3 Leadership Lessons of St. Clare

As St. Clare of Assisi’s (1194-1253) feast day approaches on August 11, I’ve been reflecting on her soulful leadership. Best known as St. Francis’ “little plant,” Clare eventually emerged as a strong leader in her own right in thirteenth-century Italy and beyond. While St. Francis took center stage with his extroverted charismatic leadership, St. Clare quietly built stronger structures behind the scenes.

As I muse on St. Clare and her contributions, three leadership lessons stand out for me. Clare teaches me about prayer, community-building, and persistence.

First, Clare knew the power of prayer. She knew that prayer provided the foundation for all of her leadership. Without prayer, without her radical trust in God, she could do nothing. She prayed for strength and guidance when she was called to lead her community of “Poor Ladies” as a young adult. Later, when an invading army swarmed her vulnerable convent of San Damiano, outside the protection of the city walls, she prayed. Upon praying, she felt led to stand at the window in front of the army, armed only with the host, the body of Christ, and her trust in God. Faced with Clare’s shining strength, the army became confused and fled. Thus, through prayer, Clare saved not only her convent but also the city of Assisi. Finally, Clare’s prayer undergirded her day-to-day leadership in the convent. When faced with lack of food, with illness, with cold, she prayed. People brought turnips, medicine, and blankets, and year after year, all the Sisters’ needs were supplied.

Second, Clare knew how to build community. Though she lived in an enclosed community at San Damiano her entire life as a Sister, she built community both at home and from afar, much as we have had to do during the pandemic. She showed her 50 fellow Sisters how to live together in compassionate service in cramped quarters and difficult conditions. Beyond San Damiano, she instructed Agnes of Prague, a princess who left behind wealth and status to found a religious community like Clare’s, in building a convent. While Francis’ communities faced divisive conflicts, Clare taught her communities to work through conflicts in ways that built stronger relationships. And she also built relationships near and far, with St. Francis and his brothers, with priests, with bishops, and with Popes.

Third, Clare lived perseverance. Her entire life, she fought for a way of life like Francis’ in which she could be true to the gospel as she understood it. For her, this meant living in poverty, in total reliance upon God. She appealed to every Pope in her lifetime to approve the rule she had written to regulate life in her community. When Pope after Pope said no, she didn’t give up. Finally, on her deathbed, the Pope sent word that he had heard she was dying and he wondered if there was anything he could do for her. When she said, “Approve my rule,” he relented, and she received papal approval two days before she died.

Leading with soul is never easy, whether one lives in thirteenth-century Europe or modern times. The way is often fraught with stresses, discouragements, and obstacles, whether they be a pandemic, injustice, or political instability, that challenge our commitment to walk our path with faith. However, we can turn to those who have come before us, those like St. Clare who embody the qualities of a good leader. They show us not only that it is possible to lead with soul but also that we are not alone in the journey.

(An earlier version of this blog appeared in April 2016.)

3 Leadership Lessons St. Francis Taught me from his Failures

Last month, as I “walked” on a virtual pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, I reflected on six leadership lessons I learned from his success. Like all of us, Francis scored some wins and some losses when it came to leadership. And like all of us, Francis didn’t always know in advance which approach to leadership would prove effective.

Francis’ failures can prove just as instructive as his successes. As I reflect on Francis’ life, three lessons in leadership effectiveness that I can learn from his failures stand out to me.

  1. Clarity of mission. When Francis returned home to Italy from his journey to Egypt in 1220, he found his brothers divided and in conflict. Brother John had decided to organize the lepers the brothers were serving into a religious order and requested approval for the order from the Holy See. Brother Phillip had sought special protections from the Pope for the Poor Clares (defying Francis’ instructions not to seek favors in high places). Brothers Matthew and Gregory had imposed stricter fasting guidelines on the brothers, more appropriate for monks than for active friars. All of these measures had stirred up turmoil in the order and revealed a lack of clarity about the purpose of the life of the brothers. Conflict-averse himself, Francis had avoided clarifying the mission of the order, either personally or in concert with his brothers. Without clarity of mission, brothers had different understandings of what direction their lives and ministries should go. As the order had grown and with Francis away, the situation had spiraled out of control.

Clarity of mission can help a group stay focused through the stresses of growth and the temporary absence of the leader.

  1. Preparation for leadership. In 1217, Francis had sent several groups of brothers out in ministry beyond Italy, to Germany, Hungary, England, and the Holy Land. While the impulse was one of generous service, the missions failed. Lacking preparation, the brothers couldn’t speak the language of the country they visited, didn’t understand the culture, and didn’t know how to translate their mendicant ways into a new setting. Furthermore, many of these brothers had recently joined the order themselves and had no experience of leadership in their home context.

Adequate preparation can help lessen the shock of a new environment. And gradual introduction to leadership responsibilities in one’s own setting can prepare the way for greater responsibility in a new setting.

  1. Leadership succession. Francis decided to go off on mission himself when other brothers left on mission in 1217. He only got as far as Florence, where Cardinal Hugolino dissuaded him and he returned to Assisi, convinced by Hugolino of the order’s need for his leadership at home. But the urge to travel in ministry returned, and he left for Egypt in 1219. Though Francis did appoint leaders to be in charge in his absence, he hadn’t carefully considered what was required to lead a religious order, much less groomed others to take on those responsibilities. The result, combined with the lack of clarity in mission mentioned above, was disastrous. This episode served as a precursor to what happened when Francis died, when the fault lines in the order revealed themselves and caused more serious division and an eventual split in the order.

Careful attention to raising up leaders can help a group through the difficulties of transition and keep a group moving together toward its goal when a leader is away for an extended absence or when the leader retires or dies.

St. Francis, not always knowing what he was doing, succeeded in a number of ways as a leader and also failed in a number of ways. Both his successes and his failures can prove instructive. By reflecting on both his successes and his failures, leaders today can learn how to become more effective.

(This is a slightly revised version of the post that appeared in the June 2015 Executive Soul blog.)

Sacrifice

Having recently “returned” from a virtual pilgrimage to Italy, where images of sacrifice surrounded me, I find myself contemplating sacrifice and suffering. In the midst of co-leading a pilgrimage, I saw everywhere biblical images of sacrifice (Abraham and Isaac, Jesus), as well as images of saints who sacrificed wealth, health, and life itself.

“What do these images have to do with me?” I asked. Coming from a culture in which the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, I find the medieval preoccupation with sacrifice distant, strange, and even repulsive. Yet, precisely because of their strangeness, these images, I sense, have something to teach me.

Back home in the U. S. now, it’s almost Memorial Day weekend, the day we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives for their country. In the midst of a “me”-centered culture, soldiers understand sacrifice in a way that most of us don’t. Soldiers sacrifice the comforts of home, risk life and limb, and ask their families to sacrifice their presence. If they are lucky enough to return home, they return with the physical and emotional scars of battle, facing the often insurmountable challenges of adjusting to re-entry into family and work.

What can we learn from these men and women in our midst who understand sacrifice so much better than most of us do? How can we begin to practice sacrifice in small ways, to contribute to the betterment of those around us? How does sacrifice relate to our day-to-day work lives?

Possibilities for small sacrifices abound. An employer might hire a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and provide him or her with the support needed to heal. Such an act is a small sacrifice compared to what the veteran has given. Or, in these tough pandemic economic times when layoffs have become necessary, executives might give up part of their profit by investing in retraining workers and assisting them in finding new employment, as CoreStates Bank in Philadelphia did. Or, when layoffs occur and employees are asked to do more with less, someone might step in to go the extra mile and support a stressed co-worker.

What am I being invited to sacrifice? Perhaps it is something as simple as sacrificing an evening out in order to prepare well and offer my best work to participants in a program in which I am teaching. Or to sacrifice my carefully planned schedule to support my husband when he’s facing a work deadline. Or to sacrifice sleep to sit with a friend in the emergency room of a hospital.

Medieval saints and modern soldiers all have something to teach me. Inspired by them and with gratitude to them, I want to learn to practice appropriate sacrifice in my daily life.

(This post is a revision of a post that appeared in the Executive Soul blog in May 2016.)

Soulful Leadership in Public Safety, Part II: Defund the Police

Photo Credit: “File:Defund the police.jpg” by Taymaz Valley is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Defund the police,” one of the rallying cries of protests a year ago after the police killing of George Floyd and other black men and women, has gained traction. Currently, over 20 U.S. cities have reduced their police budgets by some amount.

While last week’s conviction in Minneapolis of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd has given some hope of justice, six police killings occurred within 24 hours after the verdict. Since Chauvin’s trial started on March 29, more than 64 people have died at the hands of police nationwide, including an unarmed Latino 13-year-old, Adam Toledo, in Chicago. Blacks and Latinos represent more than half of those killed.

Furthermore, Daunte Wright, an unarmed black man, had been killed by police in Minneapolis amid the trial.

Clearly, the police system is still badly broken.

What might “defund the police” look like? Who has shown wise, soulful leadership in this arena?

In many cases, moving funding from police forces to addressing needs in the community has been tried as a tactic to reduce crime. Money formerly used to fund the police has now been reinvested into ways that support the community, such as housing for the homeless, workforce development initiatives, and programs helping people to deal with substance abuse. In addition, some cities are handling crimes and emergencies in a new way –for instance, by calling on mental health professionals to respond to certain emergencies or by expanding the forensics labs necessary to properly investigate sexual assault cases.

In addition, restorative justice, an alternative to the dominant punitive justice system, has proven effective in reducing recidivism and increasing public safety.

While it is too soon to tell how effective some of the newer experiments will be, it is heartening that a number of cities are willing to try new approaches to public safety. It is clear that much work is still needed to re-envision the American justice system. From fighting for racial justice, eliminating police brutality, and ensuring police accountability to reducing the need for policing by improving methods of rehabilitation, we need to deeply reflect on and restructure our responses to public safety. The changes needed to re-create the structures that have been in place for so long are complex and daunting. They require new visions. They require strong leadership. Let us listen to the voices of those who call us to bold experimentation and together let us discern a way through the challenges we face to create a society where all members can feel safe.

Three Leadership Lessons from Good Friday

This coming Friday 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, denial, arrest, 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 denied Jesus. Others ran away.  The disciples were not at their best. They hid in the upper room, 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 lead, the Shalem Institute, just a year 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. We had to cancel our pilgrimage to Assisi.  Then our 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.

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.   

Now, a year later, while we look back in gratitude to the ways that we have encountered God in our re-envisioned programs, experiencing the power of contemplative community even through Zoom, we also continue to experience grief and loss.  As spring begins, we face another cycle of our spring and summer residencies on Zoom.  A year ago, we had thought that, by now, we could meet in person again. Yet with only 15.5% of the U.S. population fully vaccinated, we know we need to wait.

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 an important 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 of loss 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. 

(This is a further development of the Executive Soul blog of April 2020).

Spiritual Foundations of Racial Justice

Photo credit: Fourandsixty via Wikimedia Commons. Howard University chapel – detail of stained glass window – Howard Thurman
At this time of bitter political division, in this time of racial reckoning, I find myself asking, “Who will bring healing to us? Who will bring us together?” As we celebrate Black History month in the U.S., I wonder, “Where did Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. find his strength? Where did he get support? How would he guide us in these times?”

Lerita Coleman Brown recently reminded me that Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman served as a spiritual guide to King. Thurman helped King stay spiritually grounded in the midst of his struggles for racial justice. King carried a copy of Thurman’s groundbreaking book, Jesus and the Disinherited, wherever he went.

Moreover, Thurman served as a spiritual guide for many others in the Civil Rights Movement. He advised James Farmer, Sherwood Eddy, Pauli Murray, and A.J. Muste. He reminded leaders that, like a tree, their strength and reach went only as far as the depth of their roots.

Howard Thurman was born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida. He experienced God in nature and was profoundly influenced by his grandmother, a former slave and a person of deep faith. After graduating from Morehouse College as valedictorian of his class, he was ordained a Baptist minister and went on to study at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. Eventually, he became Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University and then Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University.

In 1935, Thurman traveled to India, where he met Gandhi. The two conversed widely and deeply and Gandhi questioned Thurman closely about racial injustice in the U.S. Gandhi opined, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

Thurman viewed his calling as being a spiritual support to the leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, and as helping them learn a nonviolent approach to working for racial justice. He knew that the success of the movement depended upon its spiritual foundation. He prayed deeply and worked tirelessly to build that foundation and nurture the leaders.

If we could ask Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King how to face the challenges of our time, I’m convinced he would point us to God. He would remind us that we need to draw on our spiritual foundations to face the challenges of these times. Racial justice will come only through deep spiritual transformation. The healing of our political divisions, likewise, requires spiritual grounding. King would urge us to seek wise leaders like Thurman to guide us in developing our spiritual foundation. May we draw on the inspiration of King and Thurman and deepen our spiritual roots to face the challenges of our time.

[This blog is a further development of the January 2017 blog.]

Fill Your Heart with Joy: The Journey of Pilgrimage at Home

By Chuck McCorkle, Jackson Droney, and Margaret Benefiel

A pilgrimage is a journey, of experience if not of geography, into new and seemingly uncharted territory. . . With vision somewhat more clear as a result of the journey, one can discover a richness within one’s own heritage which had previously been overlooked. . . [O]ur pilgrimage is taking us home. – Gerald May, Pilgrimage Home

No matter how short the distances and familiar the route you travel on a given day, you can do it as a pilgrim. . . Whether the journey is within your own backyard or takes you to the other side of the world, the potential is there for the greatest of adventures: a journey not only toward [God] but also with [God]. – Jim Forest, The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life

In this season of Epiphany, we recognize the Magi as the first pilgrims of the Christian era. Following the light of a new star in the heavens, they were led, through unfamiliar lands, to the place where it shone on a young child, and they rejoiced and were filled with great joy. This first pilgrimage can serve as a guide for us. When we suspend the activities of daily life to travel and seek out the light of the world we also will be rewarded. But how do we accomplish this when we are home in quarantine and our travels are limited?

In times of pestilence and warfare, early pilgrims were forced to find safer alternatives to travel, and many walked the labyrinth, like the one embedded in the floor of Chartres Cathedral, in symbolic pilgrimage. Unlike a maze, which is designed with deceptive turns leading nowhere, all turns in a labyrinth lead the pilgrim toward the center, toward God, allowing one to free oneself of worry and to delight in the journey.

How then might we reimagine pilgrimage during this time of COVID-19? Can we open ourselves to the movement of the spirit and imagine entering into a sacred space of beauty and deep spiritual inspiration in a journey safely close to home?

The inspirational messages of the saints that continue to resonate and inspire are certainly not confined by location. And since our options for travel remain limited, we, like early pilgrims in times of plague, have been planning safe alternatives to our in-person pilgrimages. In our other programs and activities, we are finding that virtual technologies (like Zoom) can offer creative ways to build sacred community. Large group activities help bind us together while small groups allow for more intimate sharing and discovery.

Pilgrimages provide structures and companionship which enrich and encourage personal and community journeys, journeying closer to God. We invite you on such a journey with us as we embark on a virtual pilgrimage and walk in the footsteps of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi in May.

As the stories of these saints unfold, the glorious art which echoes their lives can be explored in new and creative ways and used as inspiration for a contemplative practice based upon these images. Designated private time for journaling and reflection helps deepen the personal experience. We will support one another in making space in our lives and locations for this journey and, with the aid of labyrinthlocator.com, we can find local labyrinths to walk as part of our collective journey. We are excited and energized as we reimagine pilgrimage to meet these challenging times. There is the possibility of being filled with great joy.

Won’t you consider joining us on Zoom as we safely walk in the footsteps of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi in May?

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Shalem eNews, January 2021. Used with permission.

Living in Liminal Space

Photo by Gabriela Palai on Pexels.com

In this week between two worlds, the world of 2020 and the world of 2021, I’ve been reflecting on liminal space.  What is liminal space? Susan Beaumont, in How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, describes liminal space as the space between the old and the new, when the old has disintegrated and the new has not yet come.  Our human will has a bias toward returning to the old or rushing to the new, profoundly uncomfortable in the liminal space.  Yet the liminal space provides the holding environment for gestation.  Waiting in the liminal space provides room for creativity and growth.

2020 served up a lot of liminal space for me and for the Shalem Institute, the organization I serve in leadership.  For example, when COVID-19 hit, I had no roadmap.  Our strategic planning process had not, in our wildest imaginings, anticipated this scenario.  Part of me felt tempted to devise a plan, any plan, to chart a course through this storm.

Yet another part of me knew I needed to wait.  Our old way of doing things wouldn’t work anymore.  The old was falling apart before our eyes.  The new had not yet emerged.  Prematurely rushing to devise a plan, I sensed, would prove counterproductive. 

And I knew I needed to listen.  Personally, I needed to listen for what was being invited.  Corporately, we at Shalem needed to listen.  I needed to help hold the space for our staff team to listen.  I needed to help hold the space for our board to listen.  Just because we couldn’t offer programs in our old tried-and-true ways didn’t mean the Holy Spirit had stopped working.  How could we listen for what the Spirit was up to now?

How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going  helped me recognize the normalcy of what we were experiencing.  It helped me stay in the uncomfortable liminal space and invite others into it as well.  Others had traveled this road before.  While COVID-19 was new, the experience of living in liminal space was not.  The degree to which we could stay in the liminal space with open, listening minds, hearts, and wills would determine the degree to which we could respond to the emerging future waiting to be born through us. 

While we still find ourselves living between the old and the new, with staff working from home and programs shifted to Zoom, with no clear end in sight, we have found that listening for divine guidance, experimenting, and trusting has served us well.  Surprisingly, enrollment in our programs has increased substantially.  Our community has been generous financially. Our staff and board are strong.  We are thriving.

Yes, we still lack a roadmap.  Yes, I’m still tempted at times to rush toward a new strategic plan.  Yes, it’s often uncomfortable and difficult.  Yet exercising our trust muscles for the past nine months has taught us that living in liminal space can be an adventure of listening, open-heartedness, and growth.

While I don’t yet know what 2021 has to offer, I want to commit myself to living in this ongoing liminal space with an open mind, open heart, and open will.

May we all experience the blessings of liminal space in 2021, even amidst its challenges.

Learning the New Song

The old song of my spirit has wearied itself out. It has long ago been learned by heart so that now it repeats itself over and over, bringing no added joy to my days or lift to my spirit. . . I will sing a new song. As difficult as it is, I must learn the new song that is capable of meeting the new need. I must fashion new words born of all the new growth of my life, my mind, and my spirit. I must prepare for new melodies that have never been mine before, that all that is within me may lift my voice unto God. How I love the old familiarity of the wearied melody – how I shrink from the harsh discords of the new untried harmonies.  – Howard Thurman


As I have reflected on this meditation by Howard Thurman during the election and post-election season in the U.S., I’ve asked myself, “What is the old tired familiar melody in my life at this time?” I realize that it is fear, despair, obsessive worry, knee-jerk actions. What is the new song for me? Discovering it requires listening. It’s God’s invitation to something fresh and new in each moment. It requires listening, learning the melody, and then singing along. This past three weeks since the election, it has been an invitation to deeper prayer for me. When I awoke the day after the election, I felt dismay and anxiety. I had wanted a landslide for my candidate and it appeared that someone I thought was dangerous for my country and my world had a good chance of winning. I watched in dismay as the authoritarian playbook unfolded before my eyes, with threats of stopping the vote counting and declaring victory prematurely. Never say, “it can’t happen here,” I reminded myself. 

How could my dismay at what was happening be turned into productive prayer and action, rather than obsessive anxiety? As I listened for God’s prayer in me, I heard the new melody. I found myself being drawn to pray deeply that that of God in each person in this country would be raised up and that what is not of God would fall away. I have returned to this prayer many times a day since that Wednesday morning.

As I prayed, I had a sense of God working, of the good being raised up in poll workers to give them the strength to keep counting ballots in the face of threats, of the good being raised up in judges to give them the courage to reject frivolous lawsuits, of the good being raised up in ordinary citizens to give them the will and the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood as they listen to the rhetoric of politicians. I have a vision of others who are uniting in the same prayer that I am praying, holding up one another’s arms in prayer as Aaron and Hur did for Moses, so that we don’t give up when we grow weary. The vision I see includes some who are called to pray at this moment, some called to work for fair ballot counting and protection of our democracy, some called to witness in the streets, some called to pray now and work tomorrow, others to work today and pray tomorrow, some to work and pray at the same time. The work and the prayer are integrated. As I listen for the new song, I continue to pray and sense how God is at work. I feel confident I will know what is mine to do when.  

As I listen for the new song, my prayer also moves to those who are marginalized. I’m aware of many who have been and still are suffering deeply, of the children at the border separated from their parents, of the black lives lost in police killings, of those in poverty especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and more. I pray that that of God in the marginalized will be raised up to give them hope and remind them of their dignity when they are tempted to despair. I pray that that of God in the rest of us will be raised up to give us strength and courage to fight for the protection of those on the margins.

This prayer feels deeper than any particular election. Even though my candidate has now been declared the winner, I continue to feel led to pray this prayer. We so need the good to be raised up in each of us as we move forward now as a country, as a world. Those of us who disagree with one another, who supported different candidates, need the good to be raised up in us so that we are not tempted, respectively, to gloat or to turn to bitterness and despair. We need the good to be raised up in each of us so that we can hear the good in opposing points of view. While I believe that the candidate who lost is dangerous for the country and the world, I believe that many who voted for him did so for reasons apart from the qualities I see as dangerous. How can I listen for the good in them? How can we carry out respectful dialogue and find our way forward as fellow citizens seeking to re-build a democracy together?

May we each continue to listen for the new song that is ours to sing. May we all learn to sing the new melodies. The degree to which we each faithfully sing our new song will determine the degree of harmony and healing manifested among us.

(An earlier version of this blog appeared in the November 2020 Shalem Institute eNews. Used with permission from Shalem Institute. )

Staying Rooted in the Storm

 All around me, the political storm rages.  With six days to go before the U. S. election, attacks sharpen, hostilities increase.  Political hostilities, possibly the worst ever, tempt me to hunker down, batten down the hatches, and wait it out.  I’m beginning to understand those Facebook friends who say they don’t want to see any more political discussion.

Yet part of me knows there is another way.

I think of the way that trees survive a storm. As the wind blows their branches wildly, they bend.  Yet they remain strong.  Their deep roots and flexible limbs allow them to weather the storm while standing in the midst of it.  While doing so, the trees provide shelter.  Their root systems prevent the ground from eroding.

In Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer brilliantly delineates the political storm in which we find ourselves.  He demonstrates how racism, consumerism, scapegoating, and the mass media which fuels their fires erode the soil of democracy.

But Palmer doesn’t stop there.  He shows us how we can be like the trees, deeply rooted and grounded, flexible, standing strong in the midst of the storm.  He shows us how we can provide shelter, how, by developing strong roots, we can be grounded leaders who prevent the soil of our society from eroding.  He explores the outward and visible infrastructures of democracy and proposes ways to make better use of them.  For example, school teachers can be grounded leaders by helping students connect history lessons to their own lives. History lessons about Nazi Germany parallel discrimination against minorities today, close to home; any culture carries within it the seeds of oppression, violence, and totalitarianism.

Furthermore, in school, students can practice democracy as well as learn about it.  Or students can engage in service learning opportunities in their communities, integrating their classroom work with the world around them.

Palmer also explores how congregations and community groups can practice deep hospitality, welcoming the stranger, engaging more fully with those who are different.  He points out how often relationships in such groups become superficial and how learning to risk vulnerability with one another enriches the soil of community.

Grounded leaders in schools, congregations, community groups, and (I would add) businesses can build the relationships and ways of being that form the foundation of a democracy.

I ask myself, “In what ways am I like the deeply rooted tree in the storm, exhibiting grounded leadership, providing shelter and preventing erosion in the political storm?  In what ways can I learn from the tree, incorporating more of Palmer’s practices into my leadership?”

May we all resist the urge to hide from the important tasks of shaping the world, instead remaining fully engaged and deeply rooted as political storms swirl around us.

(This is a revision of a similar article that appeared in the Executive Soul blog in October 2012, “Grounded Leadership: Staying Rooted in the Storm.”)


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