“Habits of the Heart” For Healthy Congregations with Parker Palmer

Parker_J._PalmerWe live in a time of deep divisions and polarization, both within the church and in the wider culture. Now more than ever, church leaders are called to embrace the healing and reconciling work of Christ as we seek to build healthy congregations than can engage their differences in more faithful, life-giving ways. What most us lack are the tools to actually do it.

Pastors and lay leaders throughout Wisconsin are invited to explore, though the use of small group discussion resources below, Parker Palmer’s five “Habits of the Heart” – tools and methods for building bridges across our differences and building up the body of Christ:

  • An understanding that we are all in this together;
  • An appreciation for the value of “otherness;”
  • An ability to hold tension in life giving ways;
  • A sense of personal voice and agency; and
  • A capacity to create community.

The small group discussion resource, below is designed for six sessions, and could be used with a clergy support group, local church council meetings, or with an adult study group in local congregations, to name just a few options. The intent is to develop new skills to apply the Habits of the Heart to the current challenges and opportunities facing congregations today.

Groups can use Parker Palmer’s book Healing the Heart of Democracy: Creating a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (2nd ed.) as an accompanying resource, but it is not required reading.

The Discussion Guide below was developed by facilitators who are a part of Parker Palmer’s Center for Courage and Renewal, as part of a pilot project for clergy and lay leaders in partnership with the Wisconsin Council of Churches and Edgewood College in Madison, WI.

Habits of the Heart for Healthy Congregations Resources:

Download a two page summary of the the Five Habits of the Heart That Help Make Democracy Possible

Five Habits of the Heart That Help Make Democracy Possible
Adapted from Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (2011)

The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up—ever— trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?
—Terry Tempest Williams


habits of the heart“Habits of the heart” (a phrase coined by Alexis de Tocqueville) are deeply ingrained ways of seeing, being, and responding to life that involve our minds, our emotions, our self-images, our concepts of meaning and purpose. I believe that these five interlocked habits are critical to sustaining a democracy:

1. An understanding that we are all in this together. Biologists, ecologists, economists, ethicists and leaders of the great wisdom traditions have all given voice to this theme. Despite our illusions of individualism and national superiority, we humans are a profoundly interconnected species—entwined with one another and with all forms of life, as the global economic and ecological crises reveal in vivid and frightening detail. We must embrace the simple fact that we are dependent upon and accountable to one another, and that includes the stranger, the “alien other.” At the same time, we must save the notion of interdependence from the idealistic excesses that make it an impossible dream. Exhorting people to hold a continual awareness of global, national, or even local interconnectedness is a counsel of perfection that is achievable (if at all) only by the rare saint, one that can only result in self-delusion or defeat. Which leads to a second key habit of the heart…

2. An appreciation of the value of “otherness.” It is true that we are all in this together. It is equally true that we spend most of our lives in “tribes” or lifestyle enclaves—and that thinking of the world in terms of “us” and “them” is one of the many limitations of the human mind. The good news is that “us and them” does not have to mean “us versus them.” Instead, it can remind us of the ancient tradition of hospitality to the stranger and give us a chance to translate it into twenty-first century terms. Hospitality rightly understood is premised on the notion that the stranger has much to teach us. It actively invites “otherness” into our lives to make them more expansive, including forms of otherness that seem utterly alien to us. Of course, we will not practice deep hospitality if we do not embrace the creative possibilities inherent in our differences. Which leads to a third key habit of the heart…

3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. Our lives are filled with contradictions—from the gap between our aspirations and our behavior, to observations and insights we cannot abide because they run counter to our convictions. If we fail to hold them creatively, these contradictions will shut us down and take us out of the action. But when we allow their tensions to expand our hearts, they can open us to new understandings of ourselves and our world, enhancing our lives and allowing us to enhance the lives of others. We are imperfect and broken beings who inhabit an imperfect and broken world. The genius of the human heart lies in its capacity to use these tensions to generate insight, energy, and new life. Making the most of those gifts requires a fourth key habit of the heart…

4. A sense of personal voice and agency. Insight and energy give rise to new life as we speak out and act out our own version of truth, while checking and correcting it against the truths of others. But many of us lack confidence in own voices and in our power to make a difference. We grow up in educational and religious institutions that treat us as members of an audience instead of actors in a drama, and as a result we become adults who treat politics as a spectator sport. And yet it remains possible for us, young and old alike, to find our voices, learn how to speak them, and know the satisfaction that comes from contributing to positive change—if we have the support of a community. Which leads to a fifth and final habit of the heart…

5. A capacity to create community. Without a community, it is nearly impossible to achieve voice: it takes a village to raise a Rosa Parks. Without a community, it is nearly impossible to exercise the “power of one” in a way that allows power to multiply: it took a village to translate Parks’s act of personal integrity into social change. In a mass society like ours, community rarely comes ready-made. But creating community in the places where we live and work does not mean abandoning other parts of our lives to become full-time organizers. The steady companionship of two or three kindred spirits can help us find the courage we need to speak and act as citizens. There are many ways to plant and cultivate the seeds of community in our personal and local lives. We must all become gardeners of community if we want democracy to flourish.

Discussion Guide for six sessions

Download a pdf of the Discussion Guide

1.    Parker Palmer speaks on the role of religion in public life

Holy listening demands that we engage in listening to discover the presence and activity of God in the joys, struggles, and hopes of the ordinary activities of congregational life, as well as the uncertainty and opportunity of change and transition. Listening is holy because we expect to hear the voice, presence, or absence of God. Holy listening demands vigilance, alertness, openness to others, and the expectation that God will speak through them. Holy listening trusts that the Holy Spirit acts in and through our listening. We discern and discover the wisdom and will of God by listening to one another and to ourselves.     –Craig A. Satterlee

Watch video

Questions for consideration:

  • Do you see your congregation participating in the public life as Parker describes it?
  • What are the qualities of religious life and practice that could be brought to the public life?
  • Do you experience any intersection of religion and the public life in your current setting?  If so, where and how?
  • In what ways could or should religious life and practice be explicit in public life?

2.    Parker outlines his “habits of the heart” from his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy. 

“No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood….”  — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Watch Video

Questions for consideration:

  • Which habit do you feel you have the most mastery with?  What allowed you to develop that habit?
  • Which habit is the hardest for you?  Where in your experience does this show up the most – personally, in your congregational life, and/or as a member of the larger community?

3.    Local Madison area clergy and Parker Palmer reflecting on the Habits of the Heart.

loving your neighbor is all very fine when you have nice
neighbors.  This is why people choose the town they live in.
we all want nice neighbors. It’s the folks in the next town
who are the bad guys.  you’d be amazed at how citified folks
hate the people in the suburbs.  not the suburbs, the people
in them.  but would they want us living next door? i ask you.

& joan of arc was noisy.  she must have made a lousy neigh-
bor & jesus, giving everything away – & ghandi, a walking
guilt trip.  some people make nicer neighbors than others.
but there you have it.  city planning

funny how essays on politics, on war & peace, seem to talk
about love
            –Alta Gerry

Listen to the podcast

Thoughts for consideration:
As you listened to the experiences shared on the podcast – the singing of “Sanctuary” in the Dominican Republic, the aspens’ root system – what images or experiences have you had that are powerful expressions of Habit 1:” we are all in this together?”

4.    An Appreciative Eye for Humanity:  Parker and Carrie Newcomer discuss her song,  “Betty’s Diner”

“In Christian tradition, the broken-open heart is virtually indistinguishable from the image of the cross.  It was on the cross that God’s heart was broken for the sake of humankind, broken open into a love that Christ’s followers are called to emulate.  Even as a physical form, the cross—with arms that stretch left and right and up and down– symbolizes the tension, the “excruciating” tension, that can open the heart to love.  

For Jews, learning to live openheartedly in the face of immense and devastating heartbreak is a historical as well as spiritual imperative.  So it is no surprise that Jewish teaching includes frequent reminders of the importance of a broken-open heart, as in this Hasidic tale:

A disciple asks the rebbe:  “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’?  Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”  The rebbe answers:  “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts.  So we place them on top of our hearts.  And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”
        –Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy, pp. 149-150.

Watch Video

5.    Parker speaks on the importance of his fourth habit – A Sense Of Personal Voice And Agency

It Is I Who Must Begin

It is I who must begin.
Once I begin, once I try—
here and now,
right where I am,
not excusing myself by saying that things
would be easier elsewhere,
without grand speeches and
ostentatious gestures,
but all the more persistently
—to live in harmony
with the “voice of being,” as I
understand it within myself
—as soon as I begin that,
I suddenly discover,
to my surprise, that
I am neither the only one,
nor the first,
nor the most important one
to have set out
upon that road.

Whether all is really lost
or not depends entirely on
whether or not I am lost.

–Vaclav Havel

Watch Video

6.    13 Ways to Understand Community

The hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self–to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.
–Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World

  • Parker Palmer reminds us that in community, when the person who drives you crazy leaves, another one comes to take his/her place.
    • How does that change how you think about leadership?
    • How are challenging people a part of your community?  What have you learned from them?
  • How does the ability of staying in the tension vs running away or going silent connect with the capacity to create community?  What are examples in your own life?


Comments are closed.