Only a Feather


Photo Credit: Partha S. Sahana via flickr

Photo Credit: Partha S. Sahana via flickr

“A feather on the breath of God,” Hildegard of Bingen’s image of her life, leaped out at me when I sought a guiding image for my new leadership position at the Shalem Institute eight months ago.  I return to it again and again as I seek to balance being and doing in the midst of my responsibilities as an executive director.

This symbol speaks to me deeply, both personally and for Shalem.  I long to live as a feather on God’s breath, living in radical trust.  I long for the Shalem community as a whole to live as a feather on the breath of God.

Yet living in radical trust is not my natural inclination. Some days I do indeed feel like a feather on the breath of God, as the spiritually grounded, contemplative atmosphere at the Shalem office helps me trust and float on the current of the Spirit’s wind.  My joy is deep.

At the same time that I feel deep joy when I experience living as a feather on God’s breath, another part of me resists:
“Only a feather?” she says.  “What about your accomplishments?”
“Only a feather,” comes the response.
“What about your degrees?”
“Only a feather.”
“What about your training?”
“Only a feather.”

The part of me that resists also wants to control.  She wants to rely on my credentials.  She wants to believe that if I utilize my training I can figure everything out. She wants me to see spreadsheets as Shalem’s salvation. She wants me to turn to management manuals to motivate the minions.

To be sure, I must use my skills and training.  I must draw on the knowledge and experience that I have.  I must think about Shalem’s future, and together with the board and staff, make plans. I must read spreadsheets and mind the money.

Yet those skills are mine only to serve the greater good.  They do not exist for me to exercise control.  They do not exist for me to impress the board, staff, Shalem graduates, or program participants.  They exist to free Shalem to listen as openly as possible to God’s spirit.  For myself, this means that I must give up control, or rather give up the illusion of control, so that Shalem and I can float as feathers on God’s breath.

Shalem as an organization, like me as an individual, is only a feather on God’s breath.  Somehow it’s easy for us to think of an organization as being more solid than an individual.  Once we have bylaws and a budget and a board, we’re established.  We’re solid.  Nothing can move us, right?  Wrong.  Organizations are just as vulnerable as individuals.  Organizations have a choice: they can live with the illusion of control, or they can exercise radical trust. What does it look like for an organization, for an entire community, to exercise radical trust? What does it look like for Shalem to live as a feather on the breath of God?

It looks like openness to God, listening for the movement of the Spirit in our midst.  Radical trust for Shalem as a whole also means holding programs lightly.  It means experimenting with new programs.  It means assessing and improving existing programs.

Radical trust for Shalem as a whole also means trusting God with money.  How many times have you been in a committee meeting or board meeting that has been open and trusting until the topic of money comes up?  There’s nothing like talking about money to throw a meeting back into ego, away from radical trust. Trusting God with money means listening for the Spirit’s guidance about how to focus Shalem’s fundraising efforts, doing our part to reach out and ask, adjusting course when needed, and continuing to listen.

Whether with programs, staff priorities, fundraising, or planning, seeking to live as a feather on the breath of God provides an opportunity for ongoing spiritual practice, both for me and for Shalem.

I am only a feather.  Shalem is only a feather. But we are feathers that have the capacity to float on the breath of God, which is ultimately where our strength lies.

9 Responses to “Only a Feather”

  1. 1 abower February 29, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    Letting go of control is very difficult. I would have thought that people who are spiritually grounded in faith of a living God would not have as much difficulty with control as those of us for whom God is not real.

    You are so right about how talk of money changes the tone of a discussion. It also reveals much about are true values as well as our shortcomings. Thanks for sharing to honestly.

    • 2 executivesoulblog March 1, 2016 at 1:02 pm

      Interesting points, Anita. It seems that it’s the human condition to hold onto the illusion of control. whether a person has faith in a living God or not. And you are so right that talk of money reveals much about both our true values and our shortcomings. Thank you.


  2. 3 Leah Rampy February 29, 2016 at 8:27 pm

    Well said, Margaret. I couldn’t agree more. Blessings on all the feathers!

  3. 5 Elaine February 29, 2016 at 10:40 pm

    I took Carol’s Comtemplative Leadership online course last summer. It is so counter-intuitive to the ways most people (especially in the church) view leadership. Thanks for your wise words.

    • 6 executivesoulblog March 1, 2016 at 1:05 pm

      Elaine, you are so right that contemplative leadership is very different from how most people view leadership. And, while one might think it would be different in the church, it so often isn’t. Thank you for highlighting this.


  4. 7 Joyce Ray March 1, 2016 at 1:42 am

    Great post, Margaret. Radical trust is hard for most Americans, I think. We are used to being in control. Perhaps I should only speak for myself, though. When in a leadership position, it is tempting to try to make things happen when truly, God is quite capable of directing if we would only trust.

    Hildegard offers us an example of what radical trust can achieve. She may have been downplaying her role due to societal restraints, not wanting to be seen as bucking the system all the time (just most of the time!). However, she did trust that the God she knew as Love would sustain her as surely as a feather is kept afloat by a breath.

    I love this part, Margaret: “But we are feathers that have the capacity to float on the breath of God, which is ultimately where our strength lies.” Thank you for reminding me of this image!

  5. 8 David Nickel March 1, 2016 at 2:57 am

    This was an interesting and fascinating article and I really appreciated it as it got me to thinking on a deeper level. I really liked the comparison between individuals and organizations. And I particularly liked the idea of “radical trust”. What the term “radical trust” means is well illustrated here in the article. I would like to know even more about “radical trust” in general and more about how to get to a place of “radical trust” within myself.

    On a somewhat different note, I tend to think that we males have more challenges with this control thing than do females, but I could be wrong there. On a deeper level, the tendency to want to control might be more associated with the type of parental upbringing (e.g., democratic versus authoritarian), or an inborn personality and temperament type, or one’s sense of security, safety, and well being in the current situation. However, my observation is that, in general, males tend to have more challenges with control that do females–in general, that is.

    I liked the dimensions of leadership and spirituality that this article embodies.

    Thank you!

  6. 9 Marybeth Toomey May 18, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    I am very delayed in reading this so I apologize for that! I do want to respond to the last message: Perhaps socio-economics plays a role in our ability to give up power and control. For those who have never had control and struggle for survival, it takes on a different perspective. It may be easier or simpler to take risks when one is well-fed and not in immediate physical danger.


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