A Ministry of Listening

By Sister Elizabeth

A brother asked a certain old man, saying, "There be two brothers, and one of them is quiet in his cell, and prolongs his fast for six days, and lays much burden on himself; but the other tends the sick. Whose work is the more acceptable to God?" And the old man answered, "If that brother who carries his fast for six days were to hang himself up by the nostrils' he could not equal the other, who does service to the sick." (From the sayings of The Desert Fathers)

The ability to listen is the core of interpersonal relationships. It is not so much the words we speak or the deeds we do that help the elderly, hospitalized, or shut-in, but it is our presence and our "being there". It is a great gift to be able to be attentive and receptive, and to listen with personal concern. Many times we are merely spectators and listen lazily due to inattentiveness. We judge others according to our own value system. While we are "listening" we classify people as types. Sometimes our "listening" is actually our "waiting" for our turn to speak.

As visitors from our parish to a hospital or the home of a shut-in, we become witnesses of the parish community's caring support. How can we learn to be better listeners while performing such a ministry?

Care and Concern

To be a good listener one must first of all be caring and concerned. One must also have a respect for the dignity of persons, as well as their diversity. Cautious honesty must be exercised, and this is not easy. It is very difficult to interact while withholding judgement and patiently developing trust so that the person will be able to express emotion. One must listen as one who has known grief, anger, pain, depression, and other feelings and moods that the person reveals.

Cue Into the Other

Become aware of the person's frame of mind and emotional condition. Rather than setting the tone of the encounter, cue into the other and base what you say on their needs. Sit whenever possible so as not to assume a superior or condescending position. Repeat phrases if necessary to insure communication, and to reassure the person that you are listening to what he or she is saying. Allow anger or tears if that feeling is present, because this relieves pressure.

Build Rapport

One of the prerequisites of a fruitful ministry is that the person to whom the ministry is being directed, must trust, to some extent, the person who is offering his or her concern. This trust may be very cautious and fragile at first, but will deepen as the encounters go on. The person being visited must be accepted as he or she is and confidentiality must be respected. Gauge your visit by the condition and receptivity of the person, and not by a time schedule, while at the same time cooperating with the regulations of the hospital or nursing home. If a person is not communicative, response can often be elicited by mentioning things in the immediate environment, such as flowers, pictures, the view from the window, or even the food. The world of the elderly, sick, or shut-in is often small.

Dealing with Negatives

If negative feelings are directed toward you, don't take them personally. Some negative reactions are symptoms of disease or frustration or anger. Listen also to what is not being said. This will give an indication of what is perhaps being avoided, but that suggestion should never be brought up unless the person is able and willing to deal with it. Agree with a negative comment if it is an accurate one, but also suggest a positive alternative if there is one. Be a companion and don't expect to be a miracle worker. Compassion means "suffering with".


God must always be present in this ministry. Although He may not be mentioned by name, the love being shown is an indication of His presence. Pray with and for the person. Reinforce your concern by a simple touch of the hand. A reserved sense of humor and a smile will tell the other person, not necessarily that things will work out the way he or she would like them to, but simply that whatever happens, there is someone else who cares and shows this care. Leaving behind an icon, a prayer, or a scripture tract (best in large print) will provide the person with a tangible memory of your visit, and hopefully a promise of your next one.

What we say and what we do when visiting those who are confined in hospitals, nursing homes, or their own homes, are both very important. But even more important, as we have said, is simply "being there". This is the real gift, the gift of being present and listening, and because you are a member of your parish, a community of the Faith, this gift becomes a sacramental encounter.

Check List

1. Care and Concern:
Be prepared mentally and emotionally and spiritually before undertaking this important endeavor. Pray that God guides you when to speak and when and how to listen.

2. Cue into the Other:
Be aware of the other person's needs. Listen carefully and adjust as you go.

3. Build Rapport:
Be patient. Respect the other. Develop trust gradually and never try to impose on the other.

4. Dealing with Negatives:
Be prepared for negative expression. The elderly and sick may be frustrated, in pain, or angry.

5. Pray:
Read prayers aloud if the person agrees. Pray silently if not.

Sister Elizabeth is attached to the Diocesan Center of the Midwest and is conducting a ministry to the sick and shut-ins of the Chicago Diocese.

Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries