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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Pondering a Map for Conversational Leadership

by W. Craig Gilliam

We’ve invited Craig Gilliam of the JustPeace Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation to share his thoughts on ‘Conversational Leadership’ with us this week. Craig deeply understands the power of stories, and the ability of leaders to engage individuals and groups in transformative conversations.

–David Brubaker

We are sufficient for the day,
to love, to adventure
to go on the grand tour,
into another
–W. Craig Gilliam, Where Wild Things Grow

For the past year, I have been working with a group exploring the components of leadership and conversation. I believe good leadership involves courageous, honest conversation with self, others and God, thus, conversational leadership.

In this article, we will discuss 7 components of conversational leadership that cultivates healthy congregations.

  1. Stopping the conversation you are having/changing the narrative. What is the conversation you are having or narrative you are telling yourself about others, self or God that keeps you and the congregation stuck where you are? What is the conversation you need to stop having? What does it look like to become aware of that conversation and to find an alternative conversation/narrative that has greater possibilities and opens options?
  2. The discipline of asking beautiful questions. What are beautiful questions? Beautiful questions shape our identity as much by asking them as by answering them. Beautiful questions open space, options and possibilities for people and often shift a conversation. The beautiful question(s) invite people to see, think and be differently.Beautiful questions come from different sources. The facilitator, someone in the group, or the body as a whole can offer them. You know it is a beautiful question because it changes the thinking and way of being of those in the conversation. Through beautiful question(s), I believe, “God whose middle name is Surprise!” happens.The driving attitudes for this type leadership are curiosity, compassion and the desire to understand.
  3. Making contact with the courageous conversation. What is the courageous conversation? It is the conversation you or the group do not want to have, but keeps calling for your attentiveness. It is the stranger who keeps knocking on your door at midnight.One of our challenges as leaders is to discern the next conversation that needs to happen or that is trying to emerge for a group to move forward or to go deeper. This means getting in touch with the real conversation that people need to have yet might be avoiding and to have the conversation in a constructive, I-Thou way.
  4. Cultivating a culture of vulnerability and revelation.The French philosopher Albert Camus said that we are to live close to tears. By that, he did not mean that we are to live in a kind of mortal sentimentality. Camus meant an invitation to a constant vulnerability that is not a weakness, but actually a robust form of incarnation in the world, so you can risk yourself; you can risk your story. You can hazard yourself in the world and give yourself away again and again to see what comes back to you.A student of the late Dr. James A. Knight, M.D., a friend, renowned psychiatrist and medical educator at Tulane Medical School, said, “…probably the most important thing he taught us was that while a tough exterior is necessary to deal with the tragedies of our profession, we should always leave a part of us vulnerable, so as to know the gravity of our work and the ethical responsibility of our profession.”In fully embodying our vulnerabilities, we become more physically present, not only to the sources of our fears and our defenses, but to establish a more proper relationship with reality in understanding how much we need to ask for help. Visible help has to do with the tangible, transactional help we need. The invisible is the help that we do not see or do not realize as of yet we need and the source from which this invisible help comes. Jesus, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa and many other great leaders were aware of this invisible source, thus, were able to embody vulnerability.

    To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature; the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and more especially, to shut off the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse to ask for the help needed and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.

  5. Bringing your art and artistry into your ministry. What is the art and artistry that you bring to your ministry?I see art, and in my case specifically, poetry, as an incarnation. Art gives our creative spirits form and body. It gives outer expression to the deep source or well- spring within us. At its best, art invites us to a deep place of under-neathness, a sacred non-space from which creativity flows. Human kind has had a thousand names for this inner place. I refer to it as soul, a ghost-like, far horizon from which our deepest Self makes appearances, shows its face(s) and calls us deeper into the world.As I bring my art and artistry into my ministry, my ministry becomes art/artistry. Such focus creates different energy, and from the energy comes a different creative, courageous spirit in the space.
  6. Making the invitation is crucial to good leadership. How do you make invitations that create responsiveness and appeal to peoples’ creative, courageous self? What do others think your invitation is to them? How do you invite yourself to frontiers of courage and trepidation in the invitations being offered in your context? What is the invitation that lies over the horizon of your present life? The poet, Mary Oliver, offers a profound invitation in the line, “What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?”
  7. Harvest the Presence: The ability to bring to a culmination all of the hard work we put into our preparation. What are we going to do to build on our previous hard work? Human beings are very good at working hard, preparing, planning, sowing and tending; not so good at bringing in the harvest of all our labors; often refusing to have the patience for which a true ripening calls, or moving onto new initiatives before the one for which we have worked so hard have had time to be harvested. There is also the difficulty that lies in the hidden unspoken invisible harvests connected with our shadows, our relationships and our difficulties.In the past, I have used the language, Harvest the Learning, at the end of important conversations. Now I have expanded to use Harvest the Presence.Harvest the Learning is about head learning and ideas, which are important. Harvest the Presence is something deeper, more soulful, more whole, more lasting. It includes our ideas, but it is more—it involves who we are and who we are becoming through the process. Harvest the Presence includes the head, but also the heart and body of the person and people. Thus, I am asking, how has what you have discussed and done impacted who you are as a person and group of people?

    A friend who taught at MIT said that his deep discovery in his work was, “No container, no dialogue.” This process of conversational leadership is a way of growing, deepening and broadening the container, so the deeper, calmer, more important, courageous conversations can happen. The container has to do with its quality, paying attention to the group field; the clarity and interaction of intention and attentiveness, each of which help establish context; to monitor if it is too palpable. As the leader, influencing the quality of the container is a primary role, inviting others to share that responsibility with us is another.

    Be well, be inspired, and by all means keep the conversation alive!

Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation

W. Craig Gilliam directs the Center for Pastoral Excellence in Louisiana and works as a consultant, facilitator and educator with faith-based groups throughout the country. Craig is also the author of the recently released book of poetry, Where the Wild Things Grow.

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