 🙂

Having played drums since I was about 12 years old, like many musicians, I have navigated through the four levels of learning that Treasure highlights on page 209. This model of learning has come up a number of times in our graduate degree discussions, and I find it immensely informative and illuminating.

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: we don’t know what we don’t know.
  2. Conscious Incompetence: we do know what we don’t know.
  3. Conscious Competence: we can do it, but only with real effort.
  4. Unconscious Competence: we can do it, almost instinctively.

I’ve had a number of opportunities to “jump on the drum kit” and play with a band or worship team, because the scheduled drummer didn’t show. I am able to do that with little effort nor preparation. I can function with an “unconscious competence” especially with the current overabundance of formulaic worship songs that pretty much all sound the same (let’s be honest!). A few years after I starting playing drums, I preached my very first Bible message. I was 16 years old, and it was for my youth group. I remember it like it was yesterday. I have been consistently, week in/week out, preaching the Bible now for 34 years. Even while on family vacation, because early on we were so broke, I would hustle up a preaching “gig” in order help pay for vacation expenses. I’ve done a lot of preaching over the years. Bono of U2, says in the song “Every Breaking Wave” that it is “hard to listen while you preach.” Treasure echoes this in saying “it’s hard to be a great, powerful speaker if you don’t listen, or to be a great listener if you can’t articulate your own thoughts” (Treasure, 10).

Transparently, many preachers like myself have been conditioned to speak well but not listen well. This is evidenced in the fact that the last few chapters in “How to be Heard” about speaking and “stagecraft” were old hat to me. I can do most of his recommendations in my sleep. It’s like the drummer that keeps pounding on the drumheads and cymbals with a relentless beat even when the song doesn’t call for it. We can, almost unconsciously, fall prey to what Treasure calls “The Four Leeches:” looking good, being right, pleasing people, and fixing (Treasure, 51). Call it an occupational hazard, call it whatever you want…sadly, preachers (like myself) feel like they are getting paid to have all the answers. Reminds me of the joke: “Pastors are paid to be good. Everyone else is good for nothing.”  Come on, that’s funny!

So, through this reading, but more importantly, through this graduate degree, with it’s immensely high levels of “unconscious incompetence, as well as just the stage of life I am currently in, I am trying (emphasis upon trying) to be more quiet, and listen better. Just last Sunday, after multiple services, a small group of new believers approached and asked a question about something I said in my sermon. It had to do with a reference I made to the Apostle Paul and the “third heaven.” I had made a quick reference and gave very little context. I could see how they, as new believers, would be stumped by it. Admittedly, even seasoned believers are stumped by this one. After hearing their question, I simply said this:  “I don’t know. I don’t know what the “third heaven” is. I probably shouldn’t even have mentioned it. It wasn’t even in my notes.” We chatted more, I tried to give a rambled explanation of what Paul might have been referring to, but in the end I just let them know that “I don’t know.” Then I asked them what they thought Paul might have meant, and those new believers gave it a good run.

Two days later, I got a text from the person that led most of those folks to the Lord, and she said that they were blown away by my willingness to say “I don’t know.”

I don’t know what I don’t know. Sometimes it’s OK to be unconsciously incompetent, as a drummer, as a preacher, as a human.

About the Author


John Fehlen

John Fehlen is currently the Lead Pastor of West Salem Foursquare Church. Prior to that he served at churches in Washington and California. A graduate of Life Pacific University in San Dimas, CA in Pastoral Ministry, and Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, CA with a Masters in Leadership and Spirituality. He and his wife Denise have four grown children and four grandchildren. John is the author of “Intentional Impressions," a book for fathers and their sons, "Don't Give Up: Encouragement for Weary Souls in Challenging Times," a book for pastoral leaders, and "The Way I See You," a children's book. You can connect with John on Instagram (@johnfehlen) as well as on his blog (johnfehlen.com).

14 responses to “It’s Hard to Listen While You Preach”

  1. mm Jonita Fair-Payton says:

    John, I love that you admitted that you did not have the answer. So often people in leadership roles have an issue admitting that they do not have all the answers.
    This…such a powerful ending, “I don’t know what I don’t know. Sometimes it’s OK to be unconsciously incompetent, as a drummer, as a preacher, as a human.” It is okay to be human, to make mistakes, to not have all the answers.

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      The question I keep wrestling with, and it nearly became the focus of my NPO, is how much is too much when sharing weakness and “I don’t know.” ????

      I think there is a fine line, but I don’t quite know where it is yet. Any thoughts about how much is too much?

      • mm Jonita Fair-Payton says:

        I think a good place to start is asking the questions, ” Is what I’m sharing Spirit led of personally motivated?” and ” Will this be helpful to someone’s healing?”

  2. mm Russell Chun says:

    I wish I was musical. I like music, but I have been told by my pastor that I sing loudly but usually off key.

    I guess I sing what’s in my head and what doesn’t irritate my voice.

    I agree with Jonita, admitting you don’t know. Humble and yet such a great example of good leadership. Oddly, it puts you/us on the level of our listener. VERY effective.

    I have been listening to Treasure on his video’s YouTube and his website. They are fun, easy to listen to and also provide a fair amount of “How to.” I was taken by his story about how the project manager for the airport construction made the comment, “We are spending 4 million dollars on construction and have not thought once about how it sounds.”

    Have you been in those railway stations or airports that have pianos waiting for the odd passerby to sit down and play?

    I love those streets where there is a person playing some instrument with his can opened up. Once I was at the Louvre and a classical group was playing outside. A young Japanese woman walked up, picked up a violin that wasn’t being used and started the play. After a nod to the band, everyone got into the piece she was playing. I loved it. So did the audience.

    Treasure does a great job with his take on sound. I even like his vocal exercise (for warmups I suppose).
    Vocal warmup exercises – https://howtobeheardbook.com/home/resources/

    Great post…Shalom…Russ

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      The pianos in railways, street corners, etc brought to mind how much I love street performers, kids playing their instruments, etc at Saturday Markets. It’s raw, it’s real. We can relate because we remember what it was like to be a novice. Perhaps we need to recall that feeling more often, and return back to a novice posture.

  3. mm Pam Lau says:

    Great job, John, of being your most authentic self with your congregation by saying, “I don’t know.” Isn’t it interesting to ponder the fact that a year ago, none of us had read the books we are reading this semester:

    1.Leading Out of Who you Are: Undefended Leadership.
    2. Why We are Wrong about Nearly Everything.
    3. On Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.

    How would you say reading these books has impacted the way you prepare for a sermon? Does your routine look any different? Or your thought processes?

    Thanks for your post.

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      You know Pam, there is a theme emerging in these books and I can definitely feel their impact upon me. However, I think I found myself teaching and leading in this fashion prior to reading these, and yet have found such support and validation from them. My teaching and preaching has been shaped more by a rising generation of young people that don’t want the formulatic 3-points and an illustration. They want real. So, I’ve had to morph my preparation and writing of sermons to feel more authentic and less polished slick. I wonder if this is historically cyclical? Have we been here before generationally?

  4. Cathy Glei says:

    Thank you for sharing your connections with drumming. There is so much value in saying “I don’t know”. Here is a Forbes article about “The Power of Saying No”.

    Thank you for your authenticity!

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      Thanks for the link. I like stuff by Kotter.

      I think like in general has a way of forcing us to get real about our weaknesses and failures. OR…we just get bitter, hard hearted and recluse. I prefer the former, not the latter!

  5. Kally Elliott says:

    I don’t know.

    I find myself saying this phrase in relation to faith/God more and more. It’s not that I don’t believe or have faith. I think I do. If you know everything about faith, it’s not faith, it’s certainty. And as one of my friends said, “I think you might get yourself in a bit of trouble if you are certain about the God of the universe.”

    I can see why those folks appreciated your authenticity when you said, “I don’t know.”

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      I putting the “I don’t know” to the test right now, as I lead 40 people through Egypt, Jordan and Israel. I’m seen as the Bible answer man, and honestly, there’s much I simply don’t know – especially regarding the land, culture, language and customs. Thank God for guides! But still…there’s an expectation, and it’s so freeing to simply say, “I don’t know. That’s a good question, but I don’t know.”

      Then I tell them to Google it. Ha!

  6. mm Tim Clark says:

    Maybe we need to learn to embrace intentional conscious listening more when we are out of the pulpit because we talk so much as an occupational hazard.

    And then maybe THAT will lead to us learning how to listen better while we’re preaching. Bono’s right it’s hard…but maybe not impossible?

  7. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    I DON’T KNOW are the 3 words you will never hear in healthcare….it drives me crazy. Like pastors, I think healthcare workers like Nurses and Doctors are expected to know everything, probably because like pastors, we are placing our trust of our bodies in their care and our souls in the pastors care! I love that this came up for you even after all these years. Well done:) you listened to your own inner teacher! Why do you think saying I don’t know is so hard?

  8. Adam Harris says:

    Hey I played the drums growing up as well! Weirdly it was very therapeutic.

    “I don’t know!” is a great response, especially in a post modern world that is very cautious of certainty and can “fact check” anything in 3.5 seconds or at least find information to counter what was said, which may or may not always be accurate. From the responses, it seems that a lot of us are saying that these days. I think the good part about it, at least in faith circles, is less emphasis on knowledge and a greater emphasis on being and loving. I was speaking with an agnostic friend one day and I told him that we could argue theories all day long and that I can’t “prove” some things objectively, but I can experience and show how my marriage, parenting, and life is enhanced when Christ’s love and wisdom is present. Appreciate the post man!

Leave a Reply