Church Members Can Do More Than They Think : Holy Listening and Ministry of Presence

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The ministry of presence asserts that there is power—divine power—in just showing up and sticking around.

Henri Nouwen

I recently listened to an audio interview¹ in which the moderator said he didn’t know what to say to someone “who has it”—“it” being schizophrenia. Since schizophrenia does not eliminate a person’s humanity, the obvious things to say would be the same as for any other person you talk with.

Easier said than done when so much misunderstanding and fear surrounds the diagnosis. A simple “How are you feeling?” or “What’s your day been like?” can feel inadequate, and yet those words honestly spoken can minister more than any pill can. Especially if you’ll listen to the answer…

Holy Listening

In the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) publication, Welcomed and Valued, the authors counter the anxiety some church members feel:
“Having a supportive relationship with a person with mental illness does not require the expertise of being a psychotherapist just as supporting a friend with cancer does not require being an oncologist.”²

The authors offer a quiet and simple means of ministering called holy listening, defined as “listening in the context of the healing presence of God.” The listener allows a person’s life story to unfold, with no attempt to analyze or fix the person or situation. For the listener, a nonjudgmental acceptance of the person suffering and stigmatized by illness helps to reveal the unconditional love of God. A therapist can offer solutions, but a church member can offer Christ’s grace.

The Welcomed and Valued publication describes several benefits of holy listening:

• The listener can begin to understand the struggle and isolation of a person trying to manage an illness.
• Listening is an essential part of showing support and of fostering relationship.
• A supportive atmosphere encourages openness which “leads to comfort and healing.”
• “Understanding the symptoms of the particular mental illness of the person facilitates communication, supportive ministry, advocacy, and prayer . . .”

In the recent post, Churches Helping Families Struggling with Mental Illness, I wrote about the ministry of the Nouwen Network which provides small gatherings “to offer a place for people to talk about the threads of their life in order to regain a sense of wholeness.” In other words, they listen. They listen more than they speak. When they do speak, they allow unconditional love to be their guide.

What might surprise some listeners is how their own faith is strengthened as they hear the story of the person facing symptoms. The listener becomes the learner. To me, this is a blessed and humbling position to find oneself in.

Ministry of Presence

Holy listening is a valuable part of “ministry of presence.” I heard this term years ago and was struck by the simplicity it suggested. “The ministry of presence asserts that there is power—divine power—in just showing up and sticking around,” says Henri Nouwen.³

In her blog, Living by Faith, Anjanette Flemming recounts her experience of this ministry:

“When I was at the height of my depression, I had a dear friend who, night after night, would just sit with me and watch TV. Occasionally he’d ask if I wanted to talk. When I would say no, he simply put his arm around me and we’d continue to sit there silently. He’d never push; he just stayed with me. To this day, I feel I may owe this friend my life… a life I now love dearly.”4

“This is the Ministry of Presence,” she said, “to just sit with someone in their pain and suffering. Love never fails and Jesus showed us, time and time again, how compassion heals.

Flemming points to Christ’s ministry of presence. “When Jesus heard of Lazarus’ death,” she said, “his first means to care for Lazarus’ family was to go be with them. He went to them. He wept with them. He comforted them. Then he acted. (John 11)”

Aaron Ott, who blogs at Life in the Temple, points out that Zaccheus’ salvation came during the time Jesus spent at his house. “Jesus’ primary means of bringing that salvation to the household was to stay there,” writes Ott.5 He reminds us of the “mundane” ways of Christ’s ministry. “Jesus touched lepers, ate with sinners or stayed with tax collectors” when he was incarnate on earth. God, in His wisdom, chose the mundane to mediate His grace.

Listening, eating, watching television, pulling weeds, holding hands—simple and mundane as they seem—demonstrate the incarnation of Christ. In Ott’s view, all the seminary teaching in the world, all the church’s plans for growth and efficiency, rank beneath this ministry. “Sometimes people just need us to be with them.”

You don’t need a degree to do that.  Begin with “Hello,” and trust the healing presence of God to take it from there.

1 Audio interview http://blogs.abc.net.au/queensland/2014/05/nicky-carey-living-with-schizophrenia.html
2 Welcomed and Valued by NCPD Council on Mental Illness, July 2009. http://www.ncpd.org/sites/default/files/MI%20Resource%20Binder_0.pdf
Posted on http://www.ncpd.org.
3 Henri Nouwen, http://nccumc.org/treasurer/files/More-ministry-of-presence-several-articles.pdf
4 Anjanette Flemming, Living by Faith, http://anjsdevotionals.blogspot.com/2007/11/ministry-of-presence.html
5 Aaron F. Ott, Life in the Temple, http://monk321.blogspot.com/2009/03/ministry-of-presence.html