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Independence and Interdependence

Photo Credit: Margaret Benefiel

Photo Credit: Margaret Benefiel

This weekend America celebrates Independence Day, the day she declared independence from the British crown.   America’s founding fathers, of course, knew the importance of independence – that’s why they fought so hard to win it.  At the same time, they knew the importance of interdependence, both the interdependence of forging alliances among the colonies and the interdependence of maintaining alliances abroad.

We would do well to learn from America’s founding fathers and to apply their lessons to organizational life.   How can organizations and the people who work in them exhibit both strong independence and strong interdependence?

As I come to the end of my first year in my new role as Executive Director of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, I’m musing on independence and interdependence in Shalem as an organization. A few days ago, the board met for its final meeting of this fiscal year, so it has been an opportune time to reflect on these themes in relation to the board and staff.   On the one hand, individual board members and staff members are independent of one another.  It does not serve an organization well to be in the grip of “group-think.” We need differences of opinion and freedom to speak those different opinions in order to maximize the wisdom in a group and in order to learn from one another. On the other hand, individuals at Shalem are interdependent.  We listen deeply to one another, and seek to discern the wisdom that arises corporately from the group.

Similarly, on the one hand, the board and staff are independent of one another.  Each has clearly defined roles and responsibilities.  It’s important not to have duplication of effort.  It’s important to respect one another’s areas of work and not second-guess one another.  At the same time, the board and staff are interdependent.  The two groups listen together for wisdom and direction, and they collaborate to help make Shalem thrive.

I’m also musing on independence and interdependence in the larger world of which Shalem is a part.  In October, the founders of four organizations similar to Shalem, all committed to nurturing the contemplative way of living and leading, will be meeting.  Soon thereafter, the current Executive Directors of these organizations will be meeting.  On the one hand, these four organizations are independent, even “competitors.” They were founded independently.  Each must find its own way without copying or relying on the others.  Each has its own staff and board and each has its own core values to which it must be true.  On the other hand, these four organizations are interdependent.  We all seek to nurture contemplative life in a world which hungers for it.  We speak to some of the same audience.  We long to collaborate, to listen to what is being invited from each of us and from the four of us together to meet the needs of today’s world.

Like Shalem, every organization can benefit from reflecting on the way these two modes of being operate within the workplace. Are there areas where more independence can be encouraged, allowing a greater diversity in viewpoints to shine through?  Are there spaces in which a deeper interdependence between coworkers or departments can be nurtured so that their communal wisdom can better shape the organization? In what ways does the organization offer something completely unique to the world, and in what ways can it find kinship with other like-minded organizations?

In the modern western world, where independence is so highly praised, it can be easy to forget how connected we all are. Yet our abilities to think independently and to collaborate with others are equally important and should both be nurtured. This Independence Day, let’s take a lesson from America’s founding fathers and strengthen both independence and interdependence in our organizations.


Photo credit: Chris M. via flickr

Photo credit: Chris M. via flickr

Having recently returned from 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, this is 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 economic times when layoffs 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 slight revision of a post that appeared in the Executive Soul blog in May 2012.)


3 Leadership Lessons of St. Clare

photo credit Fr James Bradley

Photo credit: Fr James Bradley via flickr

St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), best known as St. Francis’ “little plant,” eventually emerged as a strong leader in her own right in thirteenth-century Italy and beyond.  While St. Francis took center stage with his extraverted 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 afar.  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 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.


Good Friday, Scapegoating, and American Politics

Photo credit: Nesster, via flickr

Jesus, a victim of scapegoating, understood all too well its origin and its outcome.  From the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday to the “Crucify him!” of a few days later, Jesus witnessed the fears of the human heart and how easily those fears turn to blame.  Good Friday marks the ultimate scapegoating, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

What is happening in the heart of the person who turns to scapegoating? It’s easy for us humans to believe that by hating a person we despise, we separate ourselves from evil and differentiate ourselves as good. Yet the opposite is actually true. When we give in to hate, we begin to become like what we are hating. When hatred and violence grow in our hearts, we move closer along the spectrum toward the object of our hate.  Jesus knew this on Good Friday, and he also knew how unconsciously this was occurring when he prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

The battle between good and evil plays out not between individuals but within individuals. The battle between good and evil is fought within every human heart. Yet we naturally shun the fear and hatred within us, and so we seek shortcuts instead of doing the hard inner work we need to do.  When a leader arises who blames a person or group for our woes, whether in a family, an organization, or a nation, the appeal of that leader proves strong.  At this moment in American politics, Donald Trump’s scapegoating of various groups, including Mexicans and Muslims, is proving irresistible to many.  Why do the hard inner work, personally and as a nation, when it is so easy to blame others?

The trouble with scapegoating is threefold.  First, of course, it damages the individuals and groups who are its targets.  Second, it damages the ones who hate those individuals and groups by filling their hearts with fear and hatred.  Third, it doesn’t solve anything.  When, in the history of the world, has scapegoating resulted in a good outcome for those who scapegoat?  Never.  There is some relief for awhile, but the problems don’t go away because they haven’t been addressed at the root. So the cycle repeats itself: a new scapegoat gets identified, that person or group is crucified or chased out of town, some relief is felt for awhile, the problems resurface, and so on.

Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”  Who are the least of these today?  In America today, they are those we scapegoat.  Will we keep crucifying Jesus?  Will we keep participating in scapegoating or not standing up for those scapegoated? Who are you, this Good Friday?  Are you in the crowd, shouting “Crucify him!”  Are you Peter, not standing up for Jesus?  Or can you find it in your heart to stand with Jesus to the end, as the women at the foot of the cross did, and stand up for those scapegoated in our time and place?

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.

What Do You Mean . . . “Leader?”

Photo Credit: Steve Johnson via flickr

Photo Credit: Steve Johnson via flickr

Susie Allen, who co-leads the Boston Soul of Leadership program with Margaret Benefiel, is guest blog author this month.

A few days ago, a friend was speaking with me about a deep passion she has for a topic she wants to bring into focus for discussion and reflection at her church. As she was talking, I found myself moved by the power of her own experience around the topic, and drawn into her ideas about how to create programming to bring this topic to light.

I asked her about her plans to generate such a program, given her deep passion and clear ideas. She responded to my question by saying, “Oh, I can’t do this. I’m not a leader.” I detected some sadness as she said this, acknowledging that despite her passion and desire, she does not feel equipped to bring such a program into being.

So I asked her, “What do you mean by ‘leader’?” She began, and I joined her, to outline a concept of leader. In front of people, directive, vocal, powerful, confident, knowledgeable, command and control. We sat for a moment to be present to this picture of leader.

We began to talk about her ideas: create a display of printed resources on the topic; identify books to study in small groups; lead a book discussion; organize a calendar to schedule small group book discussions; create publicity for the church and community; distribute person-to-person invitations; and gather testimonials. Then we wondered together – which, of all of these ideas, might she set into action? Which energized her? Which tapped into the gifts and skills she knows she has?

All of a sudden, “leader” took on a different character and quality. In the context of enacting her vision, “leader” might be described in these ways: creator, writer, connector, organizer, gatherer, small group facilitator, storyteller. She began to see herself as someone who has leadership qualities that could be engaged to bring her vision to life.

Organizations and workplaces are as varied as the people who are a part of them. The leadership styles and characteristics needed in the cockpit of an airplane are vastly different from the qualities needed to lead a street ministry, or direct an orchestra, or run a household.

What is your sphere of influence? What are the particular gifts and skills you know you have? Where do you come alive in your work? What is the best workplace environment for your personality?

Another friend recently asked me when Executive Soul might be offering programs for “followers.” We smiled together, and then I wondered with her – is she leading in ways she hasn’t yet become aware of? I’ll bet she is. And if so, how does she want to energize and engage the leader within?

Light in the Darkness

Photo Credit: Markus Grossalber, via flickr

Photo Credit: Markus Grossalber, via flickr

The politics of fear rule the day in the U.S. presidential debate. No innovation, from time immemorial fear-mongering has proven effective in winning elections. And fear-mongering has always resulted in oppression built on distorting the truth about a particular population.

In recent centuries, apartheid in South Africa, the holocaust in Germany, and slavery in the U.S., to name but a few, have all depended upon fear-mongering. And to stir up fear in each case, the truth about the affected population must be distorted. It’s an old trick, and too often successful.

History repeats itself, and those of us in the U.S. now find ourselves in a frenzy of fear over Muslims. Donald Trump calls for the U.S. to close its doors to all Muslims. When asked about his plan to ban non-American Muslims from entering, he responded, “They’re not coming to this country. And if I’m president and if Obama has brought some to this country, they are leaving. They’re going. They’re gone.” Presidential candidate Ben Carson believes Islam to be inconsistent with the U.S. constitution and stated “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”

Into this fear-frenzy entered a courageous voice of truth last week. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) devoted a substantial portion of his air time in the second-string Republican Presidential debate to calling out the lies.

First, Sen. Graham pointed out how Trump’s approach decreases safety for Americans, rather than increasing it:

[W]hat [Donald Trump] said about banning Muslims coming here to America has made us all less safe, and it’s the worst possible thing he could do in this war.

The good news is . . . most people over there are not buying what ISIL’s selling. This is a religious war between radical Islam and the rest of the world. And there’s only one way you’re going to win this war. Help people in Islam who reject radical Islam to fight over there and destroy this ideology. Donald Trump has done the one single thing you cannot do. Declare war on Islam itself. ISIL would be dancing in the streets if they believed in dancing. This is a coup for them.”

Second, Graham apologized to Muslims around the world, expressing solidarity rather than judging all Muslims for the actions of ISIL extremists. He then recognized American Muslims in the military: “There are at least 3,500 American Muslims serving in the armed forces. Thank you for your service. You are not the enemy. Your religion is not the enemy.”

Sen. Graham realizes that the security of the U.S., and of the world at large, will not be attained by distancing ourselves from a whole population but rather by joining with those who oppose radical violence. The fear-mongering that persuades us to turn our backs on entire religious groups not only harms those groups but prevents us from recognizing allies who could help us work for peace. Voices like that of Sen. Graham remind us that a better path exists. May we listen to those discerning voices that lead us, like a light in the dark, beyond the voices of fear.