A Good Word for Un-fulfillment

August 30, 2011

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.