Step by Halting Step: Leadership in Uncertain Times

In this season of the year, following the crucifixion and resurrection and Jesus’s subsequent forty days among the disciples, Christians celebrate the ascension, the time when Jesus left the disciples and ascended into heaven.

What a roller coaster that month and a half must have been for the disciples.  First, when they expected Jesus to proclaim himself king of Israel and overcome the Roman occupation, they got the crucifixion instead.  In shock and grief, the disciples hid away in fear. And then the resurrection came. Unbelievable. How could this be? Still in shock and grief, the disciples weren’t ready. Even after Jesus appeared to the disciples, they kept hiding in fear.  It took most of the forty days that Jesus lived among them, post-resurrection, for the disciples to begin to trust that he was really back and really himself.

In this past Sunday’s reading from the book of Acts, after Jesus had been with them for forty days, the disciples wondered what would come next.  After forty days with the resurrected Jesus, they had at last recovered from some of the shock and grief and fear.  They began to anticipate the future with Jesus.  “Is this the time that you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” they asked.

But at that very moment, when they had finally regained their footing, Jesus turned everything upside down yet again.  First, instead of answering their question, he spoke what must have seemed like nonsense. And then he disappeared!  They were left open-mouthed, staring up at the skies.

Jesus had spent the past three years developing the disciples as leaders, asking them to join him in inviting people to encounter God more deeply.  And then he vanished, leaving them in charge.  Reeling in confusion, the disciples retreated to pray.

I find myself identifying with the disciples this past month and a half.  Just when I regain my footing, everything changes again in my leadership role at Shalem.  First, the cancellation of two pilgrimages and postponement of a major program, with the resulting loss of 10% of our expected income for the year. Then, our entire staff adjusting to working from home.  Then, all our programs being re-designed to be held online, programs that have cherished the in-person experience of deep connection with one another in beautiful natural settings. Then, a two-week quarantine stretching into six weeks, into three months, into…

Like the disciples, we, as a Shalem staff and board, retreated to pray and discern what is ours to do in these times.  We hear that this is a time for contemplatives, that living in love speaks to a world experiencing loss and grief, that being grounded in God invites people out of fear and panic into trust and hope.  We offer new resources to support people’s deep grounding, to help people live in the love that casts out fear.  We walk one step at a time, the future unclear.

I find that Susan Beaumont’s new book, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, provides wisdom for these days.  Beaumont talks about leadership in in-between times, when the old way is gone but the new way has not yet emerged.  I believe that we won’t go “back to normal,” but that we are in the midst of a major shift, that we are being invited into a new way of being and doing worldwide.  What this means for Shalem is not yet clear. While we wait for the future to come into focus, we move by the light that we have. We will continue to listen and discern and seek to be faithful, step by halting step.

Like the disciples, our worlds have been turned upside down.  Like the disciples, we need to learn to lead when we don’t know where we’re going.  And like the disciples, we need to continue to pray and listen and be faithful, one step at a time.

 

 

Grieving and Rejoicing

On Good Friday, no one anticipated Easter.  The disciples, in shock and grief, hid away in fear.  Neither the disciples nor Jesus’s enemies expected resurrection.

And then the resurrection came.  Unbelievable.  How could this be?  Still in shock and grief, the disciples weren’t ready.  Even after Jesus appeared to the disciples, they kept hiding in fear.

In the weeks following Easter, Christians observe “Eastertide,” a time of living into the resurrection.  So far, in the biblical stories read in churches the last couple of Sundays, the disciples aren’t doing too well at manifesting resurrection reality.  In one story, we find them locked away in a room out of fear.  In another, they are walking along the road and don’t even recognize the resurrected Jesus when he starts walking and talking with them.

What keeps the disciples afraid?  What makes them blind?  Why do they keep slipping back into a mentality of fear and disbelief even after Jesus appeared to them?

Perhaps they felt blindsided. Already reeling from the crucifixion, still taking that in, they weren’t ready for the resurrection.  Dreams shattered, hopes dashed with the crucifixion, they felt betrayed.  They had believed Jesus was the Messiah, about to deliver them from the cruelty of the Roman occupation. And then they witnessed the crucifixion.

Now this.  Could they trust the resurrection?  Their hurting hearts and confused minds struggled to make sense of it all.  How could this be? Was Jesus a ghost?  Perhaps they inwardly questioned: “Are you kidding me?” “Are you toying with us, Jesus?” “I won’t be tricked again.”  “Fool me once, shame on you. . .”

Perhaps they tried to shut out the pain by retreating into reason.  They tried to make logical sense of all that had transpired.  And of course they couldn’t.  The events defied rational explanation.

In this season of Eastertide as I observe the disciples, I’ve been reflecting on death and resurrection at Shalem, the organization I serve as executive director.  We have been living with grief as we feel the impact of the cancellation of two pilgrimages and a major program, losing over 10% of our annual income. Furthermore, we feel the loss of being together in person as a staff, the loss of hugs and walks and good food together, the loss of staying at retreat centers in beautiful natural settings.

At the same time, we see resurrection and new life.  We both grieve and welcome new life at the same time.  When the leadership team for our Group Spiritual Direction program creatively re-envisioned the program, interest quadrupled.  Our Young Adult Life and Leadership program also grew when the new format was announced.  Over 60 have registered so far for our online clergy retreat. As other program leadership teams wrestle with loss while also listening for the new life that is emerging, they also experience grief and resurrection together. A wave of sadness washes over us when something reminds us of the in-person experience we won’t have this year.  Then a wave of joy comes when creative juices flow and we see the potential for new life and energy in our re-envisioned program.  Then the waves get all mixed up together, many emotions roiling around inside of us all at once.

Like the disciples, we are living in a time of experiencing death and resurrection together.  Like the disciples we feel grief and hope, sadness and joy, anger and healing, sometimes in waves, sometimes all at the same time.  Let us be gentle with ourselves and with one another as we go through the grieving process while also learning to live in resurrection.

 

 

 

Three Leadership Lessons from Good Friday

Photo Credit: Per Ola Wiberg via FreeStockPhotos.biz

Today is Good Friday, a day of hopes dashed, a day of deep grief. Jesus and the disciples went from Palm Sunday, with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the crowds shouting “Hosanna!” to betrayal, arrest, denial, and crucifixion in five short days. The disciples had thought the crowds had at last recognized Jesus as king, only to find them turning against him a few days later. In shock and disbelief, they watched as the Romans crucified their beloved.

Everything had looked so good, only to be overturned in such short order. Jesus had taught the disciples to be leaders, to help him invite people to encounter God in fresh ways. They saw people healed. They saw hearts opened. They witnessed their ministry expanding. They thought they knew what being a leader following in Jesus’ footsteps meant. Now what? Brokenhearted, they responded in different ways. Peter had denied Jesus after the arrest. Others ran away. The disciples were not at their best. They hid, afraid. They didn’t know the resurrection was coming. They had no idea what the future held. For all they knew, they would be crucified like Jesus.

I find myself empathizing with the disciples on this Good Friday. The future looked bright for the organization I serve, the Shalem Institute, just two short months ago. With programs filling, a visionary strategic plan, and a prospering major fundraising initiative, the future held promise. A staff and board who loved Shalem and worked well together held it all together. I felt like the most fortunate person in the world, to be able to work at this place with these people at this time.

Then COVID-19 hit Italy. No pilgrimage to Assisi. Then no Iona pilgrimage. Then another major program down. Then our annual staff/board retreat homeless, as the retreat center hosting it closed. Then, our staff working from home. Suddenly, we had let down many eager pilgrimage and program participants and lost about 10% of our annual income, with more looming losses on the horizon. What now?

We found ourselves facing great loss. So much of what we do involves gathering in community, staying in beautiful, nurturing, prayerful retreat centers, sharing meals together. Staff share walks and lunch together in the middle of the work day. We celebrate birthdays and accomplishments together. We experience embodied love, laughter, and prayer. All of that had vanished in the blink of an eye.

Even as we began to re-envision our upcoming programs, we knew they wouldn’t be the same. A virtual staff/board retreat on Zoom can’t hold a candle, for example, to the in-person hugs and meals and walks at a retreat center nestled in a wooded area in Maryland in the first blush of spring. The losses were real.

What can we learn from Good Friday? First, we can acknowledge that we, like the disciples on Good Friday, will not always be our best selves as we feel shock and loss. This is a time for loving and tenderly forgiving one another. Second, like the disciples, we must grieve. Acknowledging the magnitude of the losses and allowing ourselves to feel grief is the first step. Third, as we ask, “What now?” there will be messiness. We don’t know what the future holds or how we will be called to step into it. We must live in the not-knowing for a time before the next steps become clear.

Loving and forgiving one another when we are not at our best, acknowledging the magnitude of the losses and allowing ourselves to grieve, and accepting the messiness and not-knowing of this time will all serve us well as we seek to muddle through to the unknown future. May we allow the lessons of Good Friday to lodge deep within our souls.

Three Essentials for Leadership in the Time of Coronavirus

In the short span of a month, our lives have been turned upside down. We are quarantined. We know people who have COVID-19. We know people who have died from it. We wonder if we have it. Some of us do. We work from home now, or we have lost our jobs. (Unless we are essential employees, in which case we are exposed to the virus daily.)

We feel the financial impact. We feel the loss of freedom. We feel fear. We feel sadness. And, in the midst of it, sometimes we feel amazement. And connection. And love.

What does leadership look like in the time of coronavirus? A few essentials stand out to me as I wrestle with my own leadership challenges at this time. Here are three things leaders can do in any setting in which they find themselves.

First, provide a non-anxious presence. Now more than ever, leaders must heed Edwin Friedman’s advice to remain calm and grounded in the midst of swirling emotions. Spiritual groundedness growing out of self-care, daily spiritual practice, and connection to spiritual community will do more than anything else to calm the atmosphere, help people think clearly and be their best selves, and discover a way forward together.

Second, remember that you are human, too. As leaders, we feel fear, sadness, anger, and grief, just as those we lead do. We need to give ourselves permission to feel all our feelings. We need people with whom we can be vulnerable and cry. We need time for spiritual practice, to be held in the great Love that is beyond us, beyond the virus, beyond this time in history.

Third, remember that, in the words of Queen Esther, “If I perish, I perish.” We are all mortal. Despite taking all precautions, I may contract the virus. I may die from it. The organization I lead may not survive a long siege. While we must do our best to take personal precautions, safeguarding our health as best we can, and while we must be faithful stewards of the leadership responsibilities entrusted to us, our ultimate task is not self-preservation. Nor is our ultimate task perpetuating the institutions we lead. Our ultimate task is serving the greater good, serving God. If our institutions can’t adapt to the new world in which we find ourselves, it’s time to ask, “Have we served our purpose in the world? Is it time for us to disband and let others carry our work forward?”

Providing a non-anxious presence, remembering that we too are human, and living with an awareness of our own mortality and that of our institutions will go a long way toward helping the people we lead be their best selves. With our people at their best, the groups we lead can experience creativity, connection, and hope even in these times. And with our families, teams, and organizations at their best, they will be who they are called to be and do what they are called to do, even in a time of coronavirus.

Meditation for Utilitarian Ends?

Last month’s blog focused on the power of meditation to enhance success in life and work, with a particular focus on sports. Numerous studies demonstrate the beneficial effects of meditation on one’s life and work, not only in sports but also in other arenas.

Yet such studies raise further questions: Is the purpose of meditation to increase success? Should meditation be pursued for utilitarian ends?  Does using meditation to achieve one’s personal goals corrupt an ancient spiritual practice?

There is nothing wrong with coming to spirituality because following a spiritual path will make one’s life better.  Members of Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, find that relying on a higher power provides the first step necessary for their recovery.  In fact, most seekers come to a spiritual path because of need, believing that through meditation or prayer the need will be met.  And they are right.

At the same time, as sojourners continue on the path, they find the ground shifting under their feet.  They encounter the transition to the second half of the journey, the part of the journey in which they transition from thinking that the spiritual journey is about getting something to realizing it is about their own transformation.  What happens when it becomes difficult to pray or meditate, when the “honeymoon phase” is over? Often people feel they must be doing something wrong and they try harder, only to discover even more dryness and frustration.  They may give up on prayer and meditation altogether, deciding that they’re not cut out for the spiritual path.

Yet spiritual teachers through the ages have taught that this is a normal and predictable part of the spiritual journey.  The spiritual dryness provides an opportunity to be weaned from the expectation that meditation will always result in good feeling, that prayer will always result in the answers one wants.  One learns to listen and let one’s prayers be shaped by the divine presence.  Maturing spirituality involves embracing and letting go, time and again, of ways of meditation, of relationships, of work commitments, of community.

In articulating this transition to the second half of the journey, spiritual teachers help the sojourner understand what is occurring when she experiences it. When the first exhilaration of experiencing the blessings of meditation begins to fade, a deeper foundation can be formed, just as in a marriage when the initial romantic exhilaration begins to fade.

Thus, there is nothing wrong with seeking spirituality for “selfish” reasons.  Anyone who continues on the spiritual path will eventually reach a different place.  He will learn that the spiritual journey is about his own transformation rather than about the success he can procure from it.  He ultimately learns that self-preservation is not the highest good, experiencing the relativization of self to a higher purpose.

Meditation and prayer are good practices, regardless of the reason they are taken up.  May we learn to recognize in ourselves and others the vulnerable transition times, so that we can deepen into the mature spirituality of the second half of the journey.

 

Part of this blog is an excerpt from Soul at Work: Spiritual Leadership in Organizations.  Used with permission of the publisher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kobe Bryant: Spiritual Grounding in Sports

Kobe_Bryant_8Kobe Bryant, the basketball star who died earlier this week in a helicopter crash, practiced meditation regularly for years.  He revealed the power of meditation for him in a 2015 interview with Oprah, stating, “It’s like having an anchor.  If I don’t do it, I feel like I’m constantly chasing the day.”

Bryant, inspired by Michael Jordan, learned meditation in order to improve his game from sports psychologist George Mumford.  Meditation helped Bryant focus and get “in the flow” and perform better.

After his retirement, Bryant toured Asia in 2016 with two purposes, to experience a meditation retreat and to inspire youth in sports.  His Asia tour reinforced the importance of meditation in his life and in his service to the next generation.

Kobe Bryant was not the only professional athlete to discover the power of meditation.  In addition to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, basketball star Lebron James, baseball shortstop Derek Jeter, beach volleyball duo Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, and the Seattle Seahawks, to name but a few, have attributed their ability to get “in the flow” and enhance their performance to meditation.

Furthermore, a 2017 study by University of Miami psychology professor Amishi Jha demonstrated that one doesn’t need to perform at the level of professional athlete or long-time meditator in order to reap the benefits of meditation in sports.  Her study showed that even four weeks of meditation could improve the mental state of college football players.

Kobe Bryant and many others have experienced the power of meditation, and serve as examples for the rest of us who desire to lead spiritually grounded lives.  In addition, numerous studies show the beneficial effects of meditation on one’s life and work, not only in sports but also in other arenas.

Yet such studies raise further questions: Is the purpose of meditation to increase success in life and work? Should meditation be pursued for utilitarian ends?  Does using meditation to achieve one’s personal goals corrupt an ancient spiritual practice?

Overwhelming evidence supports the value of meditation.  At the same time, the further questions are important.  In next month’s blog, I will explore these further questions.

Light in the Darkness

At this darkest time of the year, both Jews and Christians celebrate holidays of light. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, commemorates one of God’s miracles: the long–burning oil that allowed the Jews to rededicate their holy temple in victory over foreign oppressors. Hanukkah celebrates the light of religious freedom after dark oppression.

Christmas also celebrates the triumph of light over darkness: God’s entering the world in Jesus, and the light of Christ overcoming the darkness in the world.  Both religions exhort the faithful to remember that the night is darkest just before the dawn, that we must not lose hope but that we must trust the God who has the power to deliver from even the darkest night.

Great spiritual teachers throughout the millennia have taught that any spiritual journey consists of ups and downs, and that sojourners on the spiritual path can experience a personal dark night of the soul. If the faithful persevere, they will discover that the personal dark night, like the historical darkness commemorated by Christianity and Judaism, is darkest just before the dawn, and the breakthrough to the other side is worth the walk through the darkness.

In institutions and societies, as in personal lives, the deepest darkness comes just before the dawn. If an institution or society perseveres, it can experience the great power and light that come with breaking through to the dawn.

At this time of bitter political divisions in the U.S. and around the world, of rising racism, terrorism, and scapegoating of minorities, of environmental degradation, and of wars and genocide, it’s easy to wonder where the light is.

One guide for me in this time of darkness is St. John of the Cross. John describes the personal dark night as a time of necessary self-emptying, not of our choosing. We fill ourselves with knowledge and accomplishments and loves and allow these to define us. Yet growth involves emptying. Constance Fitzgerald summarizes John’s understanding of the process of emptying:

“Only when one becomes aware of the illusory and limiting character of this fullness in the face of the breakdown of what/whom we have staked our lives on, the limitations of our life project and relationships, the irruption of our unclaimed memories, and the shattering of our dreams and meanings, can the depths of hunger and thirst that exist in the human person, the infinite capacity, really be experienced.”

John claims that this deep hunger and thirst, this infinite capacity for love, cannot be fulfilled by our human loves and accomplishments, but only by the transcendent.

Constance Fitzgerald extends John’s work to the societal level.  In this time of societal impasse, when it seems that our human attempts to figure out solutions to our overwhelming problems only run us into brick walls and tempt us to cynicism and despair, John, Fitzgerald claims, offers a way forward.  Fitzgerald claims that “paradoxically, a situation of no potential is loaded with potential, and impasse become the place for the reconstitution of the intuitive self.”

Fitzgerald believes that the insoluble crises we face are signs of transition in societal development and in the evolution of humanity.  These crises provide an invitation for us as a society to empty ourselves of rationally constructed answers that no longer work.  The crises invite us to humble ourselves and seek deeper wisdom, wisdom that emerges from letting go, from our collective intuition, from prayer.  In the words of II Chronicles 7:14, “If my people humble themselves and pray and seek my face. . .”

Fitzgerald challenges us to bring our societal impasse to prayer.  It is only through letting go and seeking God’s perspective and God’s way forward, she claims, that society will be freed, healed, and brought to paradoxical new vision.  Only in this way can we be set free for selfless action.  “Death is involved here – a dying in order to see how to be and to act on behalf of God in the world.”  Dying leads to new life.  Out of the darkness comes light.

Relinquishing our need to control is not easy, yet nurturing a more contemplative response to life can help to heal us in many ways. In his book, Anam Cara, Irish poet and priest, John O’Donohue, poignantly reminds us that the state of perception most hospitable to the mysteries of the soul is not one of stark control, but rather, of reverence:

“The light of modern consciousness is not gentle or reverent; it lacks graciousness in the presence of mystery; it wants to unriddle and control the unknown. Modern consciousness is similar to the harsh and brilliant white light of a hospital operating theatre. This neon light is too direct and clear to befriend the shadowed world of the soul. It is not hospitable to what is reserved and hidden…. Before electricity, people used candlelight at night. This is ideal light to befriend the darkness, it gently opens up caverns in the darkness and prompts the imagination into activity. The candle allows the darkness to keep its secrets. There is shadow and colour within every candle flame. Candlelight perception is the most respectful and appropriate form of light with which to approach the inner world. It does not force our tormented transparency upon the mystery. The glimpse is sufficient. Candlelight perception has the finesse and reverence appropriate to the mystery and autonomy of soul.”

In this season of darkness, let us respond to the invitation to let go of our egos and preconceived notions, and seek the deeper wisdom that emerges when we become empty.  And may our society humble itself, recognizing the limits of human understanding and effort, and seek a way forward guided by the emergent divine.

(This blog is a further development of a December 2016 blog.)