Tending the Soul of the Organization

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.

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