Aug 27, 2018
Why Are You Hurrying?
Erica Young Reitz reminds us that urgency in mission doesn’t mean you have to lead a rushed college ministry. Why are you hurrying?
While vacationing at the Jersey shore one year, my family took a day trip to a nearby botanical garden. Walking through paths of exquisite flowers and lush greens, we stumbled upon a sign nailed to a tree. In bold letters it read, “Why Are You Hurrying?”
At first, the message took me aback. Why would someone hang these words in the middle of a walking path? But as I pondered the question, it started to make sense: it was an invitation to pay attention. The person who placed the sign didn’t want us to miss anything. It was a reminder to slow down…to notice the strangely formed sugar maple, smell the sweet patch of honeysuckle, listen to the breeze rustle the birch leaves and hear the song of the goldfinch.
This question that interrupted a summer day in a Jersey garden continues to serve as a signpost in my life, inviting me to consider my pace and pointing me towards a better way.
In a culture that has made busyness a virtue, it’s tempting to rush from one thing to the next. I’d be the first to argue that good ministry requires a hustle, especially at the start of the semester; however, we can miss the point of our work entirely if our running causes us to stop seeing and listening to the very people and places we want to love. More than our flashy flyers or big splash the first week of classes, our ability to listen – truly listen – will set us apart. If we want to be effective in our work, we must listen to God, listen to students and “listen” to the campus culture where we serve.
Recovering the Lost Art of Listening
We cannot listen well if we’re always in a hurry or if we’re constantly distracted. Or, if we measure our days only by how much we’ve accomplished. True listening wars against our cultural values of efficiency and progress, and it requires something of us that we may be unwilling to give: our undivided attention. We live in a world where our devices beckon us (ping!) and the pressure for “bigger, better, more” drives and distracts us. Listening has become a lost art.
In The Contented Soul, Lisa Graham McMinn tells the story of her co-worker, George Poynor, who grew up in small farming community. His family and neighbors worked hard, but they made time at the end of each day to gather in homes, tell stories, and listen. Until one of the neighbors bought a television set. George recalls the first time he viewed TV as well as the way his rural community changed when almost all members eventually owned their own set. Instead of evenings of visiting and receiving one another, neighbors spent their nights in their own homes, glued to a screen.
McMinn compares the introduction of TV into this community to our use of tech devices today. While she celebrates the benefits of technology, McMinn also wisely notes that “[c]ell phones take people out of the present moment they are sharing with others and transport their attention to some virtual place instead, often resulting in their becoming mindless of those around them.” Our constant connection to our phones and social media may be our greatest barrier to listening well. I’m not suggesting we need to flush our phones down the toilet or go back to rural America to revive the lost art of listening. That said, we cannot ignore the influence and “intrusion” (as McMinn puts it) of technology in our lives. If we want to be fully present with our students and others, we may need to (re)-evaluate how our tech devices and practices are shaping our lives and ministry.
Distinctives of Good Listening
Social media and cell phone distractions are not the only reason we lack listening skills. Listening is an art as well as learned skill, and many of us are out of practice. We may not even realize how much room we have for improvement (just ask your spouse or housemate). When is the last time you felt like someone really listened to you? Or the last time you felt like you listened well? If we want good listening to characterize our lives and ministry, we need to develop our competency through continual practice. We may also need reminders of what it looks like to listen well.
Recently, I asked a group of students about the last time they felt like someone listened well. Here’s some of what stood out to them as they reflected on the listener:
- They made time for me; I knew they weren’t in a rush
- Their non-verbals/body language showed they wanted to hear more (eye contact, openness in body posture)
- They were sitting next to me, face-to-face (not sitting behind a desk or standing)
- They re-stated my points so I knew they understood me (vs. just saying, “I understand.”)
- They empathized with my emotion
- They didn’t interrupt, finish my sentences, or seem ready to make their next point
- They asked good questions to draw me out (vs. just pushing the conversation to where they wanted to go or connecting it to their own story right away)
- They weren’t distracted or multi-tasking
- Their cell phone was away/they weren’t checking social media
The goal of listening is not for us to understand, but rather for the listener to make the speaker feel understood. True listen occurs when the other person knows we understand—when they feel heard and think, You get me. On a practical level, if we want to listen well, we need to make time in our schedule and hone our skills. I’m so grateful for the CORE communications training I received early-on in ministry— it’s something I’ve gone back to again and again to refresh my skills. I’m also thankful for supervisors who helped me organize my time on campus, encouraging me to leave margin between student meetings to pray, gather my thoughts, and write a few notes.
“Hush, Not Rush”
Our ability to listen well to our students, to the needs and opportunities on campus, and to the culture around us comes from cultivating a daily practice of listening to God. If the spiritual life is about paying attention, as philosopher Simone Weil said, then we must stop hurrying…or we’ll miss it. Quieting ourselves to hear from God and others doesn’t mean we relinquish our ambition or goals. Far from it. There’s a difference between slowing down and being lazy. In fact, the “hush, not rush” approach to life – as poet Luci Shaw puts it – may mean getting up an hour earlier or disciplining ourselves in other ways so we have time to slow down and listen well. It’s about a quietness of spirit that allows us to see things we may not have otherwise noticed. The non-hurried life lets us approach each day with the awareness, humility, and hospitality required for effective ministry.
So, let’s press pause, stop to sip our coffee (rather than rush off with it in a to-go mug) and pay attention to all the stories and songs God has for us in each day. Our ability to listen well and respond with empathy will serve our students and set us apart. May we have eyes to see…and ears to hear…
When you consider core competencies for college ministry, do listening and empathy skills make the list? If so, how do you cultivate these in your life or with your staff and student teams?
What have you stopped, started or continued doing to be/become wise with tech and social media practices?
How have you pursued a “non-hurried” life in the midst of the semester hustle?