Taking Time to Get from Here to There

Sign at Reed College, Wikimedia

Ninety people are seated at tables, primed for a day of small- and large-group conversations about their strategic plan. In the opening prayerful silence, I begin to peel a long strip of blue painter’s tape away from the floor between the tables. Listen to the sound of the tape. Sense the puzzlement that hangs in the air till I say my invocation:

This tape represents the momentary dissolving of the dividing lines that we often construct between our heart and our mind, the spiritual and the practical, our planning and our praying, our thinking and our feeling, between our pain and our aspiration, and the life of this congregation and the life of the world that beckons to us. May we embrace our ‘hidden wholeness’ so that we can speak and hear one another with a broader imagination and a more open heart.

In a time when polarized opinions are rampant and vigorously defended on social and other media, we need to intentionally invite each other to show up at congregational meetings with more than our opinions. When we over-identify with the opinions we hold, we miss so much of what we are.

Isn’t it true that people who seem so sure of themselves may also be harboring their own doubts? Can’t the person who feels timid, also have courage lurking in their heart—ready to be evoked? If so, our holy task is to allow all of this to surface. Our thoughts and emotions, our facts and our imagination need not be divided or siphoned off.

Encouraging wholeness

Living a “divided life” implies suffering. Parker Palmer writes:

I can’t imagine a sadder way to die than knowing I never showed up on Earth as who I really am. But every time we show up as our true selves, we reclaim identity and integrity, and new life can grow within, between and around us.

Sometimes encouraging wholeness means encouraging a congregation or a leader to claim their doubts and uncertainties as much as their faith and commitments. Sometimes it means urging a congregation to step out of the comfort of complacency to respond more fully to what has not yet emerged. Sometimes it means developing a better understanding of what is, before moving too quickly toward what might become.

Harrison Owen, an Episcopal priest–turned organizational consultant, names a creative tension congregations often experience:

The old ways are passing, and the new ones have yet to arrive. We are in the Open Space between what is and what might become. And the question remains, What to do about that?

The road from “here” to “there” in congregational life is not always a quick or direct one. It often requires waiting as much as action. In The Active Life:, Parker Palmer admonishes us that

Until we know the hidden wholeness, we will live in the world of dualisms, of forced but false choices between being and doing    that result in action that is mere frenzy or in contemplation that is mere escape.

The Quaker saying “to proceed as way opens” provides the insight that the gap between “what is” and “what might become” may require a “waiting” in the Open Space that is not just a pause before frenzied action.

We know that in the waiting, the unexpected can occur. The true energy and commitment of the congregation can surface. Nevertheless, waiting can be unsettling for leaders who know what must be done—now. Such leaders sometimes get ahead of the congregation, then realize no one has joined them.

Facing discomfort

What Owen calls “the Open Space between here and there” can be uncomfortable. These are the times when we are tempted to rush the process.

Yvonne Agazarian, one of the creators of systems-centered therapy, points out that we often experience “forks in the road.” At these forks, we have a choice: to fully express what we are experiencing—or to retreat.

How often have you noticed yourself “retreating” when the gap between here and there seems insurmountable or too conflict ridden? I am often called in to work with a congregation when a delayed conversation become unavoidable or a conflict has become unbearable. Somewhere along the way the congregation and its leaders reached a “fork in the road” and navigated it in a way that suspended rather than engaged their whole selves.

The road “between here and there” is sometimes daunting, so we engage in shortcuts. Agazarian points out some of the typical choices we make: We ignore or avoid difference, we try to change or convert each another, or we blame, judge, or scapegoat others.

Taking time

I often ask congregational leaders (and I’ll ask you now): “When has your congregation hit the ‘snooze alarm?’ Which tasks or conversations have you suspended that are wanting your attention now?” They usually respond quickly with their list.

Then I ask the harder question (and I’ll ask you this now, too): “How might you approach these conversations so you can acknowledge, learn from, and use whatever differences arise? How might you invoke a conversation that allows you to discover possibilities you may not yet have perceived?”

Some of the practices that I encourage when there are strong differences of opinions in a group include these:

  1. Listen in order to understand.
  2. Suspend judgment and become curious about another’s point of view and their particular experiences.
  3. Seek to understand the values that undergird differing opinions.
  4. Listen and speak with respect; even when you disagree with the point of view that is expressed.
  5. Find places where you agree with even those who you might also disagree.
  6. Ask clarifying questions to assist your understanding.
  7. Acknowledge and learn from differences.
  8. Acknowledge your own doubts, fears, and uncertainties.

How we have conversations with one another in our congregations is as important as what the conversation is about. Our capacities for conversations such as these serve our religious communities—but also other arenas within our broader world.

Lawrence Peers partners with religious organizations and leaders across many faith traditions to help them lead from a sense of purpose and innovate by aligning strategy and spirit. He draws from a rich array of methodologies as he facilitates whole systems, participatory strategic planning, staff team coaching, clergy coaching, and retreats. Larry joins the Congregational Consulting Group and some of his former consultant colleagues from the Alban Institute after four years of being a director of the Pastoral Excellence Network.

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