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Pastoral listeners / Lay ministers: Training materials

Handouts for use with in-service training of lay pastoral listening teams (a.k.a., lay ministry programs).

Processing experience
Setting Boundaries

Processing experience

One approach to pastoral listening

Lay pastoral care can range from visiting homebound people, to dropping off casseroles, to being part of a more formal pastoral listening team (or lay ministry program). If you're involved with lay pastoral care, there will be times when people want to talk with you about a serious, even life-changing, event. These serious and life-changing events might include the death of a loved one, serious illness, a spiritual crisis, loss of job, problems with children, etc.

We'll call it "pastoral listening" when someone tells you about a serious or life-changing event. Here's one approach to becoming a good pastoral listener. This approach emphasizes listening to the other person actively, and to that end it provides a structure for asking guiding but open-ended questions.

1: "What?" — What happened?

The first step is to find out what happened. Your only goal at this point is to determine the facts of the situation. The kinds of questions you might ask include "who," "what," "when," and "where" questions:

Often, you may not fully understand something the person has said, so another good question to use is this one:

The main thing to remember at this point is to get the facts straight in your own mind (and in your own heart). It's tempting to try to offer advice, but resist that temptation for now. First of all, you can't give good advice if you don't have all the facts. Secondly, it's often the case that people don't want advice, they just want someone to listen to them. So the first step is to be a good listener by learning the facts of the situation.

2: "So what?" — What's the emotional importance of this event?

The second step is to find out how the person feels about what happened. Your goal at this point is to determine how the other person feels. The other person's emotions may be so strong that it's difficult to talk about them — you may find the other person won't go any further than Step One, and that is fine. If the other person is ready to take the next step, some of the questions you might ask include:

Once again, the following questions are always useful:

The hard part about this step is dealing with your own emotions. You may be thinking to yourself, "Oh, this sounds horrible!" — but the other person may have quite different emotions about the situation. You need to know how they feel about the situation. Ask them how they're feeling, and listen hard — and this means that it will be helpful to hold on to your own emotions until the conversation is over.

After the conversation is over and you are no longer with that person, then you can turn to your own support network and take the time to deal with your own emotions. Your own support network might include some or all of the following: spouse or partner, other family members, and close friends; the minister and other members of the pastoral listening team; your own counselor, therapist, or spiritual director (if you have one); your connection with God, the divine, or the transcendent (if you feel such a connection).

3: "Now what?" — What's the next step?

Oftentimes you won't even get to this last step -- often, simple listening is what the other person needs, and you will satisfy that need with Step One and Step Two. Watch them for cues — if they're done talking, your job is done! But if you do get to this step, once again the important thing to do is to ask guiding but open-ended questions, and to listen. Some of the questions you might ask include:

If you do get to this third step, it may be tempting to offer advice and guidance right away. Resist that temptation. You will most likely find that by asking open-ended questions, the other person will figure out a good and healthy course of action by themselves, without having to get advice. When this happens, this can be an experience of real empowerment and healing for that person -- it can be very healing to be empowered to take charge of your own life.

You may also run into very difficult situations where you have no idea what should be done. Don't be afraid to refer the other person to the minister or other professionals!

Setting Boundaries

Setting boundaries on your time

Pastoral listening should not take forever. After about 50 minutes of pastoral listening, most listeners start getting tired and begin to lose their concentration. If you try to listen longer than that, you're probably doing a disservice both to yourself and to the other person.

You can start winding up a conversation 5 minutes before you're ready to end by saying something like:

It can be very hard to end a conversation after 50 minutes; it may seem false or artificial. And sometimes it may be appropriate to spend a longer time, up to about 90 minutes, with someone. But as a rule of thumb, we recommend you plan to spend 60 minutes with each person: 5 minutes getting settled in, 50 minutes in conversation, and 5 minutes to say goodbye.

Setting boundaries on what you will handle

As a volunteer, you don't have to take on more than you can handle. Don't be afraid to refer someone to a minister, or to ask someone else in the pastoral listening team to visit a person. In crisis situations, ask for help — you never have to handle anything alone.

Therefore, don't be afraid to refer the other person to a minister or other professional by saying:

Never hesitate to admit that the situation is more than you can handle alone. And never hesitate to consult with the minister, especially when you think a situation is more than you can handle.

One last comment — lay pastoral care can (and should) be an opportunity for your own spiritual growth and transformation. Setting appropriate boundaries for yourself helps to make this work a joy rather than a burden. May your work as a lay pastoral listener nurture your spirit, and may it on balance be a matter of deep satisfaction to you!