Day 16: Trying to Learn from Everyone

As a young pastor of a new church start, I made a decision that I would try to learn from everyone that I crossed paths with. This attempt has been very rewarding and very challenging. Neighbors & Wisemen

After I would preach an innovative or daring message, an elderly women with no formal education and low economic status might come up to me and attempt to critique-criticize the message. That was not the problem.

The critique was often just repeating the old way of interpreting that night’s passage as if that, in itself, was a corrective.

I wanted to shout “I KNOW THAT ALREADY!” It was, after all, what I was suggesting that we move away from.

I would stop planning my response and try to just be in that moment with her – to hear what she was saying and listen for the heart behind it.

  • What is her real concern?
  • Is she afraid of something?
  • Did I move too fast on this one?
  • Was I too dismissive of the former way?
  • Did I skip a step in my explanation that would have allowed her to connect the dots?
  • Was I disrespectful in my presentation?
  • Was something valuable left behind when I discarded the former approach?

It was a challenging discipline I had volunteered for. It was also one of the best decisions that I made as a young minister. Learning by listening became a treasure chest for me.

Not only did I learn a ton of things I would have never known, but I also earned great credibility in my congregation and community.

There is nothing worse than a young guy with all the answers.

This discipline of listening was never more challenging than when the criticism was of me personally. No one likes to be criticized. It is especially difficult when you have the disposition/personality that I do. I am tender person, with a sensitive heart. This is complicated by that fact that I have a large physical presence and an even louder voice. (if you have ever been in room with me you will know that volume that I speak and laugh in).

So listening to criticism/concern is a magnified challenge because I had the tools at my disposal to a) make it stop b) take it in a different direction c) go on the offensive myself.  I am judgmental person with a quick mind so I usually had material of my own that I wanted to counter with.


That was just the beginning. In seminary I was mentored by Randy Woodley, a Native American theologian. Randy is big on honoring your communities’ elders. I tried to push back on Randy’s instructions to me by pointing out that many of that generation are racist or legalistic-fundamentalists who would not like or accept him or his ‘hybrid’ spirituality.

He responded “do you think I haven’t encountered this in my own family?”
I would stare at him as if to say “then why continue to honor them?”  I would make my eyes big and shrug my shoulders as if to say “…and…”

He explained that I needed it. It was not so much about the quality of their convictions but about the role I played and the character I needed to develop.

I’m still not sure I agree with him all the way. If I am honest, their brand of christianity did real damage and continues to have elements to it that are detrimental to the very gospel I learned about from Randy talking about Jesus.

In the end, I know that there is something bigger going on. I know that I need to break the enlightenment view of individualism I have inherited. I am aware that you can not re-invent yourself from scratch every decade or as needed. We come from a place, a group and have been socialized into a system. None of us are self made.

The challenge then is finding what you can learn from every person you cross paths with – even if it is simply how to present your innovative insight better the next time. Along the way, we might learn something really valuable as well.


Does everyone find this as challenging as I do? 

Did you resonate with Tony’s challenge in this chapter?

Do you have tricks that could be helpful? 

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All I can say to this, Bo, is that I know where you are. Fear of this kind of criticism is a big part of why I've kept my mouth shut for so long. I know what kind of courage it takes to listen this way. So I applaud your bravery.... And I kind of want to hug you a little.


Who, me? Find criticism challenging? Went to a workshop once where they were trying to teach active listening, and there was an exercise of trying to speak to a conversation partner who was refusing to listen - that isn't even criticism, but it pressed in my chest and killed the power of my voice to speak.


In my faith life I have the humility advantage of starting out at it late in life, so its pretty easy to admit other people might know a subject more deeply or have sat with it longer. I am often sure that the different way I see things is closer to the truth, but my lack of experience still makes it easier to listen to a different opinion without hearing it as criticism. In the rare occasion where someone has strongly criticized my direction in a sermon, I really did more to try to listen to their viewpoint than repeat my own, but  think that comes from still trying to work through what it means to attempt to speak God's word to the congregation in a way that it can be heard - somehow balance God's call in my thinking with God's call to the community.


Have heard it said that church is great practice for the life to come in heaven, because in church we get to sit beside, sing with, and make conversation with people we otherwise might not have the time of day for. That small insight is the closest thing  I have to a helpful trick.


One of the things I find most attractive about process thought is its acknowledgement that we stand in the footsteps or on the shoulders of all who have come before. And although we might see some fault and limitation in those who have brought us to this place, we should also honor their participation with God in bringing into being this moment when we are able to see with new eyes the new possibility God now asks us to participate in. 


Very nice that Tony and Jared broke bread together after their exchange ;-)



BoSanders moderator

 @_JacquiB It would be funny if when you give me that hug, you said all condescending & comforting  "nice try big guy - don't give up, "  ;) 

BoSanders moderator

 @kenalto9 Well said.  Well said.    -Bo  and I like the breaking bread aspect as well :) 


@BoSanders Ha! If you and I should develop the kind of friendship where I could do something like that and not feel guilty about it, I'd be quite pleased.