A Good Word for Un-fulfillment

I felt good about the first half of the retreat. Then something happened, perhaps only noticed by me upon reflection.

Five co-pastor teams came together for two days and I was their leader. The aim of the retreat was obvious: These are pioneering pastors eager to be with other co-pastors who are taking similar risks. These pastors, attempting a new model of congregational leadership, needed space to learn from each other’s stories. So I structured the retreat to allow for mutual learning. Indeed, it was happening as they named their joys and challenges with those who could understand.

But during the last half of the time, when I began to offer some content on leadership, a shift occurred. The agenda became more mine than theirs. They began to respond to me and less to each other. I have never been a co-pastor, yet I felt full of my multi-decades of pastoral experience. I just had to share some of my wisdom, I felt. I left the retreat, driving down the mountain, with a gut feeling of dis-ease about my leadership, yet not knowing why.

But the next morning, while re-reading Gerald May’s The Awakening Heart, I saw “it.”  The proverbial “light” came on. During the last part of the retreat, feeling full of my ideas, I was filling in the empty space so requisite to their exchanges. I ceased to hold open the space for deeper sharing to occur. In wanting the retreatants to have a “fulfilling experience” I discounted the potential of un-filled time together.

May writes: “Most importantly, the myth of fulfillment makes us miss the most beautiful aspect of our human souls: our emptiness, our incompleteness, our radical yearning for love. We were never meant to be completely fulfilled; we were meant to taste it, to long for it, and to grow toward it. In this way we participate in love becoming life, life becoming love. To miss our emptiness is, finally, to miss our hope.” (p. 103)

Don’t you hate it when you have to re-learn something you thought you knew? I have always valued unfilled spaces in my relationships. I have treated, like a mantra, Kahil Gibran’s advice about marriage: “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.” I knew that. I know that. How humbling not to act on what you know. As one friend puts it, growth is like a spiral staircase. You keep circling around to the same issues with the hope you are moving toward some measure of maturity.

6 Responses to A Good Word for Un-fulfillment

  1. Jim Strickland says:

    Great article! You reminded me to stop trying to complete everything so quickly and to enjoy the


  2. Jeanne Finan says:

    This is a great post–a reminder to pay attention to and honor those “unfilled spaces”–and how even when we KNOW something, we sometimes (often?) have to re-learn it. Thank you.


  3. Steve Hyde says:

    Mahan, all of your writings speak to me. But this may be my very favorite!



  4. Stan Dotson says:

    Mahan, thanks for such honest sharing. I keep trying to find a clever way to put a positive spin on your experience, like “the glass was half-unfulfilled!” I do think Gibran would say we benefit from the togetherness in our spaces as well as the spaces in our togetherness. But positive spinning aside, I resonate deeply with your angst about the need to fill up space and silence with my “stuff.” And the dis-ease that comes when we realize we should have let the space be.


  5. Russell Jones says:

    I honor the desire to give something of value to those who are so consistently in the role of giving, the sensor in you that registers shifts in a group’s energy, the capacity to self-reflect in a curious and non-judging way, the humility and generosity to share openly your (re)discovery, and the Grace that holds you and all the rest of us and keeps us on the journey.


  6. John Hilpert says:

    Excellent! And it is a bummer that we have to keep re-learning and re-learning. But true we seem to engage on a deeper level.
    Most time in offering sp. direction, there is a decent balance. Sometimes toward the end, I share a suggestion from”out of the blue”. It’s appreciated. Well if 1 is good, 2 is better. And I’m off – unfortunely off the path.


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