Category Archives: Accountability & Leader Development

Why Rush?

In 1847, Ebenezer Davies, a visiting Englishman, was invited to preach while in Cincinnati.  Later he wrote, “At the close of the sermon, having pronounced the benediction, I engaged, according to English custom, in a short act of private devotion.  When I raised my head and opened my eyes, the very last man of the congregation was actually making his exit through the doorway; and it was quite as much as I could manage to put on my top-coat and gloves and reach the door before the sexton closed it.”  Ebenezer Davies, American Scenes and Christian Slavery; A Recent Tour of Four Thousand Miles in the United States.  (London; John Snow, 1849)

Americans have always been in a rush.  Sometimes we notice ourselves hurrying through time; sometimes we are astonished to find time has gone past faster than we expected; somehow we are always surprised to discover that rush and hurry don’t make us more efficient, that speed affords less profit than we imagined, that we get a hint of some other value we might want, when suddenly we are forced to stop a moment.

I’d bet that most intentional Christians in their own places of worship have had a hard half year–hard years are a norm, even with joy and gladness interspersed.  Congregational leaders have certainly had a hard half year so far—most are working for most of the time with fewer members than usual; at any given moment some were surprised by the former music director’s taking a new job in mid-year; some have not been able to raise up new leaders for essential ministries yet; all have kept up with hard work of getting their congregational house in order—learning how to plan for building maintenance rather than letting the building reach emergency needs first; learning how to become good stewards of the members’ trust in them; getting  finances from a state of savings and funds in many coffee cans to a gathered, intentionally ordered unity of giving and resources, planning how stewardship and giving will reflect the whole church and provide for the whole church’s work in mission and ministry.   The heaviness of the half year thus far might have made some feel anxious or pressed on them a sense of falling behind, but I’d be surprised if most meet and work in this way every month.  Some leaders have been changed by taking up the habit of praying together at the close of each meeting; some leadership groups  have taken on praying each for the members they represent and care for, in some order of grouped names each month.  Praying for their work and the people they are keeping house for, changes leaders, gives them a vibrancy in the Presence.

Bishop Ronald H. Haines has proved one of the five most influential people in my life.  He was an extraordinarily busy leader, working steadfastly while under rather constant attack from many of his peers for his decisions, including his decision to ordain the first openly lesbian priest in the Episcopal Church while he was Bishop of Washington, D.C.  He never sounded rushed or hurried, anxious or angry as he went about his work.  I knew him in retirement.  I asked him once why all these pressures did not affect him in that usual way.  “You should ask yourself:  what’s the good in that?” he said.  “Remember: it took a long time for things to get into the state they’re in; it’ll take a long time to make them better.  You can’t get to the end before you start, and you’ll never begin if you rush.  Nobody can really think in a hurry.  When I drop things and I get angry, I know I’m going too fast.”

Here’s an interesting thing:  It’s hard to hurry through evening prayer, especially if one is using a liturgical service like Compline.  The rhythm and language of the liturgy opens time to reveal us as we are, where we are, when we are:  always moving and breathing in God’s presence, in whom there is no rush or hurry that overlooks details, drops things, inclines to forgetfulness or defensive anger.  True:  we can’t keep from being American, from holding an almost instinctive impatience with whatever it is that holds us back from going fast and even faster.   But we can grow more mature as Christians by practicing the virtue of patience until we find ourselves formed more closely as the people God can call and into whom God can pour increasing energy  for worship, witness and service.

Your session, vestry, consistory, council, meets on a regular day of the month.  Why not take time at the end of the evening on those days, throughout the rest of this coming year, and read Compline yourself, or some other service of evening or night prayer, wherever you are, joining your leaders in prayer and praying for them by name, once a month, as they do the work of leadership you have laid on them for 2013?

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Whose Tradition is The Best?

Recently I’ve heard people in church leadership saying things like, “What makes our tradition the best?”   Or “This is why I think OUR tradition is the best.”  In all cases, people are talking about tradition (“We have such great hymns,” and “We don’t judge people who come to worship with us,” and “We have such a wonderful burial liturgy,” and “The thing I like about being Episcopalian/Presbyterian/Lutheran etc. etc. etc. is that we use language so much better than the others!”).   They are also talking about culture–ritual, vestments, candles, all the rest of it. 

Culture and tradition are not faith.  It is a great mistake to confuse either of the two with the value and efficacy of faith. 

We are all inclined to admire ourselves.  We are all inclined to rest there in front of the mirror, oozing satisfaction in our identities and our heritage.  We all do this, and we do it with such satisfaction that we are less than one step from implying that we have the true faith because our traditions are better than others’.  Some people, of course, take that last step and stand firmly on the seemingly solid ground of opinion.  “My tradition is the ONLY one by which you will be truly saved–”  whether that means that you alone know how the Holy Spirit works, or you alone are privileged with God’s view of the goats and sheep in advance of the Last Day.

You can’t convince me.

It’s not just that being judgmental and exclusionary is not Christian in the least.  The great trap and betrayal lying in wait here is that inability leaders have to see in proportion.  Leaders and ordinary Christians MUST be able to distinguish between practice and preference, and stop acting largely on the latter.

Leaders in the church have to grow past the American cultural ideal of success and accomplishment (professional or personal).  When they have learned to really distinguish the self-taught, self-reinforcing blindness of self-deception, they will stop seeing others as valuable only inasmuch as they reflect their own values.  This behavior, not Christian at all, ends in worship of tradition, worship of one’s own cultural expressions of being human.  “Come here, we do it better than anyone else does; you’ll have a better experience of salvation with us.” 

Christians for centuries have been rightly accused and justly condemned for this behavior.  There’s no difference in the effect if is a declaration of superiority or a condemnation of a difference.  The claims of appreciative inquiry are bosh.  The claim of being super-right is equally ridiculous.  There’s no supportive need in the church’s early development or justification in the canon of Jesus’ example, (before the emperors claimed Jesus and the church weapons of their own).  If you carry on as though your own tradition is better than anyone else’s, you are clear about your tradition, and the rest of us are just lucky if we get to see Jesus in it.  People who claim their tradition and culture promote Christianity better than anyone else’s, are either converts or have never left home.   The core values of Christian faith have a larger platform of common ground.

It’s hard enough to put up with nations fighting each other to declare supremacy of values (since we no longer tolerate claiming each other’s real estate).  Let the leaders of churches and their professional helpers refrain from doing the same.

“As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

So–there’s only a modest point in being Episcopalian, or Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist, Moravian or United Church of Christ, Copt or Orthodox. 

One’s best traditions are like good or beautiful choreography for some who are drawn to that way of dancing.  Or, traditions are like rooms full of decor that appeal to one person’s tastes and not another’s.    One can rejoice in the pleasant lines and heritage one has received, without claiming to have the best of anything.  If one is to boast, one should try to remember that the only valid boast is in Jesus Christ.

The text in Galatians quoted above does not conclude, “and if you belong to the Episcopal/Methodist/Southern Baptist/Anglican/Presbyterian… Church, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

Jesus’ words in John, quoting Isaiah, run thusly:  “This people knows me with their lips,  but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” These are words to wrestle with when we feel particularly satisfied with our own ways.  We rarely recognize it when we’ve become smug.    But we can look after ourselves (and our traditions) without prizing ourselves.  That way is the way of humility.  That way is the most winsome and Christlike.  Not easy, but plain; a low way and quiet, worthy of tradition.

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Who’s Afraid of the Church Consultant?

Church leaders are notoriously slow to bring in outside help. 

The attitude of  “We’ll do it ourselves or be damned trying”  can come from miserable experience and not just from pride or prudence.     Church pews are lined with leaders who wouldn’t hire church development consultants to save their lives, likely because they’ve already been there and not done that.

I firmly resented consultants before I became one, and I’ll admit why:  again and again the consultants we hired had no sensitivity to the facts in front of them:  it was our church and we knew our household better than they did.  The little parade that came through our meeting room doors brought armfuls of skinny paper back books with shiny covers advising us to change according to plans and ideas invented by cutting edge theorists who were out to (make money and) convert us to their idea of what a church ought to be.  What we needed instead was to sort out who we were and why God had called us all together.  That essential clarity remained a mystery to the leaders and beyond the increasingly troubled congregation.

So:  consultants who arrive knowing what churches ought to do are not worth the money they charge to tell that to the leaders.

I firmly resented church consultants for a second reason:  all of them talked down to the non-clergy in the room.   They politely treated us as obstinately stupid, misbehaving children who were out to make the clergy’s lives miserable.  The church consultants we hired were all clergy, and thus projected a doubly special privilege in telling us the right ways of being and doing church.  They lost most of their credibility as soon as they opened their mouths to preach at us.   In the 1970s and ’80s, church leaders were still basically Christians nurtured from childhood.  They knew in their bones that church does not exist for the benefit of clergy; the secrets of the church are not given solely to Christians when they go to seminary; a clergy leader and a congregation share the issues, problems and context of faithful community.   

So:  consultants who condescend to church leaders from positional privilege, suck all the oxygen from the room and are not worth the money they charge for the experience.

A third reason for resenting and distrusting church consultants has to do with what Virginia Woolf has called ‘home truth.’  The home truth in congregations needing help, is that they need help and to receive that help, the leaders and the members of the congregation will have to change.  They know in their bones before the consultant arrives, exactly how they will have to change, and dammit, they don’t want to.  So they won’t, and they’ll pay money to insist publicly on blaming someone else, often the clergy.   

So:  congregational leaders who pretend to want health will do what it takes to stay away from good congregational development consultants.

I know.  I was that kind of church leader in several congregations that had that kind of attitude.  Everything came to a bad end in the churches where all of us made choices that justified our use of power or our agendas.  Such a bad end has a very long half-life, which may eventually be redeemed.  Church consulting has come a long ways since the 1970s, in particular that area of consulting based in principles of organizational development.  Consultants can bring health even to intransigent unhealthy congregations.

When I look back at the long string of miserable consultation experiences I had as a leader in succeeding congregations, I see some things we could have done at the outset to make a positive difference in our experience with the consultants:

  • Define and articulate precisely what we wanted to the consultant to help us do
  • Engage the consultant for more than one workshop or more than one session, so we could get over any of our defensiveness
  • Determine to learn to learn, and not to get answers, so we would know how to do it ourselves, afterwards
  • Evaluate our experience fully and frankly, measured against our own expectations, and share that evaluation with the consultant
  • Set expectations of ourselves to use what we had learned how to do, to foil the waste of our money

Good leaders are wise not to rush toward quick fixes, and wiser still if they know what they need help for, and how to get good outside help when they need it.

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About Churches on the Verge of Extinction

This posting is another on the subject of judicatories closing (or more formally, extinguishing) churches.  

I’ve been wondering what kind of due diligence really makes sense for judicatories thinking about the congregations in their midst that are on the verge of closing.

In a conversation about church closings with Bob Gallagher, director and founder of the Church Development Institute, the country’s premier training for congregational development, he suggested that determining a given church’s main task would be at least one of the questions to ask.

I notice that demographics and fiscal conditions don’t top his list.  Why shouldn’t they be the first and main points in determining a congregation’s viability?  

The answer has to do with a church’s founding, I believe.  We found congregations to offer worship, to offer service and Christian care to others, and to nurture and form Christian lives.  The demographics and the finances of a new church are important, but never the main reason for founding a parish.  Neither should these be the main driving reasons for extinguishing a church.  At the beginning, they smack loudly of self-reliance, and at the end, they smack of convenience.

What’s done in the years leading up to extinguishment really matters.   Helping a congregation gain clarity around its main task takes time–lots of time.  Maybe years of time and patience.   Effective help takes commitment of resources and attention on the part of the judicatory leaders,  and not just to the single parish but to an overall vision for all the congregations within its oversight.  

If there is one single key moment when one can see a parish  standing at the crossroads between the short distance to extinguishment and the long distance to renewal and revival, it is the pivot between the last full-time clergy leader and whoever comes next.  Of course this can happen in any geographic setting–urban (church building too big, neighborhood long since past  being prosperous), small town (local industries folded and never replaced) or rural (farms not able to hold succeeding generations, remoteness of area unable to draw new populations).  And of course the decision not to hire another full-time rector or pastor is complicated.   Individual reasons should never be reduced to a theory or generalized to a category.  But that limbo, that semi-paralytic state in which so many parishes languish for so long before gray heads outnumber any other sort in the pews, has to be an early warning sign to everyone who cares about the Body as a whole (made up of all of us in all the congregations around, whether we are part of the denomination of the declining congregation we have in mind or not).

The first move with the church in question?  Identify its main motive power. Taking time to treat a congregation as viable is only due diligence.    (Did their strength lie in membership growth?  in outreach or service?  in the formation of Christians?  Does the current outside situation need any of those signs of Christ’s presence?).  Can they yet find energy and will to answer a calling?   If not, the lamp is out.  If so, a flame might yet be breathed into life there.

Of course it’s possible to bring churches  in a kind of permanent ‘transition limbo’ from the state of part-time retired clergy leadership to a fresh start.  Of course it’s possible to bring the parish out of slow decay.  A judicatory with half its parishes in transition limbo resembles a house with its front yard full of cars, trucks and boats waiting to be fixed or sent to the junk yard.  Don’t start seeing this as inevitable or normal.  But don’t wait to start thinking until the front yard is full of clunkers.

In plain language, even when a congregation has only 70 year-olds left in its pews, Christ’s motive power may still be present.  Is a congregation in a slow, remote little town or on the dusty side streets of a 3rd tier city?  Christ’s motive power may still be present.  Is it inconvenient and complicated to arrange for such discernment?  Is it discouraging, especially when ‘facts’ speak so plainly (no services held in half a year, no members baptized or buried in 12 months, no new leaders in 3 years)?   Are those Gospel excuses?  Under such circumstances, perhaps it is too late to ask clarifying questions.  But what can profit a judicatory in avoiding the struggle to find Christ’s power and purpose in a congregation with survival issues?  And what else is it, really, besides a survival issue, that creates the circumstances of transition and interim limbo?

Clarify the main task of said congregation.  Ask what resources are available both for development and for spiritual first aid in the membership.  Follow spiritual first aid with new emphasis on spiritual formation.  Become intentional about serious congregational development in the judicatory and in the parishes.   Emphasize judicatory leaders’ training in sound organizational development skills and competency.    Engage in serious leader development in the parish.  Consider wild and unusual ideas (yoking 3 or 4 parishes having the same problems, whether they are of the same denomination or not).  But start early and start with intention.  Why do less?

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Churches in Trouble Asking for Help

When should a congregation’s leaders ask for help?  And–whom should they ask?

It might be a good idea to ask for help before you die.  It might be a good idea to ask for help in figuring out what kind of help you need. 

More often than not, congregations don’t ask for help.  One wonders why.

Recently I attended a multi-convocation meeting of the Episcopal Diocese of Central PA, in which I am a member.  This is a gathering of congregations’ reps (clergy and elected delegates) within a given geographic region of the diocese.  In preparation for the annual meeting of all congregations within the diocese (called a convention), we heard an early presentation on the budget and resolutions we’ll be voting on when we meet again in June.

During this preparatory meeting, some 120 of us were given the first introduction to the closing of several churches, if we so vote.  Since the churches have already been closed, we can’t change the situation.  This is what’s known in the Episcopal vocabulary as extinguishing churches.  In our diocese, we’ve closed at least one church a year for three years.  This year, the diocese is closing three churches.  

 These are mostly little churches in small towns in remote areas of the state.   You’ve seen examples yourself–pretty little gothic structures in rural scenes that remind you of old timey Christmas card settings, or little buildings left in now uglified areas of tired old industrial towns.  Most of these churches were built to hold 100 to 150 people, when rural towns were stable and industrial towns were booming, at least a century ago.  In some cases, the areas can’t hold the population, and the church’s leadership recognizes no immediate future.  In some cases, the population is growing but is largely disinterested in that or any particular brand of church, and the church leadership is old and frail.  Changing to meet any evangelistic opportunity seems impossible. 

As the resolutions to extinguish were presented to us, many in the assembly stood to express shock and distress.  Those with oversight spoke about the need to close the churches, expressing surprise themselves.  One comment was, “Perhaps the churches should have asked for help earlier, but they might have been ashamed that they had come to such a pass that they needed help.”

That view seems  disengenuous.  An administratively connectional church–as in the Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and UCC systems–has plenty of opportunity to observe churches that are struggling.  Oversight at the level of presbytery, synod or diocese should include a staunch array of opportunities to give help, eagerly on offer.  The administrative idea that a congregation in a connectional denomination should ever imagine itself ashamed to need help is akin to the selfishness of Ayn Rand, who refused even to loan aid to a niece on the grounds that the family member should be entirely self-sufficient on principle. 

Healthy congregations with problems–and which ones don’t have problems?–should know that congregational development is not a sign of weakness but of strength.  Seeking help from professional organizational consultants is better than limping along with hands over eyes, knowing the precipice is ahead and willingly going in that direction.  What could be worse?  Churches that are not healthy need help, and if they can’t bring themselves to see the problems or ask for help, there lies the point of having oversight in the first place. 

In any case, the individual parish and the team or person with administrative oversight share accountability.  Probably a decade before it comes to pass, a church is able to tell that it can’t manage and thrive as things are going.  Any administration with oversight worth its salt should be able to see the same issues and have a full quiver of arrows for the needs presented.  There’s no excuse for letting churches die on the vine without doing due diligence.  Any judicatory can find excellent resources for intervention, and should put money into the research required–either to find consultants or to send members for training in congregational development.  

Check out or to see what’s available for members of a congregation or a synod, diocese or presbytery in leadership training.  Don’t imagine your money is safer in a bank or a cd, or paying for the bills until you or churches in your charge have to close the doors.   Ask for help as soon as you know you need it, and if your judicatory doesn’t offer any, find out how to change that situation, or start looking for a consultant with CDI experience (they have the best training).  You may still have to decide to close the church, but you will have really made the strongest effort possible to find God’s other answers to your situation.

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Johari’s Window and Church Leadership

Once upon a time, two psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham, thought through an exercise that can help people learn more about themselves and more about others with whom they work.  The exercise is one of several that uses a standard 4-pane window design to show how we move from one stage or one area of feeling, awareness, action etc., to another.  The Johari Window is easy to learn about–here’s one link to investigate:, and there are others (Bing! or Google the term).

Imagine everything about yourself is in the four panes in your window drawing (I know–nobody likes being pinned down to one diagram, so for the purposes of this exercise, imagine that you are always free to fly out through the pane you are closest to–free will and freedom of conscience always supercede everything else in my book of rules and rationales).  But for the purposes of learning something about yourself and your church work, rather than affirming once again what you already know, draw the 4 panes in a square frame and accept that, like your name, the Johari window includes everything about yourself.  

Pane #1, on the top left (northwest corner) , has everything about everybody in your session or vestry that’s freely known to all–where the light switches are, when the priest goes on vacation, who  hasn’t come to the last three vestry meetings,  what mistakes were made during the last funeral reception that made the family of the deceased hurt and furious, and why the church leaders are avoiding the subject of praying in meetings.  All this is in the wide open space of knowledge everyone shares.

Pane #2, on the bottom left (southwest corner) holds everything you aren’t sharing with everyone else.  That can run from the fact that you are bored halfway through every single vestry meeting, no matter what the crisis is, to the fact that your daughter incurred a DUI and wrecked her car last Thanksgiving.  Some things in this pane are useful to share, and some are not.  The latter fact is not relevant to what you are doing in vestry, unless it keeps you from doing real work there.  The former fact–that you are bored in the meetings–is something to share with the group, because boredom is not a personal failure (as some imagine) but a sign of the whole group going off-task or over-functioning, or trying for a utopian solution to life as you know it.

Pane #3, on the top right (northeast) corner, holds everything that others know about you that you don’t know about yourself.  This could range from coming to a vestry meeting with chocolate pudding on your cheek, to the discouraging effect your comments have on people who listen to you take the whole meeting off task and into the functions of the committee of the whole.  You didn’t know that’s what you were doing, did you, when you start mentioning everything you know about Eagle Scouts when an Eagle Scout project is proposed by the Property Committee?  You probably wouldn’t want to talk so much if you knew that what you were saying is basically irrelevant to the matter at hand.  But you DO know by the effects on people’s faces as you talk–and you could at some point say, “Am I being relevant here?”  Someone who really likes you will say, “No, not really, but it’s ok–” and someone else will say, “I don’t know as much about Scouting as you do–if you don’t mind, I’d like to talk to you afterwards about a question I have,” and now –look well!  the area of common information is much greater.   And, your self-awareness has also been increased.  Plus, you will be able to help someone who really wants to know what you have to share.  Increasing what you know about yourself requires that you ASK others what they know about you.  We are all on common ground, after all, and we should have deep confidence in this if we are in a Christian leadership setting.

Pane #4, on the bottom right (southeast) corner, is what none of us knows about the situation and each other.  The whole of our group effort should be to encounter what we do not know, because it is in that encounter that we receive insight.  In other words, when we’re open to encountering what we don’t know yet, we entertain revelation.  The best work we’ll ever do in creating health and change in our time, comes from experiencing insight and understanding what is revealed to us–not individually, but as a group.  Becoming more aware, more alert to ourselves and each other, strengthens the common ground on which we stand as we work for the Body.

Common ground, the common table, the hospitality offered to stranger and enemy, the equality we share at the foot of the cross and at the edge of the empty tomb–the power of increasing what we all know of each other, increasing what we share with each other, increasing our new understanding, all strengthens the Body of Christ. 

Johari’s Window has all sorts of specific and facilitated uses, but much of what is true about the exercise is not new to Christians.  Much of the process for this exercise of mutual awareness would be understandable to St. Paul.  (“Since God in mercy has given us this ministry, we do not lose heart.  We do not practice cunning or distort the word of God.  By declaring the truth openly we recommend ourselves to the conscience of our fellows in the sight of God. “–II Corinthians 4:1,2)

Leaders will probably imagine they have no time to use this model of understanding and increased awareness; leaders will not have easy access to a trained OD consultant who can help them learn the skills to use the model and apply it to their own work.  Nevertheless, the Johari Window is an excellent tool for leaders who are willing to a) find a consultant who will think its use through with them and b) to humble themselves together for the good of the Body they have been elected and charged to serve, form and lead.

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Right and Wrong in Church Leadership–Johari’s Window at Work

Well, I suppose the title could be a little misleading.  This posting isn’t about specific issues on either side dividing sheep from goats.  This posting is about leaders’ behavior.

I have always been right.  So has my friend across the aisle (in church) who sits on the left hand side.  Where we sit does not represent our politics–just the opposite.  What’s significant is that we both know we’re right, and we share an approach to working together from which we are both likely to learn more than either of us knows, and more than we both know.  Together, we are going to change our church community.  And why will our fellow leaders listen to us?  Because we are working together for the common good.  In this case, the common good is a stronger funeral ministry to the families of members in our congregation who have died.  We are now very bad at connecting all the elements in a caring, reliable way, and this fellow leader and I have begun thinking through the system and possible changes to help the ministry.

Later, when we arrive at a point of disagreement on some issue neither of us has in mind now, he and I are going to remember that we worked together to do something of health for the Body, and we will make more room for each other in the process of discussion.

How will that function, precisely?

We will remember that we didn’t know everything about each other or the work at hand.   We’ll be aware that we proceeded not just with civility but with a stake in learning what we didn’t know about ourselves that the other person knew.   We’ll be willing to be more vulnerable, ourselves, to each other.  And we will remember that the process of opening to the other, as well as the process of being more open to hearing about ourselves from others. 

What applications could there be for this kind of behavior?  I can see three, right off the bat. 

1)  The habit of submitting oneself to others leaders for their view of how one is conducting oneself as a leader–clergy included in this without exception–keeps us from assuming anything absolute about our own views.  Thus, no bishop can say ‘because I say so’ without assessing the effects of her leadership, and no vestry or session member can spew self-righteousness in the parking lot or the meeting, without knowing that it’s just spew and not all corrective insight on offer. 

 2)  The habit of expecting to learn more from others requires an attitude of openness and curiosity, both qualities which are evidence of maturing minds and hearts, not to mention being one of the fruits of the Spirit.  And

 3) We all would be slower to react and instead, stronger in response.  We’d know more about ourselves than our own opinions.  We’d know more of how our convictions affect others. And if we are leaders, we’ll be better at knowing how our convictions can effect true change, instead of blowing hot and then cold and eventually retiring to lukewarm because it’s a more comfortable place for those who don’t look too closely at themselves and their effects on others.

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