Holding Steady (Maintaining Presence)

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(Photo Credit: Hartwig HKD, Flickr /CC-BY-ND/ via Wylio)

Congregations today are chronically anxious. When the anxiety of the congregation rises, leaders come under attack. We know this intellectually, but understanding that something will happen and actually riding out the experience are two different things.

Every change leadership theory has a name for the leader’s needed presence during times of high anxiety.

Edwin Friedman in “Generation to Generation” calls it leadership through self-differentiation. A differentiated leader takes non-reactive, clearly conceived, well- defined positions that seek to define the leader as the “head”, distinct from but committed to relationship with the body.

Peter Steinke in “Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times” calls it the non-anxious presence. Steinke describes this presence as a steady and calm way of being that acknowledges the anxiety, but does not let the anxiety drive behavioral choices.

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky in “Leadership on the Line” call it holding steady. Holding steady is about learning to take the heat rather than restoring the status quo. It involves focusing attention on the issue and letting the issue ripen. It requires the ability to observe and learn from resistance and the factions that emerge.

These three authors provide leadership language and skill sets that are useful in congregational contexts. However, as faith leaders we must first acknowledge the foundational importance of soul.

We dare not forget that presence is primarily a contemplative state of mind, and only secondarily a leadership state. We may enhance our leadership presence through learned behavioral skill sets, but our personal presence is ultimately nurtured through prayer and cultivated through spiritual discipline.

Presence is a different way of knowing, a knowing that emerges from the intelligence of the heart and spirit- from a place of wisdom. Presence is strengthened when we connect with our Source. In a state of presence we recognize our authentic personal self, alongside the authentic self of the institution.

We can invite presence through three spiritual postures: unknowing, attending and unbinding. But ultimately, presence is a gift that is given through grace, not something that we can manufacture.

Unknowing: Presence requires a willingness to step outside of the comfort zone of expertise and into the openness associated with “not knowing”. This is frightening work for the leader who has been authorized to lead by virtue of demonstrated expertise. An anxious system wants definitive answers from its authority figures.

A posture of unknowing is fostered in the leader and in the organization through a variety of spiritual practices that include slowing down, entering silence, engaging prayer, and confessing shortcomings. These are counter-intuitive behaviors to an anxious congregation that feels compelled to demonstrate mastery over its environment.

Attending: Attending is a shift in perspective. In the busyness of daily congregational life most leaders pay attention to the institution from the center. We see institutional life with ourselves and our world view as the definitive perspective. We make assumptions accordingly. Presencing requires shifting our field of awareness from the center of the organization to its margins, seeing with new eyes and fresh perspectives.

Attending invites us to seek Divine perspective, through the lens of kairos time. It requires disengagement from held assumptions and reengagement from a different place, which may feel counter-intuitive to holding steady. When a shift in our field of attention happens, the boundary between observer and observed collapses (unitive awareness) and the observer begins to see the system from a holy and holistic point of view.

Unbinding: Upon shifting perspectives we may notice that the organization lacks the freedom to work openly with the Divine. Unfreedom blocks our capacity to move from knowledge to wisdom, to move out of our heads and into our souls. Unfreedom may cloak itself as resistance, shame, cynicism or pride.

Unbinding work is fostered by a spirit of abundance and nonjudgmental blessing, when the space between us holds unconditional love, and when we invite a quality of witnessing and listening that is totally safe, where each person is honored as an authentic soulful self. Unbinding work requires letting go of the old and surrendering past wounding experiences or outdated self-images.

At the end of the day, our capacity as leaders is best served by cultivating personal spiritual presence. When we adopt postures that are unknowing, attending and unbinding, we position ourselves to remain non-anxious, to hold steady, and to self-differentiate.


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