Disappointed in Your Followers? Try Cultivating Awe!

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Every leader has experienced this frustration. You put your best leadership vision and energy foreword but you are met with an uninspired response. You hope for a reaction that is lively, expansive, generous and creative. Instead, your followers are unimaginative, scarcity-minded and inwardly-focused. What’s a leader to do?

Turning the tide might be easier than you think. Emerging research shows that simple experiences of awe unleash brain power, enhance generosity, and strengthen social connection.  Awe opens people up. Learn to cultivate awe as part of your leadership repertoire.

 What’s Awe Got to Do with It?

According to philosopher and psychologist William James, awe is the feeling we get when we come across something so strikingly vast in number, scope or complexity that it alters the way we understand the world.  The emotion that we call “awe” is our capacity for deep pleasure. When facing the incredible- we pause to take it all in.

Research is discovering important linkages between the experience of awe and our capacity for clearer thinking, kindness, generosity, creativity, ethical behavior and social connection. Research even suggests that awe combats narcissistic behavior in individuals and groups. When people have regular experiences of awe they are increasingly oriented to the world around them and less invested in individual goals and agendas.

How Awe Works

Awe is triggered by a variety of experiences that include prayer and worship, an exposure to natural wonders, great works of art, music, architecture, brilliant colors, remarkable human accomplishments, or mind-expanding theories.

Experiences of awe make us feel small. Our self-perception shrinks, but not in the negative sense of low self-esteem or lower social status. We simply get clear about our own relative insignificance in the grander scheme of the universe. Awe elicits the “small-self,” shifting attention away from our individual needs and goals and toward the larger experience of the collective group. We see the universe as expansive and ourselves as less important.

Michele Lani Shiota, Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University,  explains that emotions have adaptive functions-they help us thrive in a changing, unstable environment. Fear, for instance, promotes avoidance and escape from danger. Love facilitates the intimate interdependent relationships on which humans thrive. Awe serves a distinct purpose.  It elicits our capacity for deep pleasure in the face of the incredible, and it calms us so that we can fully absorb our environment.


What Awe Produces

Most positive emotions elicit the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response). They produce the energy and adrenaline needed for survival and needed for goal achievement.

Awe has the opposite effect. Awe engages the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system (the rest-digest response) and invites us to be still.  It creates the perception that time is expanding. This calmer state of the nervous system impacts the brain. Awe creates a sense of uncertainty that we are compelled to try to resolve. It opens us to more careful, detail-oriented processing of information from the environment. In simpler terms, awe sharpens our thinking and helps us to notice, adapt and learn.

Awe also encourages altruistic behavior.  When we encounter a sense of something larger than ourselves, it expands our beliefs about the richness of human potential. Awe promotes social cohesion.

Research shows that people who regularly experience awe are kinder to others and more generous with their time. They behave in more ethical ways. They have a reduced sense of entitlement and deprioritize their own goals in service to a group goal.


Eliciting Awe

Fortunately, religious institutions excel at attuning people to awe. Our worship services, prayer disciplines, sacraments and healing rituals are meant to be awe-inspiring.

Unfortunately, many of use leave the experience of awe at the door when it comes to managing the business of the church. We ignore the potential benefits of awe in the board room, the staff meeting and in our committee work.

We can significantly enhance the qualities of leadership and followership in our congregations by inviting regular experiences of awe. Here are a few simple ideas:

  • Invite people to remember a recent time when they experienced awe. Invite them to write or talk about that time. Research shows that the simple act of remembering an awe-filled experience elicits many of the positive effects of awe.
  • Show your people visual stimulation that is awe-inspiring, like this awe video . Let them sit in silence and gratitude for a few minutes after viewing the video before picking up business as usual.
  • Take your leaders on an “Awe Walk” before making a big decision. Move them into nature, if nature is available. Take them to explore a part of the city they’ve never experienced before. Otherwise, simply ask them to gaze on something familiar, from a unique angle and with fresh eyes.

While walking, shift awareness so that you all are open to what is around you, to things that are vast or unexpected. Things that delight and surprise.

As you walk, breathe deeply, counting to six as you inhale and six as you exhale.  When you return to your meeting venue, bring this state of awe and wonder with you.

We live in highly anxious times. It’s difficult for people to think and behave expansively when they are anxious. Inviting more frequent experiences of awe, and helping people attune to awe, can transform both you and your followers.


Photo Credit: “Morning Awe”, © 2009 Dru BloomfieldFlickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Tending the Soul of the Institution

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

The human brain favors binary thinking. We are naturally drawn to the two-sidedness of the world, the fact that everything has an opposite, a polar complement. Light vs. dark, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, yin-yang.

Leaders of faith based institutions often embrace binary thinking in organizational leadership. We tend the spiritual needs of our organization with the soft skills of care, prayer and discipleship. Then, we turn the soft skills off and guide the organizational side of the church with the hard skills of supervision, governance, facilities and financial management. Two fundamentally different kinds of work. Two very different skill sets. Right?

Wrong! This dualistic way of thinking about leadership is binding us and the institutions we serve. Holistic leadership recognizes that the institution is host to a soul, a direct agent of the divine spark within. The soul is the authentic and truest self of the institution; the source of its divine calling, and character; the protector of institutional integrity.
Tending institutional soul requires nurturing organizational effectiveness and spiritual wholeness as one.

Soul-Tending Illustrated

West Highland Church is facing life-changing decisions about the future of its building. Membership declined significantly in the last decade. Although the congregation is still vibrant and impactful, it is having difficulty supporting its sizable property and buildings. Several options for the future are on the table. The options range from supporting the operating budget with more funds from the endowment, taking on tenants, or selling the property outright and moving into a smaller space.

Leaders of the congregation began by deepening their knowledge and skill base. They sought out best practices, attended workshops and researched the ins and outs of real estate, finance and property management. Organizational capacity was enhanced by bringing in the wisdom of architects, property managers and investment managers. At the end of this process leaders had a good understanding of the issues and options, but they were stuck in finding a solution that would align the congregation with its history, its mission and the voice of membership.

Finally, leaders paused to consider institutional soul. Through a process of journaling and guided prayer, they emptied themselves of the biases and assumptions that had accumulated during their study. They hosted listening circles to discern the congregation’s orientation to its space. They paused and they prayed. They asked themselves questions about the sacredness of place. They pondered what it meant to befriend the soul of the community through each of the options before them. They reviewed the significance of place in the history of the congregation.

In the midst of this soul-tending work, a way forward began to coalesce. Leaders sold a small parcel of property at the edge of campus and used the proceeds to reduce their mortgage, so that debt became manageable for the present membership base. An exciting and vibrant chapter of church life followed.

This brief illustration highlights four important dimensions of organizational soul-tending work: cultivating collective wisdom, clarifying vocation, unbinding memory, and deepening discernment.

Cultivating Collective Wisdom: Organizations and their leaders know many things, but leading based on what we know does not invite transformation. Today, we face too many challenges whose solutions are beyond simple knowing. Wisdom is a form of knowing marked by our ability to discern the inner qualities and relationships of a situation and to distinguish truth from falsehood.

Nurturing collective wisdom requires shifting our orientation from knowing to unknowing, from advocating to attending, from speculating to presencing, from deciding to discerning. These are countercultural shifts in leadership orientation, rooted in ancient contemplative practice. These are orientations that must be cultivated within our leadership body if we want to do soul-tending work.

Clarifying Vocation: The integrity of vocation is protected by the soul. Who are we? Who do we serve? What is God calling us to do or become next? The soul of the institution knows the answers to these questions. Leaders who discern these questions authentically, on behalf of the soul, have located the charism of the organization. Honoring the charism insures institutional integrity.

Unbinding Memory: John O’Donohue, poet and theologian, wrote that “soul is the place where memory resides”. The soul of the institution is stable, but not static. It has been on a journey. That journey includes clarifying moments and wounding moments.

Wounding moments in a congregation’s past diminish its future capacity, if left unexplored. One congregation avoids talking about a troubled history, when three successive clergy leaders engaged in inappropriate sexual relationships with members of the congregation. Their failure to meaningfully frame their history contributes to a deep sense of shame about the congregation’s identity. Their shame binds them to past failures and blocks a hope-filled future.

Within the soul of the organization lies a capacity for the rediscovery, reframing and healing memory. There is generative capacity in the rediscovery of foundational memories that have long been forgotten. Through work with lost or damaged institutional memory an organization can rediscover its divine purpose.

Deepening Discernment: Yearning is the language of the soul. The soul of an organization often expresses itself through the collective yearning of its membership body. Soul tending work requires sharpening group discernment skills, it requires deeper listening as collective yearning finds expression.

Discerning on behalf of the whole and with the soul raises some challenging issues. Who is authorized to speak on behalf of the soul of the institution? How does daily decision making relate to discernment? Where do we locate discernment in the life of the institution? Leaders must respond to these questions as part of authentic soul-tending work.

Tending the soul of the institution is more than a simple call to prayer, and it requires more than slapping a scripture verse on top of good business practice. It is more than understanding the culture, strategy and spirituality of a congregation. It requires basic leadership orientations that may seem at odds with traditional practices of leadership. Nurturing the soul-tending capacity of our leaders takes intentionality, time and attention. The payoff is greater authenticity in decision making and the genuine transformation of our congregations.

If you would like to explore institutional soul-tending further, please consider joining Alice Mann and Susan Beaumont for Tending the Soul of the Institution, a three-day learning retreat on November 3-5, 2015.

The Problem With Meetings

Monday, July 27th, 2015

The problem with meetings in congregation is that they focus on building and sharing knowledge. What if we focused on cultivating collective wisdom instead?

Think about the agenda in your typical church meeting. Staff meetings, board meetings, and committee meetings all incorporate the same elements. I tell you what I know, you tell me what you know, we consult with outside sources that know, and then based on our shared knowledge we wrestle our way toward decision making. If we can’t all agree, then majority rules. And most of this happens in the form of sharing and receiving reports, making motions, and approving actions. Boring, not very creative, and certainly not soulful!

Knowledge is tactical and practical. It is acquired through processing information and it informs us.  Knowledge is something that we have. It empowers us to act when we work well with information. Our financial reports, budgets, and committee or department reports are filled with gathered knowledge that we create to keep ourselves informed.

Wisdom requires more than shared knowing. It includes our ability to discern the inner qualities and relationships of a situation, the capacity to distinguish between the rightness and wrongness of things, to distinguish between what fits here and what does not.

Collective wisdom is not just about assembling our smartest or most spiritual people in the room, and asking them to make a decision on our behalf. Collective wisdom is about the capacity of a group to make wise choices and to orient themselves around a living sense of their shared future, informed by collective values. Collective wisdom emerges when we balance the content of our knowledge, with personal contemplative awareness, right relationship with one another, the needs of our community, and openness to the divine.

When collective wisdom emerges, people describe a seamlessness, a slowing down of time and space, a unitive awareness of boundaries expanding, and permeable connections growing stronger.  The ability to communicate with others becomes sharper and broader.  Astonishing creativity springs forth, along with the sudden and surprising appearance of new capacity and intelligence.

What are the conditions and practices that cultivate collective wisdom, particularly in the meetings we lead?

Stand Humbly Before God: We cannot create wisdom. Wisdom is available to us. We may cultivate conditions that open us to the presence of wisdom, but wisdom itself is a gift from God. So, collective wisdom requires that we begin with humility, and that we ask for guidance.

In a group or meeting context, this requires an orientation of unknowing, of recognizing that we each have personal biases and assumptions that are not helpful to the decision at hand.  We are all naturally invested in clinging to what we know; we don’t naturally engage in unknowing behavior. Therefore, we need to offer opportunities and rituals in meetings for people to acknowledge and release their personal biases, for making group confession, for naming and surrendering preferences.

Gain Clarity and Commitment to Core Values: The values of the community are those core principles and beliefs we hold that describe who we are when we are living as our best selves.  For example, our values might include: Our commitment to excellence as an attribute of God that honors God, our strongly held belief that every person matters to God and therefore to us, our embrace of worship as a way of life, our strong commitment to engaging those who live on the margins of life, etc.

Every community has a unique set of values. We cultivate collective wisdom to the extent that we gain clarity about our core values and call upon them regularly, as criteria to satisfy, within our decision making processes.

Cultivate Group Silence and Solitude: Silence and solitude lie at the heart of wisdom awareness. They are the center from which we connect to the soul of the congregation.

When we work in knowledge mode, we produce a lot of conversation: the report, the debate, the presentation, the brainstorm, etc.  When we open ourselves to wisdom, we take time for silence.

For example, we may frame a topic for discussion, and then stop for quiet reflection and prayer.  We might review all of the knowledge content available to us on a subject being considered, then put the reports away and use silence to reorient ourselves around soulfulness.

It feels counterintuitive to speak about solitude as something that we invite into a group context. But wisdom work requires healthy intrapersonal awareness. Intrapersonal awareness requires solitude.

Team members should receive information in advance of the meeting, so that they have time to think and pray about issues on their own. Institute the practice of waiting and resting between the time when an issue is introduced and the time when a final decision is made.  Create an agreement among team members that they will not debate or decide an issue with sub-groups, outside of official meetings. Use the time between meetings to reflect and pray individually, in solitude.

Use Robert’s Rules of Order Sparingly:  Robert’s Rules are parliamentary procedure to determine who has speaking and deciding authority in deliberative settings. They are meant to contain conversations that are likely to become contentious. They move debate towards decision making, using the principles of majority rules.

However, Robert’s Rules are not effective at cultivating wisdom or honoring the soul of the congregation.  The Rules don’t solicit input from those hesitant to speak.  They don’t consciously address the needs of people not in the room.  They don’t promote, silence, solitude and waiting as needed. They don’t easily accommodate flexibility or changes in decision making direction. In short, Robert’s Rules of Order are helpful in meetings that require order and constraint. They are not helpful for promoting collective wisdom.

Work with Consensus Based Decision Making: In consensus based decision making, we stay in dialogue until every person involved in the decision can say: “I believe this is the best decision we can arrive at for the organization at this time, and I will support its implementation.” Simply agreeing with a decision is not true consensus.  Consensus implies commitment to the decision, which means that all participants oblige themselves to do their part in putting the decision into action.

Consensus is not the same thing as a unanimous decision (in which all group members’ personal preferences are satisfied).  Consensus is also not a majority vote (in which some larger segment of the group gets to make the decision). Consensus is not a coercive or manipulative tactic to get members to conform to some preordained decision.  The goal of consensus is not to appear participative, it is actually to be participative.

Congregations require meeting structures for getting things done.  Without structure and process, there is just chaos. We can create processes that invest in building and sharing knowledge, but then we will always be limited by our own best thinking.  Or we can create processes and structures that cultivate collective wisdom. Then the possibilities for transformation are truly limitless.

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

Friday, December 5th, 2014

On airplanes, adults are told to put their mask on before helping others so they will be fully conscious. In churches, adults need to attend to their own spiritual consciousness before they can ably assist children and youth with fmary kay oxygen maskaith formation.

Unfortunately, the way in which we structure our staff teams reinforces semi-conscious adult faith formation. We follow the time honored traditions of staffing faith formation in children and youth first.  Then we staff the needs of the organization.  We give left-over oxygen to our adults. Can we really “train up a child in the way he should go”, when the quality of adult faith formation is so far behind the quality of our children and youth programs?

What follows is a description of the traditional order in which staff teams are assembled. As money becomes available in the church budget, staff positions are added in response to felt need. As we make these additions we often misdiagnose the real need.  Can you spot the misguided assumptions in the following progression?

After we fund the position of senior minister and musical director, we turn our attention to the youth ministry of the church.  We take whatever funding we can muster and we hire the brightest, shiniest, most fun-loving youthful leader that we can get out hands on.  Why? Well of course, our teenagers are our future.  If we don’t handle them correctly in their teen years, we will lose them forever. They don’t want to spend time with their parents as teachers. We need an outside professional.

After the youth have been attended to, we focus on raising a budget that will support the hire of a children’s director. Why? Well, if we don’t attract families with young children, we won’t have anyone to feed into our spectacular youth program.  And besides, our parents are exhausted and can’t be expected to invest in the coordination of a children’s program.  A staff member who will devote themselves to the spiritual nurture of our children seems like a no-brainer.

Now we become painfully aware of the unmet needs among the most senior members of our community. They are wondering why no one cares enough to invest in them. Our pastor is overwhelmed by the health care crisis of congregants and all of the unplanned funerals. So, we find a retired pastor who can visit the aged and infirm, help with funerals and tend grief.  After all, pastoral care is the primary spiritual formation need of the senior adult community, right?

Next, somebody notices that we are becoming too internally focused.  There is a excessive navel gazing and we determine that it is time to get outwardly focused, develop more of a social justice platform, and organize our disjointed missional efforts.  A director of outreach and mission satisfies the itch.

This is followed by the realization that adult congregants are misinformed and disengaged.  We hire a communications director and then a membership director, and so on and so on, until finally the senior minister throws up his hands.  “I can’t manage all of these people!” We really need someone on the program team who can supervise others. And by the way, we really should have someone on staff that takes responsibility for adult spiritual formation.

So, we hire a senior associate minister, put them in charge of supervising children and youth programming, ask them to help with preaching and pastoral care, and use their remaining available time to design a program of adult faith formation.

What message do we send when every felt need of the church is staffed before we tend to the faith formation of adults? We are reinforcing a number of mistaken assumptions that work against the health of our congregations.

Our Mistaken Assumptions:

Faith formation is about knowledge: Once you have the knowledge, you are done cookin’. We talk about the spiritual life as a journey, but we act as if it were a destination.  For all practical purposes, faith formation ends with confirmation in most of our congregations.  We assume that adults have learned what they need to know, and that daily faith walking is about re-applying the basic principles learned in childhood.

In fact, we know that many of our adults have not had basic faith training. They don’t know the Scriptures, they aren’t comfortable with prayer, and they don’t understand discernment or the basic spiritual disciplines.  And yet we choose to staff every other need of the church before we staff adult faith formation.

Faith is taught, not caught. When our congregations emphasize children and youth over adult ministry, we end up encouraging parents to drop their kids off and take some time off. We teach them, by our own example, that faith formation is handled by the professionals and that their job is to get the kids to the professionals for instruction.

In fact, research shows that authentic faith is caught, not taught. What we teach at church is only secondary to the lived experience at home.  Why don’t we choose to shore up the adults in the lives of our children, with their own vital faith experience?

We don’t need to hire staff for adult faith formation, because this is what the senior minister does. Most senior pastors would love to facilitate faith formation among adults.  If they are honest, they simply don’t have the time.  About a third of the senior pastor’s time goes into orchestrating worship and preaching.  About a third goes into the oversight of staff and general administration with boards and committees. The remaining third has to cover pastoral care, social justice, community involvement, and everything else.  That doesn’t leave much time for adult faith formation.

Why staff it, when they won’t come? Adult Sunday school has all but disappeared from many congregations. We have tried all kinds of replacement gimmicks and approaches.  And we are met with continued apathy. Why invest in a losing battle until someone figures out what the new education medium is for adults?

In fact, the “spiritual by not religious movement” is finding expression everywhere but in the church.  People make a regular commitment to tune into the OWN network on Sunday mornings to watch Oprah Winfrey interview great spiritual thinkers and writers. They find yoga studios that offer meditation experience. They join book clubs to read the spiritual classics. Others are finding a way, why aren’t we?

What if we reversed our typical staffing patterns and invested first in the spiritual formation of adults in our community? Might that make a difference in the overall health of the congregation, and in the spiritual well-being of our children and youth?

Building a Discerning Team

Monday, August 18th, 2014

Most teams in congregational settings assume they are being Spirit-led.  They believe that God will be self-disclosing and guide the work of the team, so long as good people gather with good intent.  They expect that discernment will happen automatically in the context of good decision making. And so, they demonstrate little intentionality when it comes to being Spirit-led or God-centered.

compassDiscernment doesn’t just happen.  It must be intentionally nurtured within the culture of a team.  A team that is grounded in God’s spirit, and open to authentic discernment, will cultivate its presence, its process, and its practices.

The Status Quo: Typically, groups trust each member of the team to be prayerful and discerning about an issue, and they expect each person to bring their private discernments into group decision making.  They rely on the spiritual depth of individuals to carry the team.

Certainly, a team will not be discerning if individual members haven’t developed their personal prayer and discernment muscles. You can’t simply show up and expect to engage in holy listening as a group, without having cultivated a prayerful spirit among members of the group.

However, personal prayer work isn’t enough for creating a group culture of discernment, because the team has a spirit of its own that engages the discernment process. The group has a history of carefully cultivated roles and relationships, habitual ways of seeing things, and established patterns of interaction.  To break through our entrenched behavior patterns we need to work on group presence, process and practice.

Presencing: The group must “presence” itself if it wants to do the work of discernment. Presencing is what the team does when it connects to its deepest source.

Otto Scharmer says that this is the place from which the field of the future begins to arise. The team has entered this state when it sits fully in the presence of these questions: Who is our Self? What is our Work?

Presencing happens when the team looks honestly at its past patterns of interaction, and suspends those patterns long enough to see with fresh eyes, and sense the organization from a new perspective. The team lets go of its attachments to personal agendas and the way that things have been done before, and enters the conversation with open mind, open heart and open will.

In a traditional decision making process there is little room for the concept of “presence”. Presence requires an attitude of unknowing. It takes time and intentionally. We can’t show up, say a prayer, and then dive into work as usual. We need to engage in deeper disciplines of prayer and silence in order to invite the team into a presencing state.

The more we cultivate this state, and the more frequently we enter into it, the easier it is to access presencing, when the need arises.

Process:  Group discernment involves a process that has many parallels to, but is distinct from traditional decision making. A team that is discerning will adopt an intentional discernment process. Let’s compare.

 Steps in Group Problem Solving   Stages in Group Discernment(Morris & Olsen)
Defining the problemLooking for root causesGathering the  data

Interpreting the data

Brainstorming alternatives/options

Establishing decision criteria

Evaluating alternatives

Assessing risk and return

Selecting an optimal solution

Allocating resources

Framing the focus of discernmentGrounding in guiding principlesShedding ego & biases

Rooting in the tradition & values

Listening for the promptings of Spirit

Exploring through imagination

Weighing options

Closing; moving toward selection

Testing the decision with rest

Decision making assumes that problems are solvable if approached carefully and logically, and that we have the capacity to understand and solve our own problems & embrace our own opportunities. Decision making seeks to maximize available resources and to maintain and restore the status quo.

Discernment, on the other hand, assumes that logic, attitude and ego stand in the way of effective problem solving.   Divine will is the ultimate value. Discernment relies on vulnerability, humility and unknowing. It opens up creativity and compassion. It requires patience, perseverance and fluidity in practices of dialogue and prayer. It works on God’s timing and not in accordance with human time frames.

Practices: Teams that are spiritually grounded generally have a deep toolbox of spiritual practices at the ready, for use as needed in the course of teamwork. These practices extend well beyond a simple prayer at the beginning and end of each meeting.

Spiritually grounded teams regularly engage such practices as:  lectio divina, contemplation/desolation, reflective story-weaving and biblical-theological reflection. Teams sharpen these practices outside of problem solving contexts, so that when they need to call upon the tools the practices are already well understood and practiced.

Spiritually grounded teams cultivate their capacity for silence. The team regularly enters into silence together and discovers a place of authenticity at the core of its stillness.

Some teams appoint a sage or discernmentarian. These are people with particular gifts of discernment and a capacity for wisdom, who are asked to guide the team’s discernment practices.

We cannot take the soulfulness of our organization or our teams for granted.  Our desire to be grounded in God’s spirit does not automatically make us a discerning team.  Tending to our presence, our process, and our practices leads to a rich, life-long journey of intentional spiritual discovery.

Is Our Busyness Masking Spiritual Boredom?

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

The large church is known for the quality and depth of its programming, and for the exhaustion of its staff team. It’s true, every one of my client congregations is functioning with a burned out staff team, and pastors on the brink of exhaustion.

We assume that a growing and thriving church is always adding more programming, enhancing current programming, and making certain that there is something offered to satisfy every imagined need. We heap on more and more options in an effort to improve participation and engagement. But it isn’t really working, is it? Those who are already engaged and active feel compelled to participate in the latest new offering to show their support. In fact, we are creating more opportunities for those who are already over-engaged, while the under-engaged watch our frenzy with mild disinterest.676x380

As we design and facilitate more programs, what is it that we fancy we are accomplishing? Do we honestly believe that adding offerings to the already overcrowded lives of our congregants will lead them more deeply into relationship with the Divine? Does one more scripture study, an extra spiritual formation instruction, an enticing new worship experience, or a compelling social justice opportunity really contribute to the soulfulness of our people or our congregations? Wouldn’t it be better to teach people how to sit still, to be okay with the discomfort of confronting themselves in empty time and space, to see what might emerge?

I suspect that the busyness we participate in and contribute to masks a deep-seated spiritual boredom of our own. We have forgotten what an authentic experience of God feels like, and how it is nurtured. Experiencing God begins in silence and stillness. There are no classes, twitter feeds, blog posts or sermons that will produce this. We cannot manufacture silence and stillness for our congregants. We can only point them in the general direction, and then trust that God will meet them there.

Have we ourselves confused thinking about, speaking about, and acting on behalf of God with the deep personal experience of being with God? Are we fearful that if we enter the silence and stillness that we will find nothing there to satisfy our souls? Are we afraid that we will have nothing to teach our congregants out of that experience?

It is summertime. We dreamed of this time all through the busy program year. This is the season we imagined would involve long stretches of uninterrupted time to dream, to pray, to rediscover our relationship with God, and to invent a next chapter. Instead, many of us are secretly ticking off the passing of days, worried that the summer will pass us by with nothing productive to show for our rejuvenation efforts. Many of us are already secretly gearing up for the onslaught of fall programming, just around the corner.

Today, I read this marvelous piece from Maria Popova on “Why the Capacity for Boredom is a Good Thing”. Popova reminds us of the childhood experience of boredom that emerges from having long stretches of “nothing to do”. She quotes Adam Phillips:

“Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom; that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.”

We have to slow down the madness of our program offerings so that we, and those that we lead, can enter the stillness, experience the boredom, and rediscover the desire for God on the other side. We need the courage to lead others in this counter-cultural journey of discovery.

So, today I invite you to quit work early. Put aside the sermon prep. Go for a walk or sit by a stream and stay there long enough to remember the sweet invitation of boredom. Invite God into that space with you and see what happens.

The Leader and the Vision

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Part of my Lenten discipline this year is a study of the Rule of Benedict. I am seeking to integrate the teachings of this 6th century communal rule book with my understanding of leadership in present day congregational life. Sr. Joan Chittister at Monastery of the Heart is my guide on this Lenten journey.

Here is the marvelous nugget from today’s reflection on Chapter 3 (Summoning the Community for Counsel).

“The Abbott (leader) does not need to know the truth,
but the abbott (leader) needs to be able to recognize the truth,
and enable the community to speak its truth
and foster the integration of truth.”

I think this is the essence of spiritual leadership in all faith communities! I’m going to be reflecting on this one for a long time.

Free to Discern

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

“This is a congregation, not a business.” All too often, right after making this claim, leaders go on to conduct a committee or board meeting exactly as if the church were a business. Oh yes, someone begins by offering up a three minute devotion, followed by a prayer, but then it is business as usual.

group discernmentWe form an agenda. Within the agenda are a variety of problems to be solved, or decisions to be made. In each instance, we frame a problem statement or decision query, name the underlying issues, propose a solution, argue the pros and cons, deal with the outliers, call for a vote, record the outcome and move on. This is decision making.

Increasingly as I work with groups in decision making I ask them what their discernment practices include. I’m usually met with a “deer in the headlights” response to that question. Our leaders have only vague notions of what the differences between decision making and discernment include, and they have no idea how to actually invite discernment in a group context.

Thomas H Green S.J. says, “Many people today express well-grounded misgivings about community discernment, and even feel uncomfortable with the word, ‘discernment.’ It can easily be a polite and pious name for a ‘tyranny of the majority,’ a way of attaching the Lord’s name and authority to what most of the group want, or believe he [sic] must want. If this happens, then, as we have seen, ‘discernment’ becomes a way of manipulating God to agree with our convictions concerning action and decision making.”

Where do we begin to identify the difference between group decision making and authentic communal discernment? We begin with the basic stance of freedom, unknowing, or indifference that underlies group discernment. Group decision making typically involves a cadre of leaders who are each invested in particular outcomes, who come together to iron out and resolve their attachments and differences, to advance the good of the whole. In contrast, authentic communal discernment requires sincere and committed prayers who are unencumbered by preconceived notions and outcomes. To move from deciding to discerning, we must free ourselves from inordinate attachments. We must assume an indifference to anything but the will of God as discovered and named collectively by the group; setting aside matters of ego, politics, personal opinion, and vested interests.

So, how do we invite leaders to adopt a stance of unknowing? We invite them, of course, to attend to their personal prayer lives and to build their personal discernment muscles. But beyond this we must help groups with their organizational detachment process.

Of late, I have been working with some concepts from Otto Scharmer (Theory U.) Scharmer identifies three internal leadership voices that often stand in the way of authentic listening in organizational life. He calls these the Voice of Judgment, the Voice of Fear, and the Voice of Cynicism.

The Voice of Judgment blocks the gate to an open mind. It is the voice inside your head that passes judgment on the people and events surrounding the discussion at hand. When we entertain the voice of judgment we protect ourselves from ideas and thought patterns that might be oppositional to our own point of view. The judgment voice may sound something like this: “This leader doesn’t have any expertise in this subject area, why should I trust her with this important decision?”

The Voice of Cynicism blocks the gate to an open heart. This voice is engaged in the emotional act of distancing. It prevents you from becoming too vulnerable. It sounds something like this: “Nothing will change, we make decisions all of the time that never get implemented. This time will be no different.”

Finally, the Voice of Fear blocks the gate to an open will. It seeks to prevent you from letting go of what you have and who you are. It seeks to protect you from insecurity, from being ostracized, from dying to yourself. It sounds something like this, “Others here are protecting their own best interest. If I don’t look out for my own interests, my area of ministry is likely to get the short end of the stick in the budgeting process.”

I have been experimenting with a journaling process that invites members into prayerful silence, followed by writing from the perspective of each of the three voices. We begin by framing the dialogue topic. Then I invite each participant to adopt the voice of judgment with regard to the topic and to write only from that voice for a period of 5 minutes. We take a momentary rest and then repeat the exercise assuming the voices of cynicism and fear. When the writing exercise is complete I lead the group through a guided meditation, inviting the Divine to help quiet each of the voices. We follow this with a period of silence.

I find that the group has deepened its spiritual maturity having completed this exercise. They are more prayerfully present, and more likely to engage in discernment.

Tending the Soul of the Organization

Friday, January 17th, 2014

soul-tendingDoes an institution have a soul? For many years I assumed not. I work with congregations, denominations and faith based non-profits in the areas of organizational and leadership development. I know these institutions as living and breathing organisms, with active cultures and vibrant spiritualties. However, I admit to regarding institutions as soul free entities, believing that soul tending needed to be done with the leaders of the institutions, not with the institutions themselves. My work at the institutional level has focused on strengthening systems and organizational cultures, and enhancing spirituality-not soul tending.

Recently, I have come into the presence of institutional soul. I have witnessed transcendent experiences, within leadership bodies, that seem to unite the divine with something deep in the bedrock of the institution itself. First there was the planning team that had many ideas about how to craft a next chapter in congregational life, but no consensus about how to proceed. After much debate and angst the group stopped to prayerfully consider what the soul of the congregation needed. A totally new direction emerged that had not been considered to date and consensus immediately centered on that alternative. Then there was the search committee that stood strongly divided over the choice of the best pastoral candidate. Fifteen minutes of prayerful silence, followed by a guided meditation on what the soul of the institution needed, yielded a consensus that felt divinely led. These experiences compel me to rethink my assumptions and to reexamine my approach and methodology. This “something” goes deeper than either organizational culture or spirituality.

For the past two years I have participated in the Spiritual Guidance program at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. Prompted by this experience I have come to see that the soul of the institution benefits from spiritual companioning and guidance, much as the soul of the leader benefits from spiritual direction. The tending of institutional soul requires something beyond skills traditionally employed in pastoring, consulting, coaching or individual spiritual direction. It begins with contemplative awareness and a stance of not knowing. It requires an attending orientation, and the unbinding of institutional wounds and unfreedoms that prevent leadership connection with soul. It favors a discerning mindset over a decision making mindset and it invites integrating work between the values of the institution and its leaders.

In this era of massive decline in many of our religious institutions, it behooves us to wake up and reconsider the ways in which we are approaching institutional change. The best of our efforts in organizational and leadership development are doing little to stem the tide of decline. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the souls of these institutions are deeply wounded and in need of soul tending. Perhaps it is time to shed the mantel of knowing and expertise and assume a new way of being relative to the souls of these institutions that we hold so dear.

During 2014, the growing edge of my practice will focus on Tending the Soul of the Institution. I hope you will join me on the journey and in the dialogue.