My new friend and ministry colleague, Margaret Benefiel, is a seasoned veteran in the world of spiritual formation and leadership development. I had the privilege of meeting Margaret a few months ago at a gathering of spiritual formation ministry leaders from a wide religious heritage but from the same region of Greater Boston. She was obviously one of the more recognized and admired in the room. We had previously known each other from a distance, and found mutual joy finally meeting one another in person.
Her book The Soul of a Leader has been praised by many, including Archbishop Desmund Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Tilden Edwards, noted author and founder of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. It was a good read particularly for those in various leadership positions in the business community. In her book, she helps those who are surrounded by the pressures of a results-oriented culture, and who work hard to stay focused on their drive, productivity, and long work hours. But, she addresses the question: what happens as a result to their personal wellbeing and the health of the organization they lead?
In The Soul of a Leader she offers real-life stories and practical advice for navigating the path of soulful leadership. She writes for the leader: whether an executive manager, teacher, committee chair, pastor or parent. Her definition of a leader comes from Parker Palmer, “A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there.” And adds her qualifier, that “both internal soul formation and external skills are necessary for effective, inspired, ethical leadership over the long haul.” Palmer’s and her statements are powerful for a leader’s deep reflection.
Although I resonate with her broad leadership definition (“everyone is a leader in his or her sphere”), her use of the word soul is also purposefully broad, “Soul is the way that emotional or relational depth is honored and the way that yearnings for development or evolution are given space, whether in a religious context or in other contexts.” Benefiel is comfortable with an understanding of the soul as the deep essence of a person that finds expression through religious faith or in “other ways.” That may be the water which divides us as spiritual formation leaders…something meriting more serious and prayerful consideration. My view of the soul is more in line with the essence of a person, and the deep place within us where God and God alone seeks to reside. So, to invite other affections into that place is not appropriate for the soul, especially the soul of a Christian, from my vantage point.
The bulk of her text is the introduction of one main principle after another, with real life stories of leaders who embody and fulfill each point. In part one, “Choosing the Path” she introduces: following the heart, by paying attention, taking the first step, and even stumbling; in finding partners, she talks about speaking the heart’s truth, seeking resonance, and inviting partnership; in daring to dream, she invites assessing what is, finding the heart’s hope, and dreaming. In part two, “Staying on Track” she has three chapters: keeping mission at the fore, via focus on something more, sharing the vision, and returning to mission; in practicing gratitude, she encourages receiving work and colleagues as gift, practicing and creating a culture of gratitude; in battling for the soul, she talks about keeping people first, committing to ongoing development, and staying true to values.
In part three, “Persevering to the End” her final few chapters focus on seeing compassionately, forgiving, and persevering via spiritual transformation, and the threefold path of 1. The Purgative; 2. The Illuminative; and 3. The Unitive…using the classic Christian formulation of the three ways to describe the process of spiritual transformation developed from the third through the sixteenth centuries. She also includes seasons of the “dark night” and how organizations experience these as well. While causing me rather abrupt pause, given her style in the previous chapters, I found the jolt quite intriguing. Do organizations truly experience spiritual transformation in similar ways as individuals?
Her final chapter on “Finding Spiritual Guidance” and her conclusion introduce the importance of spiritual direction with a particular focus on leadership. Her concluding exercise is an invitation to the leader to consider ways to specifically apply the principles contained within. She ends with words of hope and challenge for the leader who chooses to travel the path of success and fulfillment outlined throughout the previous chapters. I appreciated her upbeat and hope-filled conclusion. A worthwhile read for all who are in leadership and want to influence others from the perspective of the soul. Kudos, Margaret. You’ve stimulated my thinking and I’m profoundly grateful.
Consultant, psychologist and bestselling author Dr. Henry Cloud has written a great book for business leaders, with immediate application to ministry leaders in church and parachurch settings. His thesis in this book, Necessary Endings, is that our personal and professional lives can only improve to the degree that we see endings as a necessary and strategic step to something better. If we only see endings in a negative light, we may never experience the fullness of growth for our business or personal endeavors.
When executed well, “necessary endings” in our lives allow us to proactively correct the bad and the broken in order to make room for the growth we seek. Knowing when and how to let go when something, or someone, isn’t working – in a personal relationship, a job, or a business venture – is essential for our joy and success. This book gives the reader the tools needed for saying a healthy good-bye and move on in life. For those who are faint of heart, this book offers courage and hope.
Some of the key insights that grabbed my attention…
Good cannot begin until the bad ends…endings are a part of life. But, we often do not do them well. We hang on too long when we should end something now. We are afraid of the unknown. We fear confrontation. We are afraid of letting go and the sadness associated with an ending. We do not know the right words to use. When they are forced upon us, we do not know how to process them, and we sink or flounder. In short, we end up working harder at avoiding endings when that energy can be put to far greater and more useful purposes if we embrace endings. We need to be equipped with the discernment, courage, and skills needed to initiate, follow through, and complete the necessary endings of our lives.
Pruning: growth depends on getting rid of the unwanted or the superfluous. Just like a gardener intentionally and purposefully cuts off branches and buds, so too should we welcome such pruning in our lives. All of our precious resources – time, energy, talent, passion, money – should only go to the buds of our lives that are the best, fixable, and indispensable. When our most precious resources are being eaten up by unproductive means or ends, pruning might be the best alternative. How willing are you to prune?
Making endings normal…rather than seeing them only as a problem. How can endings be seen as a good thing? Cloud suggests that we 1)accept life cycles and seasons, knowing that nothing lasts forever; 2) accept that life produces too much life, and therefore spring cleaning is required; and 3) accept that incurable illness and sometimes evil are a part of life too, and need to be eradicated or allowed to fail or die.
Henry Cloud has additional insights on why we tend to get “stuck” and that becomes our norm. Here he encourages the reader to be honest about one’s own internal map, which includes our pain thresholds, covering for others, toxic versions of not quitting, misunderstood loyalty, and codependency. Here there were a handful of “ouch” moments for this reader! But, he continues with words of hope that lead to a healthy pruning moment, and changes that lead to worthwhile conclusions.
The latter part of the book deals with the individual, and how it’s incumbent upon the leader to choose ways to trust self and others in the process of necessary endings. He outlines the difference between the wise, the foolish and the evil persons that surround each of us. Knowing who to trust is essential to healthy endings. Staying motivated and energized for change is something that grows from the inside out, and requires meaningful connections with others in the process.
How well are you maximizing where you are right now and how ready are you to do what is necessary to get to the next place? For the right tomorrow to come, some parts of today may have to come to a necessary ending. What parts are those for you?
Last week I had the privilege of serving on the teaching team with Jerry Sittser at a conference for pastors and elders in Spokane, Washington. I’ve known Jerry from afar for over two decades, and it was a joy to get to know him as my new friend. After I graduated from Northwestern College (IA) in the late 70′s, he became the college chaplain. However, a few short years after arriving on that campus, tragedy struck his family when in a car accident his mother, wife and daughter were killed. Overnight, Jerry became a single, widowed father of his three remaining children. Several years later, he wrote A Grace Disguised, which has since sold nearly a quarter of a million copies as it focuses on the meaning of suffering and grief.
In this long-awaited companion, A Grace Revealed reflects back on his personal story and how God has been in the work of redeeming that story within the larger narrative of God’s Grander Narrative. With story as the overall image of the book, Sittser invites his readers to consider their own personal story within that same wider and eternal story. Jerry masterfully and gently brings us into the details of the biblical text, particularly via the stories of Joseph and Ruth, and then introduces individuals from church history and the modern day to complement how one’s redemptive story unfolds.
Subtitled “How God Redeems the Story of Your Life,” Sittser’s outline is masterfully organized around the main parts of a story: characters in search of a story (and vice versa: a story in search of characters), scene and setting, plot, author, time table, the Spirit of the story, the beginning, and the end. He reminds his readers that all of us remain suspended “in the middle” of the story of redemption, the grand narrative of God’s that began in the garden and ends when all is complete, whole, perfect and eternal.
There were many parts of the book that captivated my interest and imagination. The book begins with a marvelous image of a well worn tree, with strong roots, but beautifully weathered over time…I love such metaphors of the spiritual life. He shares a story of Michelangelo’s artistic genius in bringing characters to full life by chiseling them out of blocks of marble. He lingers in the stories of Joseph and Ruth, two of my favorite biblical characters, both of whom lived well in the midst of fascinating redemptive stories. He shares with us from the history of the church, which just so happens to be his academic discipline, and encourages us to embrace the lives and prayers of saints such as Cassian, Augustine, Calvin, Aelred, Luther, and Teresa of Avila. And, he willingly and movingly shares his own story, with details that bring tears to the eye and warmth to the heart.
A Grace Revealed helps the reader excavate the myriad details of our own stories so that we can begin to understand more fully how God is at work crafting a wonderful story through our own lives as well. The gift that this book offers to those willing to see how God is sculpting His preferred image out of the complex intricacies of our daily lives is monumental. Let Jerry Sittser be your guide toward the revealing of God’s grace in, through and around you. You’ll be glad you entered the journey through this welcoming and riveting door of transformation.
My first summer reading book for 2013 is The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. It was recommended to me by a friend who shared with me “I was in tears reading the first few chapters” and I knew I needed to get my hands on this one for sure. I wasn’t disappointed.
Brown is a researcher, writer, an active blogger (www.ordinarycourage.com), speaker, and TED talk star. She is most known for her work on shame, and her previous book is entitled I Thought It Was Just Me. This book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, is a profound and practical book for those in search of a “wholehearted” life and grows out of her work on shame. In fact, she’s hoping this book will help stir up a revolution of sorts among those desirous of a healthier way of being oneself and to break the bondage of shame that so often trips us up.
It’s not a distinctly Christian book, but it’s based on spirituality…with an openness to defining spirituality as one sees fit. But, as a Christian I found this book helpful in unpacking the meaning of the second commandment, “loving your neighbor as yourself.” She emphasizes early on that we simply can’t love another more than we are capable of loving ourselves. A radical thought in both our Christian community and in our wider world. It’s important to know and understand ourselves, but there is something even more essential: loving ourselves. With courage, compassion and connection as one’s foundation, she adds how love, belonging and authenticity bring life and light to those terms.
With shame as the primary deterrent to a wholehearted life, Brown describes how secrecy, silence and judgment fuel our propensity toward a shame-based existence. Confronting our fear, blame and disconnection is what builds shame resilience, and by sharing our stories of shame with trusted others we can indeed be set free. And, who among us doesn’t want to be free from living under the harmfulness of shame?
The hope that she offers in the book resides in her ten guideposts for practicing wholehearted living. 1. Cultivate authenticity: let go of what people think. 2. Cultivate self-compassion: let go of perfectionism. 3. Cultivate a resilient spirit: let go of numbing and powerlessness. 4. Cultivate gratitude and joy: let go of scarcity and fear of the dark. 5. Cultivate intuition and trusting faith: let go of the need for certainty. 6. Cultivate creativity: let go of comparison. 7. Cultivate play and rest: let go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth. 8. Cultivate calm and stillness: let go of anxiety as a lifestyle. 9. Cultivate meaningful work: let go of self-doubt and ‘supposed to.’ 10. Cultivate laughter, song and dance: let go of being cool and always in control.
As far as self-help books go, this is one of the finest. It integrates what Leadership Transformations believes about the gospel, with what we adhere to about the practice of healthy self affection that embraces the Jesus life we are seeking to live as leaders and teams. Open this one with an open heart, mind and pair of ears…and be prepared to prayerfully consider specific application to your own life with God. I’m going to see if I can convince Ruth to join me for dancing lessons!
July 1 is our Tenth Anniversary as a ministry to the body of Christ. We exist for the purpose of cultivating vibrant spirituality and attentive discernment among Christian leaders and teams. Our vision is for local churches and Christian organizations to be filled with leaders who place spiritual formation, discernment and renewal above all other leadership priorities. It’s been an amazing decade and we give God all the praise, honor and glory!
As I fasted and prayed for leaders and teams that mean the most to me, including our own board and ministry team, I found myself journaling about the myriad gifts that God has generously provided over the past decade. Here is my top ten list:
1. An incredibly supportive wife who was willing to take the biggest risk of our lives when we started Leadership Transformations on July 1, 2003, and for two great children who traveled with us through this journey. I’m profoundly grateful to the Lord for Ruthie, Nate and Bekah.
2. An amazing cadre of individuals who were my initial discernment team, our inaugural start up board of directors, and since then our more formal board and a growing number of gifted ministry team members.
3. Our Selah Certificate Program in Spiritual Direction, which has become nationally recognized as a unique alternative and one that is distinctly Trinitarian, Biblical and Contemplative in design and approach.
4. Our Emmaus Spiritual Leadership Communities, and Certificate in Spiritual Leadership, which has served as my own community of like-minded, like-hearted servants in the body of Christ.
5. Our offerings of one-on-one spiritual direction/coaching/mentoring, as well as Soul Care Retreats, Soul Sabbaths, Spiritual Formation Groups, and consultations with local churches and Christian ministries focused on their specific needs and aspirations.
6. Our generous donor family, without whom we could not be in existence today. Each person on that list is a special friend of our ministry, and their prayers, gifts, and loving support pour courage and hope into our hearts each day.
7. The Gordon-Conwell Pierce Center team and fellows, who are pure joy to know and serve each new semester; we are helping to equip and launch a new generation of godly leaders who will serve Christ worldwide and it’s both satisfying and rewarding.
8. Our CHAT: Church Health Assessment Tool, an online listening tool for leaders and teams who care about the health and vitality of the local church and who desire their community of Christ followers to lovingly and prayerfully impact the wider world with the gospel.
9. Our plethora of resources available in our online “Spiritual Formation Store” – books, devotionals, and articles written by our exceptionally talented team; Touch Points on various spiritual formation topics; Retreat Guides and worship outlines on several important soul care topics; Amazon store with over 150 recommended titles.
10. Our ministry partners who have invited us into their networks as resource partners in our areas of giftedness in spiritual leadership development. These partners include denominational networks, international and national ministries, Christian organizations, and even businesses owned and operated by Christian leaders.
We look forward to the next decade of ministry service with growing anticipation and great hope in the Lord. Thanks so much for your ongoing interest and involvement in the life and ministry of Leadership Transformations. www.LeadershipTransformations.org
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