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Why Learning Helps Leaders Stay Supple

Alan Nelson

Leaders who take time to contemplate themselves, their experiences, and their relationships are more apt to remain fresh and stable. Lessons learned, failures experienced, and successes gained can be building blocks toward wisdom, but we need to review them to use them. As we scurry to answer e-mails, remain current in our reading, and attend our kids' soccer games and socials, we are deprived of the moments necessary to ask the deeper questions of life. Jesus and many great leaders throughout history made it a practice to get away, to retreat. Most of us need not schedule long retreats; weekly if not daily ponderings are sufficient to stretch us.

Remaining open to learning makes us better leaders during changing times. As human beings we are always tempted to resort to the familiar, but in changing times the familiar is apt to be antiquated and irrelevant. "Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved" (Matthew 9:17). Leaders are in the new-wine business. They must remain fluid and supple themselves if they are to introduce appropriate changes to the people they serve.

The goal is not to stack up a preset number of responses to challenging situations; rather, it is to learn how to think creatively and innovatively. Old wineskins tend to be inflexible, incapable of expanding as the fermenting wine needs room to "stretch." Inflexible leaders provide diminishing benefits for churches that require both greater wisdom and increased flexibility. Farm living showed me that cows don't always take the shortest path to a pasture; they tend to take the well-worn one. Humans, too, are creatures of habit more often than they are innovators.

"Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland" (Isaiah 43:18-19). God has new things for us in business, ministry, and life in general. Leaders must not allow emotional rigor mortis to set in.

Twenty-first century leading requires more and better leaders who possess qualities of new and old wineskins-old in that they are seasoned and mature, and new in that they are flexible and supple. Unless we stretch frequently, even the best of us are bound to burst. What new lesson have you learned in the last week or two?

Use the following lesson with all your leaders to help them keep learning.

Lesson 1

New Wineskins: Why learning helps leaders stay supple

Context

The goal of this lesson is to remind leaders and influencers that they need to keep learning and changing to lead well. To remain pliable, leaders must be curious and maintain teachable attitudes. Our natural tendency is to become set in our ways and rely upon past experiences. Rigidity renders us incapable of effective leadership in times of change.

Discussion

  1. What is something new you've tried in the last month (such as a restaurant, an experience, or a visit to a new town)?
  2. Why do we tend to avoid new experiences?
  3. What recent change has succeeded in our church? How did it evolve?
  4. Identify one rut you or our church may be in, a habitual behavior or process that has not been confronted in recent weeks or months.
  5. Why is innovation indicative of faith? How does adherence to the status quo require less faith?

Activity 1

  • Sometimes innovations emerge from problems or apparent failures.
  • Form groups of three or four.
  • Give everyone five minutes to think of and describe in writing a life or leadership lesson learned from failure. Ask participants to describe how these lessons changed how they responded to similar circumstances later.
  • Give members of each group ten minutes to share this information with one another.
  • If you have more than two groups, you might ask each to choose one story to share with the rest of the staff.

Activity 2

  • Try the following activity with members of your staff to impress upon them the importance of remaining observant and aware of changing conditions.
  • Ask everyone to find a partner, and have partners face each other for about fifteen seconds. Then instruct partners to turn around so that they're back to back. While they're turned away from each other, tell participants to change one thing about their appearance within thirty seconds. When time is up, tell partners to turn around, face each other again, and try to identify what has been changed.
  • Ask participants if it was easy or difficult to spot the changes. Ask them to think about how they can cultivate the habit of being observant. Ask how this habit could benefit the people they serve.

This article is excerpted from Children's Ministry Professional Edition.

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