3 Leadership Lessons from John Woolman

We currently face at least six pandemics in our world:

1) COVID-19

2) Racism

3) War

4) Police brutality and militarization of police

5) Climate change

6) Economic inequity

In the face of these pandemics and the related refugee crises, world hunger, bitter political divisions in this country, and international political tensions, I sometimes find myself feeling helpless and even hopeless. What can one person do in the face of these impossible challenges? Where can I find the courage and hope to move forward?

I find the eighteenth-century American Quaker John Woolman inspiring and instructive for this time.  He faced one of the impossible challenges of his time, slavery, with prayer and action.  Through prayer and discernment, Woolman discerned what was his to do.  He felt called to travel to visit American Quaker slaveholders to challenge them to free the people they had enslaved.  Woolman was both loving and prophetic. He didn’t give into hating the evildoer while denouncing the evil of slavery.  He didn’t water down his prophetic message in order to “love” the slaveholder.  How did he hold this tension?

He held it through prayer and discernment.  After visiting a slaveholder, he would return to worship, holding that person in the Light, reflecting on the pro-slavery arguments with which he had been presented.  Not getting hooked by his ego, he would systematically refute each argument, returning to the slaveholder and presenting his thoughts clearly, with humility and love.  He knew that oppression hurt the oppressor as well as the oppressed.  He met each slaveholder with love, yearning for the slaveholder’s liberation from slaveholding as well as for the enslaved people’s liberation from slavery.

What can I learn from John Woolman in this time in which I find myself?  In this time when more details about the Jan 6, 2021 insurrection in the U.S. are revealed, for example, can I love Donald Trump and the people he incited to riot, people I see as dangerous for my country and my world?  When I pray for them, I do feel compassion.  I see hurt little children inside and I long for their liberation from the fear and hatred that imprison their souls.  Will I be called to speak truth to them?  Is there hope for their transformation?  These are questions that are beyond me.  All I know is that I will continue to pray for them and I will seek to be faithful as I am led.  I also know that I will work to bring them to justice, to stop the damage I think they are doing.

Closer to home, how do I love the Trump supporters in my own family?  I know that I can pray for them.  When I pray, I am changed from an oppositional stance toward them to feeling compassion for them as I see the fears and hurts that draw them toward Trump and his rhetoric.  As I am led, I can speak to their fears and hurts, and also speak prophetically to them.  And when the conversations grow tense, I can keep returning to my spiritual grounding, keep praying that I will come from a place of compassion.  When my ego gets hooked and the conflict escalates (which happens more frequently than I like to admit), I know it’s time to take a break and center down.  Loving and speaking prophetically at the same time is a spiritual practice for me.  Will it change others?  I don’t know.  But I do know that it changes me and that it sows seeds of transformation in others that might take root and grow, either now or sometime in the future.  There is no template for loving across differences, no formula that we can follow that will result in transformation of others at the end.  There is the lifetime work of spiritual practice, practice that will change me and, through my actions, sow seeds in the world.  Whether those seeds grow is up to other people and to God.

So, in this time of multiple pandemics, how can we have courage, faith, hope, and love for all, even for those with whom we disagree? First, by staying spiritually grounded through daily spiritual practice. Second, by making the practice of loving across differences one of our regular spiritual practices. Third, by discerning in community “What is mine to do?” and being faithful in carrying out our part.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the July 2020 Executive Soul blog.)

3 Responses to “3 Leadership Lessons from John Woolman”

  1. 1 jas July 28, 2022 at 6:34 pm

    This is so good, Margaret. Thank you!

  2. 2 Lee Robbins July 28, 2022 at 7:37 pm

    Fine points. It helps to remember that all these people whom we may see as evil were once sweet little children and how unfortunate that they were directed by circumstance and often their raising in such negative directions.

  3. 3 Rev. DeBorah J. Cannady September 3, 2022 at 4:50 pm

    What a wonderful statement. Speaking truth to power is daunting yet required to those so called. Doing so in love is the challenge.

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