Gretchen Ziegenhals: Seeking sanctuary through New Year's resolutions

The woods outside a monastery retreat center in the Swedish countryside.

Forest surrounding a monastery retreat center in the Swedish countryside. Photo courtesy of Gretchen Ziegenhals

Taking on a spiritual discipline, such as carving out Sabbath time, might strengthen and renew your leadership. And it might be a resolution you can actually keep.

I am wise enough to know that giving up chocolate is a New Year’s resolution I just can’t keep. Instead, I have delved into ventures of another kind that have been both life-giving and discipline-forming for me.

When we first moved to North Carolina, my resolution was a discipline around friendship. I resolved to have lunch once a week with an interesting woman. I was feeling lonely and realized that I needed to reach out to others in a disciplined way. Each time I met someone new, I would say, “We need to have lunch sometime” -- and I really meant it. I would email the following week and set up a time to have lunch.

Under this discipline, I was able to strengthen old friendships, create new ones, find refreshment with women doing wonderful and important things in the world, and support those who needed some time of holy listening. It was so enriching and rewarding that I did it for a second year.

In 2014, I entered into another kind of spiritual discipline for my New Year’s resolution: I resolved to take one day each month for a personal retreat. This was not a radical idea, but the retreats were a boundary-crossing kind of experience that refreshed me personally and professionally with different settings and images and a slower pace.

I began each month by marking off the Friday on my calendar that I could best get away, and I stoutly protected this time. My 12 settings for these boundary-crossing experiences varied. I spent a wonderful day at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, where I sat on the benches and gazed at paintings, watched other people gazing at paintings, walked outside on the sculpture trails and journaled in the cafe.

I spent three Fridays at a friend’s farm. We began with morning prayer, and then I drew and prayed, napped, shared a simple lunch of bread and soup, and walked for hours through her fields. Another two Fridays I walked, prayed, lunched and painted at a nearby historic-landmark plantation. And yet another I reveled in the quiet of a castle turned monastery retreat center in the Swedish countryside.

One lesson that emerged from my 12 retreat days was my need for a certain rhythm apart from my busy world of work and family responsibilities.

It was a rhythm found in the quiet of nature and extended prayer and reflection. I need to walk in order to think deeply. I need the openness and possibilities that nature and art provide. It was a rhythm found in a fuller kind of time, when an hour was something to savor rather than to pack with my to-do list. These are all aspects of my retreat days that I instinctively sought out and valued because they provided a certain sanctuary from my busy life.

While as Christian leaders we are taught the value of seeking out the quiet places as a spiritual practice, business school professor and author Ron Heifetz, in his book “Leadership on the Line,” urges all leaders to “seek sanctuary.”

“A sanctuary is a place of reflection and renewal, where you can listen to yourself away from the dance floor and the blare of music, where you can reaffirm your deeper sense of self and purpose,” Heifetz writes. “You would never attempt a difficult mountain journey without food or water, yet countless people go into the practice of leadership without reserving and conserving a place where they can gather and restore themselves.”

What is it you need to commit to in this new year that will provide the sanctuary necessary to strengthen and renew your leadership or your own “difficult mountain journey”?