One of the greatest characteristics of a leader is to have a teachable spirit.
Full disclosure: I love to be right, and I love to have the answers for people. No surprise to anyone: I am often wrong and am sometimes too quick with an answer. This is why I continually pray for a teachable spirit.
One of the leadership acronyms we introduced a few years ago was the acronym FATE. We encouraged pastors to look for leaders who are faithful, available, teachable, and enthusiastic. It’s not difficult to find someone who fills three of those characteristics. Teachability is where we often find challenge – in others, and most importantly, in ourselves. I believe teachability begins with leaders – denominational leaders, pastoral leaders, and ministry leaders. When we show a spirit of teachability others become teachable as well.
A phrase my good friend Mark Mounts often uses when counseling and teaching leaders is this: You don’t know what you don’t know, and you don’t know that you don’t know what you don’t know. The first time I heard this was an epiphany. Most of us can admit when we don’t know something, but we become teachable when we realize we do not know that we do not know what we do not know. Yes, that is written correctly; read it again and think about it.
One of the best ways to be teachable is to realize there is much you do not know. This leads you to make an effort to listen better, read more, and ask more questions.
When I finished my graduate studies, my daughter asked me, “Dad, what was the most important thing you learned?” She was surprised when I told her my greatest lesson was learning how much I don’t know. I never want to stop learning, and I want to always have a spirit of teachability. Here are a few lessons the Holy Spirit is teaching me about teachability that can prove to be a blessing to you:
Learn from multiple sources
I am often amazed during a townhall meeting with pastors in my area how much I can learn from pastors and ministry leaders. Recently we were talking about our proclivity to judge others because of their beliefs, their decisions, their life choices. I made the comment that I am always asking God to help me see others the way he sees them. I was thinking in terms of seeing their hurts and their pain so I can better understand. My friend Ron Washington said, “Yes, because he sees Jesus in them.” Mic drop! That summed it up better than I ever could and changed the way I pray for others. It was a teachable moment.
I’ve learned a lot from members and friends. There are times when someone you least expect may have something to teach you because he or she understands it better than you, or simply has an insight you don’t have. Can we trust that God might be teaching us through someone else? Sometimes people with no theological background are given insights that are profound. Think of the disciples/apostles – fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, teaching profound theology.
Like most in ministry, I read widely, and I have learned that just because I might disagree with one or more aspects of someone’s theology doesn’t mean I cannot learn from their personal journey with Jesus. I may disagree with Billy Graham, or Richard Rohr, or N.T. Wright, or T.F. Torrance on certain things, but I acknowledge that God is in them, and I have great respect for what these writers and many others have taught me. Most theologians spend their life learning and are attempting to share what they’ve learned to be a blessing to others.
Truth be told, I don’t even agree with my own theology all the time; I am constantly going to Scripture to understand something better. It’s part of growing in grace and knowledge. I believe the more we grow in knowledge, the more we should be practicing grace, because we just learned something we did not know, and did not know that we did not know.
This leads me to the next point.
Think back in order to look forward
Sometimes it’s good to look back at what we have learned in our journey with Jesus and realize that he is not finished with us. For example, think back to when you learned that the Sabbath was a mirror shadow of what it means to rest in Jesus. That changed your world and got you focused on Jesus, rather than on days. That’s when you understood what he meant when he said the Sabbath was made for humans not humans for the Sabbath. (We will talk more about shadows vs reality next month.)
I’ll never forget when I learned the truth about God being triune in nature. That changed everything. Prior to that learning, I believed I had the truth of who God was. I did not know that I did not know; I had to be taught and I had to want to learn – teachability. I used to believe my relationship with God was transactional. If I did this, God would do that; if I didn’t do this, God wouldn’t do that. I had no idea what relationship with God meant. I’m still learning much about that. I used to believe women should not be in ministry. I have learned so much from my sisters in the faith. They have insights I could never have. Praise God, he taught me how wrong I was.
All of us can look back at what we thought we knew, and all of us can praise God for bringing us more clearly into the light of his truth. There is much yet to learn, if we continue to be teachable.
Be willing to surrender control
One of the teaching tools we latched onto from GiANT is the tool, Know Yourself to Lead Yourself. We stress knowing your God-given talents and gifts and then using them as you participate with him in ministry. But knowing yourself also means admitting you don’t know things, and that’s OK. It also leads to understanding you don’t always have to be in control. This is an important lesson for pastors. Richard Rohr talks about having a surrendering spirit.
Surrender will always feel like dying, and yet it is the necessary path to liberation. Surrender is not “giving up,” as we tend to think, nearly as much as it is “giving to” the moment, the event, the person, and the situation. – Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water
Rohr talks about the “incestuous cycle of the ego.” I’d phrase it this way:
- I am the pastor and supposed to have everything under control.
- Because I am the pastor, I will take control.
- I have to be right because others expect me to be right.
- Since I am the pastor and I am in control and I am right, I am powerful.
I have exaggerated this to illustrate a point of view that is the opposite of being teachable. A teachable spirit comes from realizing that only Jesus is in control, and he tells us to renounce the self and follow him (Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; Matthew 16:4). Jesus also illustrated a teachable spirit in always going to the Father for direction, for comfort, for support, for what to say and teach. Jesus set an example of true leadership by demonstrating a love that was always seeking the spiritual good of others. Never do we see Jesus seeking superiority, admiration, or control for himself.
Be willing to engage reverse gear and apologize
A big part of being teachable is being willing to admit when you are wrong, or when you handled a situation poorly. This often happens when we act or react without having the full picture. Have you ever made a decision based on your emotional response to a story, only to find out later you should have listened to both sides of the story first? Most of us have. This is a teachable moment. This is when we go back and apologize for making a rash decision. This is when we acknowledge that our decision, action, or non-action caused hurt to someone else.
Being teachable is being able to apologize even when we aren’t necessarily wrong. We can apologize for the hurt others felt. We can apologize because the impact of our decision caused pain – even when we were in the right.
The beauty of being teachable is to have an attitude of always trying to do your job better for the sake of others. If I am a teachable regional director, I’m going to ask pastors how I can be a better regional director and then listen to their response. If I am a teachable pastor, I’m going to ask my ministry leaders and members how I can be a better pastor, and I’m going to listen to what they have to say. If I want to be a teachable minister leader or Avenue champion, I will ask my team how I can better serve them, and I will listen. This teachable spirit helps us to become the healthiest expression of church we can be.
Perhaps you will join me in this prayer, Lord, help me have a teachable spirit, so I can participate in more effective ways with you, and I can be a liberator among those you have called me to serve and to lead. Amen.
Questions for reflection:
- When was the last time I prayed for a teachable spirit? Can I pray that today?
- Am I willing to admit when I don’t fully understand something, or when I realize my understanding is erred?
- Have I given up control as a leader? Am I practicing under the old paradigm of Pastor-led, team-based, where I have hands on in most areas of the congregation?
- Does my team believe we are following the leadership model of Team Based — Pastor Led, where I have eyes on and hands off?
- The article talked about reverse gear. Is there someone I need to apologize to? Am I willing to humble myself to do so?
May we always be teachable,