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The Spiritual Life of the Leader

I begin with three images.

The first is from a recent Newsweek, which featured a quote from a six-year-old boy who took top honors for sheep-riding in a national rodeo competition.  “I’m the goodest sheep rider in the whole world, except Jesus,” he said.  

Here is a child relishing a great victory but still remembering and naming aloud Someone greater than he. Lots of us more mature leaders, including me, fail to remember, especially in moments of victory, that we are not the center of the universe.  It really is about Jesus.

Second image.  On the day of Pope John Paul II’s funeral, the Houston Chronicle published several local stories regarding the service.  One featured a large photo of a student at St. Thomas University preparing for the Houston vigil and Mass.

A young man in a nice shirt and jeans stands with his right arm draped around the arms of a seven-foot-tall wooden crucifix, as though it was an over-sized walking stick.  His left hand clamps a cell phone to his ear.  The fingers of the right hand wrap around the neck of a bottle. 

My husband, Bob, called my attention to the photo. The young man. The cell phone. The bottle. The crucifix.  Bob commented, “Doesn’t this photo capture the paradox of young adults today?”  

I thought about it.  The earnest seeker.  The high tech phone.  The low-tech crucifix.  The bottle of something to make you feel good.   The cell phone ringing.  Jesus Christ crucified and risen waiting to be picked up.  All converging on one vulnerable young man.

I have since realized that the photo captured far more than the paradox of young adults.  It is also an image of many spiritual leaders.  The phone constantly ringing.  Voices from our congregation, staff, peers, family, work, leisure, even bishops, calling out to us.  The culture bombards us with demands to acquire and consume.  Buy this.  Eat that.  Our hands are full.  Our heads explode.  Yet, right in the center of our lives is the cross of Jesus.  How do leaders remain faithful?  The cross in the photo is large and heavy.  If our young man—the leader of the procession—picks it up, he will have to lay aside everything else.

One last image.  It is a personal story.  A granddaughter story.  This summer, Bob and I took our five-year old granddaughter, Abigail, on her first long trip with us, tent-camping in the Rocky Mountains.  The three of us spent nine wonderful days in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.

I entered into this adventure anticipating the gifts the grandparents would offer the granddaughter:  vistas of snow-capped mountains, the night sky with the moon and stars, springtime flowers in July, wading in an icy cold stream, seeing deer and bison, moose and elk, bald eagles and trumpeter swans, waking up to a warm fire and cup of hot chocolate.  I wanted to ground Abby in God’s creation and have her learn to enjoy what Bob and I enjoy so much.  

A wise pre-school educator taught me many years ago that the best way to help a child become aware of God’s presence is simply to speak it aloud, draw it, write it or create a symbol of it as you notice it.  She was critical of Sunday School teachers who assumed that worship had to occur at “worship time.”  “Be attentive to every moment of wonder, joy, beauty, harmony, peacefulness or love that the child encounters,” she said.  “That is the time to speak God’s name and say thank you to God.  In time, the child will join you in saying thank you to God.” 

This grandmother, out of love for her granddaughter, made a point of putting that wisdom to use.  Being attentive to the honking of Canadian geese and saying thank you to God for birds that made such funny sounds.  Being attentive to the beautiful stars that Papa Bob showed her and saying thank you to God for the stars.  Being attentive to the sunshine that warmed us on cold mornings and thanking God for making the sun.  Being attentive to missing her Mama and Papa and baby brother—especially at night-- and asking God to bless them and take care of them.  Thanking God for the food we were eating.  So it went for nine days.

As the days went by, I discovered how much more aware I was of God’s presence.  In trying to help a child stop, look and listen to the signs of God’s love and providence, I became more aware of God’s love and providence.  In trying to teach a child to practice the presence of God, I found myself practicing the presence of God.  I became more attentive to God’s presence in creation.  Every moment I was attentive to God, it became clearer that life is not about me, who I am or what I do.  Rather, my life and ours begin in God, continue in God and end in God.  This God is made known to us in Jesus Christ.  This God enlivens us through the gift of the Holy Spirit. 

Although it wasn’t my usual pattern of spiritual expression, being fully present to Abby and to the presence of God in her and in the world evoked a simplicity of life and spirit that I often long for, but rarely experience.  Thomas Merton said once that, when it comes to prayer, we are all beginners.  I heard Bishop Carder say one time, that when leaders think we have arrived at a spiritual height, we have really only just started.  Our appropriate stances before God are always humility and persistent openness.  I am grateful to God and to Abby that, together, they helped me begin my spiritual journey anew. 

These images point to three realities about spiritual leadership.  First, the primary task of spiritual leadership is attentiveness to God.  Ministry begins in God.  It continues in God.  It ends in God.  Staying focused on God is the central challenge of ministry. 

The leader’s job is to notice where God is present and active in the world.  But obviously, we cannot help our congregations or the world focus on God when we are not aware of the presence of God ourselves.  In the light of that awareness, we can help direct our congregations to “move with the Spirit.”

One of our biggest challenges in discerning God’s presence is distinguishing between what is authentically God-at-work and what is simply our own human compulsion and sin.  St. Augustine points us to one of the clearest signs of God-at-work.  He says, “Deep in every human being is a God-shaped emptiness that only God can fill.”  Human beings experience that emptiness as hunger.  Hunger for God’s love.   Hunger to be whole, to make a difference, to be in union with God.  Hungers are from God.  Hungers are our greatest ally in evangelism.  

However, our hunger for God frequently reveals itself as appetites:   the anxieties, compulsions, or obsessions that distract us from our deeper hunger for God.  Appetites are characterized by “more than,” as in “I want more than. . . .”   Humans are nothing if not a bundle of appetites.  We develop appetites for endless and varying activities, foods, drinks, relationships, victories, dreams, power and control and much more.  Our Western culture helps hone those appetites until they are difficult to unravel from our real hunger. 

Thanks to imagination and advertising, we have appetites today for things that didn’t even exist yesterday. Somebody somewhere decided to whet our appetite.  

I saw an ad recently designed to whet our appetite for hot flavored lattes.  Truly, it was a packaging solution in search of a problem.   A certain coffee company was trying to sell lattes at $9 per four-pack in cans that self-heat at the touch of a button.  The manufacturer enthused that these lattes are great for outings such as camping, but warned that the cans must be kept at room temperature to self-heat properly. Does that sound like camping trips you know about?  They are trying hard to whet our appetites.

In my experience, it is not lattes that most often tempt pastors or bishops who attend conferences like this.  People like us are usually highly motivated folk who want to make a difference in our congregations, communities and the world.  For us, our God-given hunger is to make a difference for God’s kingdom.  But in the lives we lead, that hunger is often twisted into an appetite for busyness that is little short of compulsive activity.  In an era of seven-day-a-week congregations, leaders are particularly prone to the 24/7/365 way of life.  Leaders, particularly “successful” leaders, often find themselves on over-load.

The poet Noelle Oxenhandler has offered a stimulating image of how this 24/7/365 pattern seduces leaders into believing we are indispensable.  He uses the hospital emergency room and round-the-clock convenience stores as metaphors.  Think of them as hunger and appetite.  In “Fall from Grace,” a New Yorker article quoted in the January 2005 Interpretation, Oxenhandler writes,

What does it mean that the 7-Eleven and the emergency room are atmospherically similar?  The emergency room is the true domain of necessity, the place where there is no drawing back before the bleeding wound, the broken bone, the last-minute contractions.  But a Pop-Tart, a six-pack of Coke in the middle of the night?  We have come to believe that convenience is necessity. . .  (I)f we can’t find it we feel a knot of anxiety, frustration…..Our own definition of a world in order is one in which all goods and services are always immediately available.  This is the paradisiacal aspect of the mall, and it is our version of eternity:  seasonless, ever-present, abundant.”

How easy it is for leaders to confuse our vocation with the emergency room when we are really staffing the 7-Eleven.  It is appropriate for the spiritual leader to be available for the emergency room.  It is not appropriate for the spiritual leader to wear one’s self out staffing the convenience store.  The confusion is understandable.  It is the confusion between the hunger caused by the God-shaped emptiness for meaning and purpose found in following Jesus Christ and the compulsive appetite driven by our own need to please people, keep up with the latest consumer trend in religious life, and enjoy other’s dependence on us. 

That is why all the ancient prayers include confession and repentance.  We need repeated disciplines of self-examination.  We need to grow in self-awareness.  We need opportunities to distinguish between our God-given hungers and our appetites.  Without that awareness, we easily lead our congregations down the path of what some have called “designer discipleship” rather than mature, faithful discipleship. Carefully examined, our appetites will point us back toward our deepest hungers, which are for God.

This discipline of self-awareness brings me to the second point I want to stress:  Christians need each other.   None of us can grow spiritually alone. Spiritual leaders need to develop deep, long-lasting relationships with Christians who will love us.  Christians who will help us focus on practicing the presence of God in the world.  Christians who will challenge us with a reality check on the difference between appetite and hunger.  Christians with whom we are mutually accountable.  Christians with whom we are willing to share our failures, temptations and sorrows as well as our successes and celebrations. Christians who love us enough to tell us if we are doing something stupid.  Christians who will hold our feet to the fire of faith.  Every spiritual leader needs that kind of community.  It is one of the few protections again the “designer discipleship” that is so prevalent today.

Without a doubt the primary cause of ineffectiveness among clergy is poor self-awareness, self-destructive behavior, depression, burnout and poor physical health.  That translates into little desire or energy to learn new skills or to strive for excellence.  The notion of going on to perfection in love or anything is simply an anachronism.   But virtually all those are outcomes, not causes.  The causes are rooted in loneliness, isolation, lone-ranger leadership and lack of attention to the means of grace.  What begins as an occasional behavior grows into a pattern, which develops into a habit, which becomes ingrained into one’s character, which is constantly revealed, in one way or another, in an inability to do the work of ministry.  One of my most difficult, saddest roles as a bishop is dealing with pastors at the end of that long process.  The church has a right to expect more from its clergy.  By the time they get to me, it is often my sad task to show them the door as gently and lovingly as I can.

As early as the fourth century, Christians wrote about practices that helped deepen their relationship with God and one another.  All of them were based in participation in a covenant community.  Even solitary practices such as individual prayer and fasting were done in the context of community.  Wesley himself specifically named Holy Communion, baptism, worship, Bible study, individual prayer, family prayer, fasting, and works of mercy such as caring for the poor as means of grace.  Practicing those means of grace was examined regularly in bands, classes and societies. While Wesley may have been a little rigid or legalistic about group accountability, the pendulum has now swung about as far as it can to the other side. Christian discipleship is too difficult to deceive ourselves into thinking we can be faithful alone.

Paying attention to the presence and work of the Triune God is the first responsibility of spiritual leadership.  We might even call it loving God with our heart, mind, soul and spirit.  Over time, that attentiveness causes us to deepen our relationship with God.  While the discipline of attentiveness always has an element of wonder and mystery, it also has a certain predictable quality.  That is why it is called a means of grace.

Growing in community with others, which always requires us to be honest with ourselves, is the second responsibility of spiritual leadership.  We might even call it loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Over time, that emphasis on human relationship matures our own discipleship and the discipleship of the whole community or congregation.  Again, while attentiveness to covenant community always has an element of wonder and mystery, it also has a certain predictable quality.  That is why the church is a means of grace.

The third reality is a much deeper mystery and much less in our control.  Whether we notice it or not, like it or not or participate or not, the Triune God is transforming God’s church.  The Triune God is transforming God’s world. No matter how things appear on the surface or at a particular moment, that transformation is ultimately in the direction of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven.  This reality was brought into being not by us, but in the life, death, resurrection of Jesus.  It is active via the power of the Holy Spirit.  Like the processes of fire in which the flammable substance is completely transformed, so too is our world being transformed.

Through the gift of the Spirit, God is always inviting us to participate in that transformation of ourselves and the world.  At this deeper level, through grace, prayer moves from attentiveness to being transformed in love.  Wesley would say it is “being made perfect in love in this life.”  Notice the passive verb.  For Wesley, Christian perfection is not what we do.  It is the activity of God.  Just as every individual is unique and different, so too the transforming process of “being made perfect in love” is unique and different.

At this deeper level we discover the practice of contemplative prayer, similar to what some would call centering prayer, prayer of the heart, breath prayer or a prayer of silence.  It is experiencing the choice of silence over sound, solitude over interaction, centeredness, quietude and balance over engagement, animation and struggle.  Contemplative prayer is not something we do.  Quite the contrary, when we stop doing and saying and simply “be” in the presence of God, contemplative prayer is God’s gift to us.  The Psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God.”

In contemplation, something of what happens to us is a wearing away of selfishness, giving up fear and anger, casting away the false appetites.  In formal prayer, we play an active role.  In contemplative prayer, we are acted upon.  Transformation is outside our control.  In contemplation, the metaphor of a consuming fire becomes understandable.

Theresa of Avila, the 16th century activist and mystic, has a helpful metaphor for understanding the relationship of spoken prayer, self-examination, community worship and contemplation.  She said that, at first, prayer is hard work. It is like watering the garden by dropping a bucket in the well, hauling it up, pouring it out on one plant at a time and dropping it in the well again. But in time, prayer becomes more like a waterwheel that lifts the water from the stream and pours it out.  We have to keep the wheel turning, but the human effort is not so great.  Contemplative prayer, she says, is being out in the garden, and God sends the rain.  Gentle, abundant, life-giving rain.  Pure gift of grace.

For me, two images have come to symbolize the leader’s struggle to maintain a contemplative stance in an active life.  One image is leader as high-wire walker, trying to balance on a wire stretched between two tall towers, one called action and the other, contemplative prayer.  From the high wire, it is a long way down to the safety net.  Some days I don’t see it at all.  It is hard, lonely, high-energy work to balance myself between God’s call to leadership and God’s call to be transformed in love.   

The second image is rhythm, dance.  I see a dancer moving from shadow to light and light to shadow.  Sometimes slowly.  Sometimes quickly.  Sometimes still and sometimes running.  I see a child asleep in her mother’s arms, and I see that same child laughing, crying and playing with her friends and then going back to her mother’s arms. I see the tide moving in and out. I see us breathing—inhale, exhale.  Breathing in, breathing out.

For years I tried to balance my life.  Now—at least on my good days, I try to allow God to set the rhythm.  God invites all who are called to some form of spiritual leadership to dance to God’s rhythm.  Sometimes it is a solitary dance.  Sometimes it is in community.  Always it is in an awareness of that great mystery in which we are being transformed in love.

Janice Riggle Huie is bishop of the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  This article is adapted from her keynote address Aug. 3 at the School for Congregational Development, an annual gathering sponsored by various UMC conferences, committees and boards.  

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The Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program is funded by Lilly Endowment Inc.