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Allison Backous: Leading and repenting

A former teacher becomes a manager and learns that repentance is part of the vocation.

September 25, 2012

“Repentance creates a daily environment for transformation.”

-- David G. R. Keller, “Oasis of Wisdom: The Worlds of the Desert Fathers and Mothers”

I recently took on a job that both fulfills and terrifies me. I moved out West with my new husband, left my work as a college writing instructor and took on a managerial role at a small English-language school.

I used to be the teacher; now I am the supervisor of teachers, of a group of people whose experience outweighs my own -- whose days, as I can attest, swing madly between excitement and exhaustion, the needs of students and the demands of time pressing against them at every turn.

The word “manage” descends from 16th-century Italian; the word maneggiare was used to describe the process of guiding someone “through the hands.” The root -- manus -- is Latin for “hand,” indicating that leading was a hands-on activity, one that got you just as sweaty and involved as the person you were guiding.

Any vocation, particularly one that deals with leading and guiding others, requires both backbone and sensitivity, an understanding that the people you shepherd carry burdens that strain their patience and their abilities.

And, as I am learning, I carry those same burdens myself. My abilities to advise and counsel fail daily, and my perceptions of what is helpful to say, or not to say, are weakened by my quickness to speak and judge.

When I was a full-time teacher, I understood that teaching was a vocation that bent you toward sanctification by constantly revealing your weaknesses. It made sense to me as a teacher -- I was working with students who felt just as afraid and timid as I did about words, about knowledge and about finding our way to being both wise and loved.

But as a manager, the rate at which my weaknesses are revealed is much quicker, much more difficult to bear. I have had to take back words, offer countless apologies and ask for help with my heart sinking, afraid that I will only continue to lead my colleagues and employees in directions that are confusing and wayward.

So much of our talk about vocation is in the affirmative. We are told that you know what you are supposed to do by the confirmation of gifts, by the way that your desires, in Frederick Buechner’s terms, meet the world’s “great needs.” We are told that the voice of calling is heard when we feel satisfied in our work, when we do well, when others see grace in our handling of the tasks our callings require.

And this is most definitely true; I would not have applied for this job had I not found joy in sitting on faculty boards, had I not had an interest in helping teachers strengthen their practices and discover their own gifts as instructors.

But I think my experience is showing me that vocation is also corrective, that we might be called to places and positions that prune us more sharply than we expect, and that this, too, is just as important as the joy and the satisfaction our work can bring us.

In my reading of the desert monastics, I have been surprised at how harsh their lives were; their spiritual practices of severe fasts and strenuous rules of prayer seem foreign. But I have been more surprised at the way they viewed correction and repentance as things to be welcomed, even desired.

To do the will of God, they believed that they had to do two things: love God and love their neighbor. And in order to do both, they had to examine their weaknesses constantly. They had to see, in the deepest way, how their temptations, inabilities and pride could only be healed by Christ, and that the more they sought him, the more they would see those weaknesses restored.

As men and women devoted to prayer, the desert monastics saw their lives as continual acts of repentance. Held in God, they believed that each correction they received, whether from others or from the Spirit’s conviction, was given in love -- that it was meant to bring them into the fullness of life.

And this leads me to believe that I should see this new job as a chance to welcome correction. If I manage with love -- if I offer correction and guidance to the people I employ without fear or anger -- I need to see that I am being led by the hand as well, that I will be corrected through my mistakes and through the Spirit’s conviction.

May I see that these corrections come out of God’s hold on me, and that repentance, rather than being exhausting, should be welcomed as a guest in the house of my life. May these daily openings for transformation lead me, and the ones that I bring with me, into the love that calls us all.