You hear a lot as a pastor.

You hear the voices of your congregation. Voices of excitement and hope. Voices of new possibilities. You hear a beautiful diversity of voices joining together in worship each week.

But you also hear the voices of concern and complaint. Voices of fear and scarcity. Voices of frustration.

And those are just some of the external voices. Then there are a whole host of voices within you chattering about your never-ending to-do list. Reminding you to check in on that person you haven’t seen in awhile. Rehearsing for that hard conversation coming up or replaying the situation that happened after church last week and wondering how you could have responded differently. And of course, there’s the voice that is always counting down to Sunday, which somehow comes around more quickly than any other day of the week.

If you’re not careful, all of these different voices become so loud that they drown out anything and everything else. Before you even realize it, it will feel as if you have lost the ability to discern the voice of God amidst all the other voices clamoring for your attention.

Perhaps the most significant challenge I have faced during my first year as pastor has been learning to quiet all the other voices from time to time in order to listen to the voice of God. Although there is no way to skip or to find shortcuts around this work, I do want to share with you a few insights that I have learned along the way.

I have learned (and am learning) that I can not speak a meaningful word to my congregation until I have allowed God to speak it to me. I cannot begin to prepare to speak until I have first begun to listen. Whenever I try to reverse the order, I always hit a wall (which means I hit a wall just about every week). Most of the time, the words of my sermon don’t begin to flow until my office is quiet, and my mind is quiet, too. It’s when I finally set aside my other work (finished or not) and quiet the other voices that I can truly begin to listen for the still, small voice of God.

I have learned (and am learning) that I must to find times and ways to stop the noise, whether that means setting aside my phone, taking a few deep breaths, exercising, protecting my schedule, spending time with friends, sitting on my back porch, and finding life-giving things to do outside of my work as pastor. Self-care and soul-care are vital, in part, because these things put us in a position to be able to listen more clearly.

I have learned (and am learning) the significance of taking a day off each week. It’s one of the best things I can do, not only for myself, but also for my congregation. It’s a day when the competing voices of emails and to-do lists and phone calls and meetings and church budgets are all set aside, as much as possible. It’s a day to hit pause and to breathe deeply. And I almost always return to work the next day with new energy, creativity, insight, all because I have had a day away from the noise to help me listen more clearly.

And finally, I have learned (and am learning) that listening is key in the work of pastoral discernment. There are times when I need to make a decision, and my professors and mentors can’t tell me what to do anymore. My best church members can’t tell me want to do. My closest friends and confidants can’t tell me what to do, either. I can and do seek wisdom and perspective from these voices within my community, but there have been plenty of moments when everyone around me thinks I should do something different. There’s no decision I could possibly make that would please them all.

It’s in times like these that listening with every fiber of our beings to that still, small voice is some of the most important spiritual work we can ever do. No one else can do it for us. It’s the rudder of our ship, and it’s our only way home.

It’s not always in the loud or giant moments in which God speaks to me. More often than not, it’s in the quiet, subtle moments when I can discern God’s voice most clearly. Sometimes, that voice is so soft that I can barely make it out at all, but I’m learning to recognize it more and more. Ultimately, I believe it’s that quiet, sometimes silent but sacred voice that is always calling us to take the next brave step forward.

Mary Alice Birdwhistell is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Waco, Texas.