I remember the moment a clergyperson said, so matter-of-factly, during a retreat: “If it weren’t for the congregation, I’d be a great leader.” We all broke into laughter. Most of us wanted to believe it. But as pleasant as the fantasy of leadership without anyone else interfering may seem, we can’t lead without a context and followers. We lead imperfect people in imperfect institutions—imperfectly.
We lead with those we are called to serve. And we lead from who we are as well.
There is an alchemy in congregational leadership. As much as we attempt to guide the congregations we lead, they also, over time, shape who we become as leaders. Though it is not always golden, imperfections are utilized and are transmuted. Rachel Naomi Remen states this well: “The reality is that healing happens between people. The wound in me evokes the healer in you, and the wound in you evokes the healer in me, and then the two healers collaborate.”
As we lead, we recognize our vulnerability. And vulnerability is necessary to the art and practice of leadership.
Meeting “Them” Where They Are
Martin Buber said, “All real living is meeting.” Buber once turned away a young student who had come to meet him in his office. When the student arrived, Buber was preoccupied with his own important tasks. He was not present to that student who held a distress in his soul that was not visible to the busyness of Buber.
When subsequently Buber learned that that student had committed suicide, Buber had a soul-wrenching revelation of the high cost of a “missed meeting.” Buber dedicated himself to being present and to genuine dialogical engagement. He advocated for a reciprocity that can only be experienced by turning toward another (even those we attempt to lead) with an embodied presence that is just as willing to be influenced by our interactions.
He explored the distinctions and spiritual implications of “I-Thou” and “I-It” relationships. If we become too instrumental (I-It), we miss the potential of being influenced by the quality of the space between us and those we lead. That space, between the I and the Thou is a holy space—requiring our utmost care and attention.
Practicing Embodied Presence
At this point in my life, I am grateful to the imperfect and inadequate organizations that I have encountered—sometimes as a leader within that organization and other times as a consultant. Of course, my gratitude is retrospective—because at the time, I often dreaded those experiences that were most challenging. Sometimes, I was filled with my own set of “If only” statements: “If only there were a different senior leader. If only members were more committed, more intelligent, more compassionate….”
Our frustrations can become disappointments—not just with the organization, but also with ourselves: “If only I were more self-differentiated, calmer, more intelligent….”
Our leadership presence can become like movements in a dance, or elements in a liturgy. I’ll summarize the movements that inform my coaching, consulting, and teaching, and which perhaps could assist you. Each movement has its own timing and contribution to the whole.
Each movement begin with an “R” (which might help you remember them.) Before I describe these movements—first pick a specific situation in your leadership or in your congregation. Then, respond to some of the questions under each movement, before going to the next one.
Movement One: Re-viewing What Is. There is a spiritual discipline in seeing again, re-viewing with fresh eyes. Sometimes we avoid rather than approach what is already happening. “Re-viewing” is a leadership craft of just noticing what is going on—just as it is—unaltered by our good intentions or wise interventions. We let the situation display itself to us again. We can even try to see it as much as we can from multiple perspectives beyond just our own. If you “re-view” with fresh eyes, what do you notice?
Movement Two: Reflecting on What Is. Having re-viewed what is, what are your deeper reflections on this situation? What reveals itself to you is most important? What is at stake if you don’t do anything at all? How does this situation call to you? How does it repel you? For the sake of what do you want to respond and lead?
Movement Three: Revising What Could Be. What possibilities that want to come forth in this situation? What scenarios do you want to imagine before you commit to any one path forward? List these as possibilities to consider and stretch your imagination beyond only your typical options.
Movement Four: Recommitting to What Could Be. Now is the time to commit. If we rush just to do something without a clear commitment, often we cannot sustain the creative and hard work to make it happen. Our commitment should be expressed in a declarative way: “As a congregation, we commit to being more attentive to those who are hungering for spiritual community.” Or “As a leader, I am committed to being a better steward of my time and schedule.” So, after reflecting on the previous movements: What is your commitment moving forward?
Movement 5: Recomposing What is Next. The commitment needs to have enough energy behind it to propels you forward toward figuring out how you will live it out. Now, outline what you will do differently to live out your commitment. Use the creative tension between “what is” and “what could be” to determine what you need to do to act on your commitment. This is where timelines and action steps show up.
Movement 6: Reorganizing for What’s Next. Begin to reorder your overall priorities. Now it is time to ask, “What do I stop doing?” “What do I do more of?” “What are our first next steps?”
Over the years, these six “R”s have guided the work that I do. They have helped me to identify in a simple way what conversation I am in with a client or organization.
Lately, I have decided that there is another “R” essential for this process. I know that we are going to continue to face challenges. We know we will need to keep bouncing back and find ways to re-center and recommit to what’s important to us.
This “R” is for Resilience. Unlike the prior movements, resilience is not something we do, but a way of being we can cultivate.
At another retreat, I asked clergy to recall moments of resilience in their own life and ministry. We realized that sometimes resilience requires effort. At other times, resilience arrives in a grace-filled way—even after we have given up hope. From these experiences, we defined “resilience” as coming back from a setback, striding forward, being supple under pressure, and replenishing one’s resources.
Resilience: What Helps?
You may be able to imagine some of the responses of these clergy to the question, “What helps you be resilient?” They responded: “Knowing your own limits, absorbing what is happening without taking offense or hanging on to it, having a clear purpose, staying open, having a discipline of being able to let go, finding support, and strengthening my connection to God.”
They listed what hindered their resilience: “Wanting to be right, keeping control, not delegating, thinking I have the answers, isolating myself, being reactive, having a short fuse, needing to be liked, failing to recognize my own needs and rhythms, pretending, taking insufficient time to reflect or pause.”
In these responses you may recognize some of your own experiences. What helps and hinders your own resilience?
Leadership is bigger than any one of us. The tasks of leadership often mean that we do not see the results. This was expressed in these words of Bishop Ken Untener:
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
…We are prophets of a future not our own.