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

Learning to Listen

Written by: on September 19, 2018

I’d much rather write about my project than my person, but the truth is they are inextricably linked. My heart for missionary effectiveness and sustainability is driven by personal experiences; consequently, as I do the research and delve deeply into that topic, I am forced to examine myself and consider where my own ministries are lacking.

For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.

Let each one examine his own work.[1]

Let’s just say that I tend to score pretty low on the empathy-meter.

And while I was already aware of this weakness, I recently received an email from one of my superiors pointing out how my lack of empathy is hindering my advancement in the organization. EQ is a pretty big deal these days, and I’m simply not wired for it.

My work with my spiritual director has been helping me to reflect on some of my deeper motivations and honestly face the brokenness behind my lack of empathy. As a seven (shout out to Chris, Dave, Mark, and other Great 8s that are Type 7s) who lives to avoid pain, empathy freaks me out. As if feeling my own pain wasn’t scary enough, now I have to feel other people’s as well?

I have so far to go….There is this gap between the time when I finally acknowledge my sin and the time when I experience full victory over it. There is this process of sanctification that requires/invites me to journey down into the depths of my own darkness so that I might experience the resurrection on the other side. There is this holy longing for Christ to simply set things right and this holy responsibility to take up my cross and follow Him.

For each one will carry his own load.[2]

I can be tempted to over-spiritualize that process, trying to live it out in my thoughts and prayers, but avoiding the real-life, rubber-meets-the-road interactions that God so often to uses to shape me into His image. Like The Music Man, who tried to train up band members using The Think Method, I try to simply rationalize myself into better behaviour, imagining progress in a vacuum. But God has a more practical method. Pick up your instrument and play.

All the “one-anothers” in the Bible point me to my real means for growth. Empathy won’t be developed by simply reading about it (although that helps!), empathy is developed by showing empathy! In Conversational Intelligence, Judith E. Glaser offers many practical ways of engaging others in order to build trust, the critical element in every human relationship. One of the tips that stood out to me was “When we listen deeply, turn off our judgement mechanisms, and allow ourselves to connect with others, we are activating the mirror neuron system, now thought of as ‘having empathy for others.’”[3]

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters! Let every person be quick to listen,

slow to speak, slow to anger.[4]


All of my life, I’ve been more of a quick to speak, slow to listen kind of a gal. So God took me on a field trip to France. (A “field trip” that has lasted 8 years and counting!) In moving me to a new country, God essentially took away my ability to speak. Everyone knows that when you learn a second language, receptive language develops first, and production comes second. This is why a one year old can understand a hundred different phrases (“Where’s your blanky?” “What does the cow say?” “Can you point to the blue car?”) while barely speaking a handful of words (“daddy, “puppy,” and “ball” were my boys’ firsts). Even so, listening in foreign language required so much intense concentration just to grasp meaning, I was forced to “turn off” my “judgement mechanisms” in order to have enough bandwidth to understand what was being said.

Furthermore, in the beginning it took so much energy and thought to formulate and produce a coherent sentence, that I was quite happy to hold my tongue. I only spoke when it was absolutely necessary! Since language learning is a long, slow process, it began to actually modify my behavior. Eventually, even though I was capable of judging and replying, I found myself slower to do so. Learning French helped me to become a better listener.

My friend and fellow church planter Dietrich Schindler often says, “Listening is loving.” In his book The Jesus Model: Planting Churches the Jesus Way, he writes that pastors “forget that listening is often a greater ministry than speaking.”[5] Indeed, I’m learning that empathy can often be communicated through patient and careful listening, rather than through speaking.

Brain science shows that empathy can be taught and developed. Well of course it does, for God designed the human race for perfection, and brings us to that place through His transformative work in us. While language learning gave my listening skills a shove in the right direction, my recent rebuke by a superior clearly reveals that I have a long way to go as far as empathy is concerned.

So I’m grateful for books like Conversational Intelligence, which give me some more practical tools so that I don’t have to rely on the “Think Method” of transformation. I’m grateful for colleagues who help me to see my blind spots. And I’m grateful for the Holy Spirit, who guides and directs, convicts and encourages, who does the real work at recreating me. I’m betting that the most effective missionaries are those who are continually engaging in this transformative process.

“God chose me because I was weak enough. God does not do his great works by large committees. He trains somebody to be quiet enough, and little enough, and then he uses [them].”-Hudson Taylor, missionary to China, 1894.[6]

[1] NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved. Galatians 6:3-4a.

[2] NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved. Galatians 6:5.

[3] Judith E Glaser, Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, 2016. 65.

[4] NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved. James 1:19

[5] Dietrich Schindler, The Jesus Model: Planting Churches the Jesus Way, 2013. Kindle loc 2491.

[6] Andy McCullough, Global Humility: Attitudes for Mission (UK: Malcolm Down Publishing, 2018).

About the Author

Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

10 responses to “Learning to Listen”

  1. This was a beautifully vulnerable post; merci beaucoup Jennifer.

    I thought your observation on being thrust into a new linguistic environment was God’s way of kindly shaping your ability to listen and putting the brakes on your more natural speaking mode (at least in the beginning years of French ministry). These “deserts” are where we are thrust by the Holy Spirit for that raw, challenging shaping of ministry leadership. Only after the desert can we be more adequate leaders.

    • I agree whole heartedly. I’m learning to trust God in those desert periods, rather than simply looking for the way out. I’m finding that so much beauty, wisdom, and strength come from the downward journey that it’s becoming a trip that is not soscary to take. Hard, for sure. But not scary.

  2. I loved your candor, Jennifer! I was surprised that you stated that you, “tend to score pretty low on the empathy-meter.” From your posts and interactions, you come across as welcoming and people-focused. I can relate to your statement though. I took an EQ assessment years ago, hoping that my level of empathy would increase. However, it was the lowest out of 20 traits. Lol

    Your post reminds me of Glasser’s statement, “Masters of Conversational Intelligence are able to recognize when they are on the same page with others and when they are not, and they can refocus, reframe and redirect the conversation in ways that open the space for more discovery and dialogue” (Glasser 2014, 92). Your perspective on Conversational Intelligence, reminded me of the various languages that encircle me in NYC. How has empathy enabled you to bridge the gap between customs and cultures? What has been your greatest takeaway from living and ministering in France?

    • Ha! Empathy is at the bottom of my Strengthfinder too!

      I guess cultural adaptation is a sort of form of empathy, and it’s something I work really hard at. Not that I want to BE French that would be impossible. But I want to be relevant in this culture and to a generation that is not my own (I work predominantly with 30 and unders).

      My greatest take-away has been the opportunity to go on that downward jouney of emptying myself, of coming to terms with my own weakness and brokeness, so that I might become a more useful tool in the hand of Good. It has been learning to die to myself and to take up my cross…not that I have already attained all of this, but with Paul, I can say that I AM eagerly striving for these things.

  3. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jenn!

    Wow! I say it again, wow. Thanks so much for writing from the heart.

    I caught myself thinking about your phrase, “…empathy is developed by showing empathy!” Kinda like when we pray for patience, God gives us a lot of opportunities to practice patience.

    I am thankful for your willingness to “Learn to Listen” like your title announces. I think you are doing pretty darn well.

    No critique of your writing, no recommendations for further study, no deep questions in response–just a thank you for your openness. See you soon!

  4. Thanks, Jay. You have beena good model of one who takes the role of a learner. And I am thankful for the many opportunities that God has been giving me to learn empathy as I live in community here with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

  5. I’m with you, I am very slow to listen and much quicker to speak without thinking (drives my wife nuts 🙂 ) Great blog post as always and so glad your little “field trip” worked out. Look forward to hanging out in HK!

  6. Jason Turbeville says:

    This is the best post I have read, period. The insight you give to your calling and your vulnerability really spoke through your words. I, to often, will fail to listen well enough and it is something I have to continually work on improving. Thanks so much for this post.


  7. Dan Kreiss says:

    Excellent and introspective post! Your willingness to apply the book to both your dissertation interest and your own personal strivings is well done. I also sense that you understand the process of transformation that is taking place internally and your openness to it demonstrates your integrity. If only all of us were as open to such growth in our blind spots.

  8. Trisha Welstad says:

    Jenn, I appreciate your willingness to share your own weakness and expect being able to listen well has a major effect on missionary effectiveness. How can we be effective if we don’t actually hear people’s real, felt, and even underlying needs? That’s just my own musing but I wonder if this is something you are looping into your research to gauge the effectiveness?

    Also, I love the quote by your friend about pastors: “forget that listening is often a greater ministry than speaking.” This is so true and I find myself guilty of this often. Even this last week I realized I had not taken the time to listen to the story of one of my teammates. How can I help her grow as a new leader when there are big chunks of her formation and personality that are foreign to me?

    Thanks for this and the reflectiveness of your own growth. I am curious what you thought of the book overall.

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