Collegial Friends: A Re-Frame That Mattered

April 3, 2017

The growth of any craft depends on shared practice and honest dialogue among the people who do it … when any function is privatized, the most likely outcome is that people will perform conservatively refusing to stay far from the silent consensus on what works — even when it clearly does not.  — Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach

Isolation is your vocational reality. Being a pastor, embodying this role, colors the water of every relationship, including neighbors, family, and particularly, of course, church members. In these relationships the role is a significant factor. Our ordination sets us apart as different, inviting projections, mostly unconscious. Expectations unnamed are always in play. Indeed, you are living symbols of More than you are. This question inevitably lingers: How will I manage this isolation?

I have come to believe that there are two kinds of pastors: those who conclude, “It’s up to me,” and those who say, “I cannot do this vocation without collegial community.”

Pastors in the first group offer their ministry in virtual isolation. They are on their own to give shape to their work. It is up to them. It’s up to them to interpret the gospel, read the “signs” of our time in history, intuit feedback, determine their use of time, judge appropriate responses to congregational crises, establish practices of self-care, worship while leading in worship, and integrate the learning from the plethora of resources available to us. No doubt these pastors have warm and effective relationships with members but, as is the case with all pastors, there is so much of themselves they cannot share. This includes the secrets they carry with confidentiality. These pastors, I observe, tend to be competent and self-confident, qualities that, while strong, can undermine the need for colleagues. For these pastors, their isolation, already a component of our vocation, will likely harden and over time encourage a fusion of personal identity with vocational role.

Those in the second cadre intentionally form relationships in which they are out of role with colleagues who understand the role. That’s a critical distinction: being both out of role and closely connected to others who understand the role’s promise and complexity. These deliberate relationships take form in various ways — unstructured cultivated relationships with peers, structured small clergy groups that meet regularly or in scheduled meetings with a coach, spiritual director, therapist, or consultant. All these examples meet the criterion of this re-frame: out of role with those who know the role.

Many of you are in this second category. You meet this criterion. You have deliberately sought out peer relationships in which you are both not in role and yet experience the support needed for exploring your role. This might happen with a friend, perhaps a clergy friend or others you meet with regularly over coffee or phone or internet or time-away together. Many of us have benefited from therapy, coaching, and spiritual direction. Consultants are another resource. I developed a relationship with a consultant, a former parish priest, with whom for twenty years I would occasionally review a pastoral or congregational dilemma. Perhaps you are fortunate to have staff colleagues with whom you can be open and trusting, but note the limit — you are still in role. The common factor in all these relationships is this: the isolation is broken; you feel not so alone; and your ministry seems less on your shoulders. Some of you have initiated such relationships. It may be enough.

For me it was not enough. I became inspired to reach for a deeper expression of collegial friendships during my decade on the staff of the Department of Pastoral Care at North Carolina Baptist Hospitals, Winston-Salem, N.C. The department had developed over the years a strong program of Clinical Pastoral Education. I am not a CPE supervisor but I was an active participant in this model of theological education. I experienced its genius: a small community of practicing clergy peers committed to each other’s mutual learning under skilled facilitation. During those ten years I kept asking, “Why is this model reserved only for preparation in the practice of pastoral ministry? Why is it not the way of doing pastoral leadership and ministry?” The question, never answered to my satisfaction, kept buzzing around my head like a persistent mosquito.

I took this question with me when, in 1983, I moved from being a director of pastoral care in a hospital setting to being a pastor again, serving Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N. C. The immediate contrast was striking. In my former role the boundaries and accountability were clear. Not so in my new role. At first I reveled in the freedom to construct my own life in ministry, but soon unspoken agreements and unnamed expectations had me scrambling for a clearer role definition. Within broad limits I was on my own to create its contour.

With my question of collegial community in mind I joined a circle of friends, a small group of men who had been meeting for over ten years. For two hours every other week we gifted each other with an acceptance close to unconditional. It was a container I needed. With these friends, I found support for my life — but less so for my life as pastor.

I needed more. I wanted to be with pastor friends who could focus with me on our efforts at priestly and prophetic leadership. The question was still alive from my years with Clinical Pastoral Education: Could some variation of this collegial learning be possible in parish ministry? I began the search for peers who might be interested in this experiment. After a year or so, I sent this letter to a circle of clergy friends:

I fear we have internalized the hallmark of our American culture — individualism. For all our talk about communion and indeed for all our efforts in building community with others, we tend to craft our work by ourselves. What Alexis de Tocqueville said of our forebears in Democracy in America could be said of us: ‘They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.’

Instead of continuing like this, I wonder whether you would be interested in being part of a clergy Sabbath Day — a time to nurture our souls with colleague-friends, a time to return to our first love, God, a time to be reminded that the ministry of the church belongs to God and not to us.

Three pastors responded. Another joined us later. Each Wednesday for several years we set aside a Sabbath day for silence, prayer, conversation about our work, rest, laughter, celebrating Eucharist, and walking in the woods. Never in my years as pastor have I felt so balanced between inner work and outer work, contemplation and action, play and work, self-care and self-giving. We were not alone in our need to step back and tease apart our tangled ministries. Together we reflected, played, prayed, and imagined by learning off of each other’s experience in ways that yielded clarities that surprised.

Yet, over time, the full day became a half-day, then an occasional half-day, and finally no day at all. Our clergy Sabbaths, like sand castles, gave way to wave after wave of pressing congregational needs. This fragile container of sacred space cracked, and finally crumbled after four years or so.

Absent was a clear covenant among us that could have withstood the pull of competing commitments, both from church and family. Absent was a covenant with church leaders who would support and appreciate this expression of vocational and self-care. Also absent was a facilitator, which I came later to regard as important. Although we felt its value, we stopped short of declaring that this way of offering pastoral ministry, namely, a few pastors committed to mutual nurture, collaboration, and accountability, is non-negotiable.

The question, now a tested possibility, stayed alive within me until retirement. In 1998 I retired a bit early at sixty-three in order to continue the experiment. And I have. During these two decades of retirement I have tested this hypothesis of collegial communities that I came to name AnamCara, Celtic for “soul friend.” This was my working definition:

AnamCara as a network of small collegial circles of five to eight clergy leaders of congregations who meet regularly to offer mutual nurture, collaboration, and accountability in their practices of theological reflection, leadership, and soul care.

The experiments took different forms. From a Lilly grant I organized and either led or co-led four ecumenical, inter-faith clergy groups, each of eight to ten participants, who met in retreat settings regularly (monthly or bi-monthly) for either a year or eighteen months. I was consultant to three other clergy groups. For twelve years I have led a group of Episcopal clergy who still meet monthly for three hours. All in all I have worked with approximately sixty clergy leaders of congregations.

My underlying question in forming these collegial groups was this: Will these clergy leaders complete this way of practicing ministry saying, “This has been another valuable continuing education experience, thank you very much.” Or will they say, “Being in some expression of collegial community must be a primary context from which I offer ministry.” In other words, will they regard the experience as an educational “add on” or will they see and embrace another way of being in ministry?

A small minority, about twelve of the sixty, continued to commit to a practicing community of peers. Steve spoke of this shift in his self-understanding:

“I can no longer imagine doing pastoral ministry without my group of soul friends. Our time together often feels like a taste of the Kingdom, a feast of deep laughter and friendship among competent peers who respect each other. In a wonderfully paradoxical way, the worship, study, and conversation we share make me a better pastor and remind me there is more to my life than ministry.”

Briefly, this is what I learned:

  • The recruitment and organizing requires a person or two called to this possibility.
  • A skilled facilitator frees the pastors to be completely out of the leadership role.
  • Pastors are more willing to participate fully if the facilitator knows pastoral leadership personally.
  • AnamCara is a radical alternative to the deeply internalized individualism in our culture.
  • Once trust is felt the hunger for collegial friends is intense and generative.
  • Ecumenical groups of clergy, with their commonality of serving congregations, offer the richness of differing traditions.
  • To be led in worship and common prayer is an experience some pastors seldom experience.

In 2009 this vision was published as AnamCara: Collegial Clergy Communities, which can be purchased through this website.

In this reflection I have traced my engagement with the isolation that accompanies our vocation, both as a pastor and a pastor in retirement. As I have noted, this way of being in pastoral ministry is only one context in which to define our vocation. Its appeal is limited. But for me this model — a small community of practicing clergy peers, gathering together in a facilitated environment — has been a re-frame that I have explored through the years. It has mattered.


The Wager

January 6, 2014

You and I often lament the overuse, the abuse, and the misuse of two words: God and love. Some recommend a moratorium on these words. Others suggest substitutes, like “G-d,” or synonyms like, “Holy One” or “Spirit” or “Life Force” or “compassion” or “justice” or “mercy.” But there is no way around it — these words, God and love, are essential, not replaceable, despite our being tongue-tied in naming the unnamable.

Over the past Christmas season I joined these two words, God and love, in a poem inspired by Raymond Lull.

The Wager

“I love you” . . .  “I love you too.”

the universal exchange

resounding around the globe.

Subtract “I” and “you,” “love” remains.

The in-between part

the invisible, can’t measure it, part

the word with many names — justice, passion, compassion, mercy

the Mystery with no names.

Strange: Betting your life on a Mystery.

“Where did you come from?” “From love.”

“Who are you?” “Beloved, be-loved.”

“What formed you?” “Love”

“What’s your practice?” “Extravagant loving.”

“What about difficulty?” “That too . . . hold in love.”

“What’s permanent?” “Only . . . love.”

“What about Christmas?” “Love enfleshed.”

“What about God?” “Love Source.”

“Why are you here?”  “To fall into Love.”

“Where are you now?” “A beginner.”

Strange: Betting your life on a Mystery.


On Movements and Institutions

September 30, 2013

As pastors, are we leaders of a movement or an institution? Or both?

This summer I have been active in two social change movements: Moral Monday, a protest movement led by the NAACP against recent N.C. State legislation; and Walk for Our Grandchildren, ending in a rally across from the White House, declaring “yes” to a sustainable environment and “no” to the Keystone XL pipeline. I referenced both of these in my last posting.

I’m uncomfortable as an activist. Frankly, I am more of an institutional person — for fifty years a pastor of three congregations and a director of Pastoral Care within a medical center.

Lately I have been pondering — what is the relationship between movements for social change and institutional leadership? Then I came across this quote:

History suggests that movements of moral imagination are the animating force for social change. In order to realize their goals, however, these movements must eventually impact and transform existing institutions . . . Once a movement is institutionalized, however — politics being the art of compromise – the original moral insights are often eroded and sometimes lost altogether.

— Elaine Enns and Ched Myers, Ambassadors of Reconciliation

I find myself responding, “Yes . . . and!”

We know this truth. We experience this awareness. In our lifetime we have witnessed the Civil Rights Movement as “an animating force for social change.” We watched it “impact and transform” our national institutions and yield Voting Rights legislation. But, we see, as well, as the result of intuitionalism, how this “moral insight” is now under the threat of “being eroded.”

Or, we study the God movement embodied in Jesus being an “animating force” that, in the effort to renew Judaism gave birth to the church, a new institution. Yet, even within the New Testament we begin to see the crystalizing power of institutionalization as roles, structures and doctrines become more tightly defined.

My “yes . . . and” response to Enns and Myers is my need to distinguish more clearly institution from institutionalism. I want to put in a good work for institutions. In my circles of relationships the word “institution” seems tainted, at best a necessary “evil.”

But, to make an obvious point, institutions are inevitable. Even a movement begins to institutionalize as soon as the leaders of a movement decide to meet at a certain time, with a particular people, and some semblance of organization. Soon, if the movement keeps moving, there is money to raise, a budget to create and communications to establish. Before you know it you are asking, “Who does What When?” That is institutional work.

Perhaps my concern can be best expressed in negative terms. Note the dangers of both institutions and movements. The danger imbedded in institutional life: When institutions become ends in themselves, they become self-serving, eventually freezing into inflexible structures and rules for purposes of survival, control and protection. There is the constant danger of the “animating force” being choked by “right” structures, “right” procedures, “right” beliefs.

The danger imbedded in movements: Movements will dissipate for lack of structure, procedures, and covenants. Movements need containers as a way to hold the “moral imagination [as] animating force for social change.”

Pastors possess the courage to walk the line between these two dangers. It’s a sharp, treacherous edge. They are leaders in the divine movement of shalom in a world that defies all efforts to contain its Mystery in precise form; they are leaders of institutions that seek to hold and be held by this movement, when at its best, allows this “animating force” of Spirit to flow through its finite structures and words.

Is not the church both movement and institution, willing to live in the tension between the two?


A Story to Steward

January 2, 2013

Evidently mystical, spiritual experiences are common. I am referring to those times when you seem lifted out of your limited self-preoccupations and feel a part of Something larger. You experience, even if for a moment, the extraordinary in the ordinary. That experience seems widespread.

I am thinking of times like these: in a crisis – feeling held together by love you can’t generate, a strength given you cannot explain; or, a typical day in the garden feeling suddenly a part of growth beyond your control or understanding; or the poignant awareness of loving someone as an extension of yourself; or, those moments of “wow,” when you feel the wonder of what is before you.

 These common experiences are sometimes transformative, that is, they change the way you see the world. A shift in perspective occurs, however slight or major. We walk away from these experiences never to be quite the same.

 This is what I am wondering: How many of these self-transcendent moments go unrecognized? And do they go unrecognized because there is no story or worldview to name them? Is a transforming change from these mystical moments undermined because there is no container, no narrative, no worldview to hold and sustain them?

Actually, these are statements, not questions. I think what we have as Christians, along with holders of every other religious narratives, is a framing story, that, like a string, can tread these spiritual experiences. It’s being a part of a larger Story that grants them definition, continuity and context. Otherwise, these potentially transforming moments will fall to the ground, like separate beads, left behind.

We have a Story that connects, that names, that incorporates. To the ones experiencing the sense of loving another as an extension of themselves, I think of Jesus’ saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself (not as you love yourself).” To the ones enthralled in gardening, I think of creation spirituality as in Jeremiah’s vision, “Their life will be like a watered garden.” To the one’s held by love in some devastating crisis, I think of the biblical refrain, “I am with you . . . with you . . . with you as Love from which no-thing in life or death, now or later can separate you.”

We live within a historical context of competing Stories or worldviews to live in and from. Defining narratives plead for our allegiance, such as, the myth of redemptive violence (violence saves, solves problems), or the story of progress (we are getting better and better, bigger and bigger, or should be); or reality is limited to what you can see, touch, feel, taste or hear (secular materialism); then our Story of God as force of Love, most clearly embodied in Jesus, ever seeking connection, healing, reconciliation, justice, mercy — in other words, Shalom. And, being human and inconsistent, we live within all of these stories. We claim no purity. Yet, I have the desire, likely you do as well, for the Jesus story to define our way, hold and motivates us.

Once I pridefully thought that it was my job to help people have transforming experiences. Now I assume that these openings happen, though often unacknowledged. As steward of a Story, I feel the privilege to look for these spiritual openings, to recognize them, to expect them, to name them, and assist their sustenance in community.


On Job Satisfaction

November 19, 2012

“What gives you satisfaction in your work?” the reporter asked.

It’s probably not the best question. Sounds a bit self-serving. But it was the question asked me by a reporter some twenty or so years ago. I still remember my answer. “I love the privilege of a ringside seat near members making sense of their lives, particularly during hard times.”

My answer still rings true after all these years. My role as pastor invited me alongside when a rug was pulled out from beneath a member’s feet. The sudden stroke, the dying and death, the end of a marriage or friendship or job — losses of every conceivable kind. We see up close the rawness of grief and the groundlessness from pain, watching protective shields shatter before our eyes. But not just crises. Gains too. How do people make sense of the good events in their lives? The birth of a long awaited child, the transformative “ah ha” of some breakthrough, the realization of a personal dream. But mostly the courageous struggle for meaning comes with the hard stuff.

These pastoral conversations might occur in my office or over a cup of coffee. More often they took place in the home, in the “living room,” a safe space.

I was invited to be there not as a voyeur, but as a presence, a living symbol of the More-than-me and a face to a congregation’s care. I could listen to their questions, and add a few of my own. I could watch the resources they turned to draw upon. I could participate, in some small measure, in the fears, doubts, and faith that rose to the surface demanding a hearing. Up close I could feel their yearning for meaning. Holy ground it was. A sacred privilege. And to think, I was paid for doing this.

But, upon reflection, there is a major flaw in the metaphor, “a ringside seat.” Being pastor is more than having a close up view of human struggles in the “ring.” The metaphor denotes detachment. Quite the opposite, in coming “alongside” you go “inside.” We become a part of the action, thrown into the ring, so to speak. There we are, when life events send the presence of God into eclipse. There we are, in the midst of the push-pull energy of relationships — parent-child, spouse-spouse, friend-friend, member-member, parishioner-God. There we are, immersed in the contentious energy in a budget committee or congregational meeting. There we are, preaching a counter-cultural gospel that generates a dissonance that takes some to deeper meaning and drives others to angry resistance.

In that “ring,” we learn — if we are to thrive — to be present looking for signs of the Spirit at work for healing and hope, to receive reactivity and not be reactive, to know a joy not tied to results, and even come to value the energy within conflict. These relationships, especially the difficult ones, kept forcing my ego out of hiding, shining a light on my desire to control, to look good, to achieve. Challenges, lessons and occasional taste of transformation — but not from a detached ringside seat.

If asked today the same question of satisfaction in my vocation, I think I would say, “I loved the privilege of being in the same arena (not ring) with multiple people in covenant, my teachers in disguise, seeking the meaning of their lives — just as I was.” And to think, I was paid for this.

Now it’s your turn. I am the reporter asking you, “What gives you satisfaction in your work?”


Carol and Kenosis

June 12, 2012

Not many Carols have crossed my path over my lifetime. She is empty of religion, no church background whatsoever, yet hungry, relishing each morsel of bread now extended.

Here’s the story. I met my new neighbor, Carol some months ago while walking my dog, Katie. I discovered that she moved to Asheville to work at Mission Hospital as a nurse in the trauma unit. But soon after her move, she broke her leg which, in turn, precipitated early retirement. Without family close by and no mobility, she was left to herself throughout a long winter recovery.

Alone and lonely she accepted the invitation by another neighbor to attend their church. As she was telling the story about attending, her eyes lit up with excitement. She spoke with delight about what she had found at that church — the Jesus “take” on God’s love within a community that fully accepted her beginner’s questions.

I thought to myself — here is a person full of professional competence in her medical field, plus parenting three children into adulthood, yet speaking of a “hole” being filled with a joy she didn’t know she was missing. I was surprised over her surprise as she stood before me with such childlike wonder over a church and its message.

I added, “I know that church well and the pastor, Guy Sayles, is a close friend. Have you come to know him?” “Oh, no,” she quickly responded. “Why, I wouldn’t know what to say. Besides he might ask me a question. You see, I know nothing, absolutely nothing about God or Jesus or the bible. Nothing! I couldn’t approach him. I wouldn’t know what to say?” “Well, how about me going with you?” I offered. “Oh, yes, yes,” she said. “Would you do that?”

So I arranged the appointment. A few days ago Carol and I had our time with Guy.

I wanted you to meet Carol. For those of us too full of religion, she can be our teacher. Carol is  eager. Open. Questioning. Curious. Not knowing. Awed over the Mystery of faith.

For most of my ministry I have come alongside those sorting out their faith, deciding what to keep from their religious upbringing, what to cast aside and what to incorporate in new life-giving ways. That’s been my inner work as well. I am full of knowledge and, with each new book, I attempt to “shoe-horn” some more insight. And I am richer for it as in rich food.

But I also want to be more like Carol — hungry, curious, not-knowing, amazed, with a large hole to be filled. “Kenosis” is the fancy Greek work for “self-emptying,” used in Paul’s Philippian poem about Jesus emptying himself of status, opening himself up to life as it came to him, surrendering himself, even in death, to the surprising, rising movement of Spirit.

In a manner, I am too full. I know it. I live among people very full of themselves, mostly full of exciting ideas, creative insights, and seasoned convictions. But Carol — in her excitement about good news — paradoxically has become for me some good news. She reminds me of the goodness in un-fulfillment. She points me to kenosis, self-emptying. Her hunger calls out and blesses my hunger.

She laughed with denial when I told her that her emptiness was a gift to us. It was another amazement to her. Radical amazement all around.


No Separation — Really?

April 3, 2012

I have been pondering a lot these days the so-called delusion or illusion of separation. If true, the implications are enormous. You and I keep hearing from various quarters today, including quantum physics, that everything, as well as everybody, are profoundly connected. Here are some quotes that have been rolling around in my mind and heart.

From Albert Einstein: “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest . . . a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace ALL living creatures and the whole of nature into its beauty.”

Then there is the Trappist,Thomas Merton, who wrote an autobiography as a young monk about leaving the evils of the world. Years later a sudden epiphany at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville seemed to turn him toward the world.  He was on a routine visit when he found himself in the middle of a shopping center staring at a group of strangers. He writes, “I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I was theirs . . . It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” With joy overflowing, he continues, “Thank God, I am like other men!”

According to Jim Marion and others, this “no separation” way of viewing the world is what  Jesus was about. In his book, Putting on the Mind of Christ, he suggests that the central message of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven, is a metaphor for a unitive or non-dual state of consciousness. This awareness sees no separation — not between God and humans, not between humans and other humans (and I would add, between humans and non-humans). No separation as in the image, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Abide in me as I in you.” No separation as in “Love you neighbor as yourself (not “as much as you love yourself”)

Are we that connected? Are we to be continuations of each other? Is the power, the juice in  relationships found in the connection of “in between,” and not either-or? I have heard this in the voice of feminine thinkers. I hear it in the voice of leaders calling for collaboration, partnership and cooperation.

The lower consciousness we know well. We live by seeing differences, by separating this idea from that idea, this person from that person, this option from that option. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, we cannot get very far in our world without this capacity for binary thinking. But the starting and ending place for us in the West has been the single, separate person or part or group. That’s changing, it seems.

Truly I am trying to sort this out. Some suggest a multi-level approach. Perhaps on one level of consciousness we see separation and value differentiation. But we appear also to have a capacity for another way of seeing. If I understand those quoted above, on another level of consciousness, separateness is a prison, a delusion, a dream from which we must awaken if widening circles of  compassion have a future.

No separation — really?


Over and Over Again

February 6, 2012

“And what will be the focus on your prolonged retreat?” I asked. His response: “I want to allow this truth to deepen within me: I am profoundly loved, delighted in, graced unconditionally. I have believed it on occasion, but mostly end up judging myself unmercifully.”

“How simple,” I thought. “How profound. Yet, how difficult to believe, really believe.”

I asked: “How will you practice internalizing this truth?

For most of my life I have sought personal change through insight. If I could “see” it, I would change, so I believed. How often, with great anticipation and excitement, I turned to books, articles, lectures and conversation in search of awareness. I loved, perhaps to the point of addiction, the excitement of a breakthrough, that eureka moment when the “lights come on.”

Yes, insightful awareness is the first step. It opens up options. But for the longest time I assumed that insight, by itself, was transformative. I thought that awareness produces behavioral change. It doesn’t.

When it comes to learning a language or a musical instrument, we don’t make this mistake. It’s understood that progress requires about 20% understanding and 80% practicing. Only on-going practicing and more practicing, preferably with others, can deepen habits of speaking or reading or playing an instrument.

The recent research of neuroscientists helps me understand the power of practicing “over and over.” In their article, The Neuroscience of Leadership, David Rock and Jeffrey Schwatz address how behavioral change happens.

Let’s imagine this example. Our pre-frontal cortex (the hard working part of the brain, the insight part) decides to make a significant change in behavior, such as, learn to drive a car or change one’s diet or master a new song on the piano or, in my friend’s case, treat oneself mercifully, not judgmentally. However, another part of the brain, basil ganglia, is hardwired for routine, set habits and familiar activity. So when the pre-frontal cortex begins to focus on the desired change, the basil ganglia rises up with a resounding, “No. Don’t do that! Come back to what is familiar!” Usually, as with New Years resolutions, the effort to change a particular behavior is too uncomfortable to sustain. More often than not, the sabotaging pull from the habitual part of the brain will prevail.

Initially, it seems, a particular practice is the work of the pre-frontal cortex. It requires a sustained focus of repetitive attention on the desired changes—until new patterns and connections of the brain are formed. Eventually, with “over and over again” practicing, the new pattern becomes familiar and routine. Then basil ganglia takes over as primary motivator. The new behavior in time—it may take a long time—becomes an old habit.

My friend hopes to move the insight of being Loved, abiding in Love, and conduit of Love from his pre-frontal cortex to his basil ganglia where loving and being loved in more habit than idea.

I wonder what practices he is calling on. That’s my first question upon his return.


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.


For Those Who See . . . or Want to See

July 13, 2011

This provocative metaphor, “getting to the balcony,” I carry around with me, and suggest you do as well. It is a way of naming the leader’s challenge to balance immediate action (the dance floor) with a larger/deeper perspective (the balcony).

A congregation, our any system, looks like the activity on a dance floor. Some members are into “line” dancing, other dancing in twos, or even solo. Everyone is attempting, sometimes successfully, to follow the music. Some sit along the sidelines, contented or discontented observers.

And as leader, you move in and out of these dances, frequently uncertain of next steps. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow. Regardless, you are expected to stay focussed on immediate action: deadlines to meet; phones calls, text messages, e-mails to answer; visits to make; always another task to complete. I’m guessing that you feel on your own to “get to the balcony,” where you can see the “big picture,” noticing patterns, observing discordance, detecting direction, gaining perspective, looking for the Spirit’s movement toward mercy and justice—in other words, the work of discerning.

This is more than seeing the larger sense of your congregation. In our day, with commentators of our times saying we are experiencing major paradigm shifts, we are left asking, “Where is the Spirit moving within the Western church . . . within religions . . . within humanity , . . within creation?” You and I have assumptions that profoundly influence our active leadership. But how clear and conscious are they?

This summer I am savoring a recent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas.

I’m curious, what made it possible for him to see so early the demonic thread of anti-Semitism, so skillfully understated, in early Nazism? What enabled him to perceive so clearly the existential choice before the German church—either Hitler or Christ? No one seemed to see so perceptively as Bonhoeffer.

What were the “balconies” from which Bonhoeffer gained such prophetic perspectives? These are the balcony places in his life that stand out to me: his regular, daily practice of meditating on Scripture, asking, “What is God saying to me and the church? To what is God calling me?”; his ongoing reflections on “the signs of the time,” usually in dialogue with close friends (sometimes in retreat settings); his love of solitude, prayer and music; his preparations for teaching and especially preaching; and his international and ecumenical relationships which gave him the distance and perspective that other German pastors did not have. All of these were disciplined occasions for him to drop back from the disorienting chaos of his environment and the constant press for immediate action. From these places he seemed able to see beyond the moment, beyond his fear, beyond the German church, and beyond even Germany. Paradoxically, his imprisonment while awaiting execution (which was intended to neutralize Bonhoeffer) became the final “balcony” from which he could see the post-war re-shaping of the Christian witness. We are still unpacking his words from the prison at Tegel.

Take with you the example of Bonhoeffer and the provoking questions, “What helps you see? What balconies are places from which you attempt to discern the movment of Spirit in your life, congregation, and larger church and world?

Having those balcony places located, and regularly visiting them, just may be the most important discipline of your pastoral leadership. And, likely, this practice will be the least supported, rewarded, and understood by others. It’s up to you.

I always value your responses.

[The metaphor, “getting to the balcony,” comes from Ronald Heifetz in his books, Leadership on the Line and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership]

Relationships, Not Issues

October 25, 2010

Listen to the language around you. Notice how often problems are defined as “issues” e.g., the racial issue, Islamic terrorist issue, the abortion issue. Or closer to home, “Pastor, we’ve got an issue ____ that needs solving.” (You fill in the blank—“our giving is way behind the budget this year”; or “Jan doesn’t respond to e-mails fast enough.” Or, even closer, more personal, “Pastor, some of our older members don’t think you visit enough,” or, “I get lost in your sermons, not sure what your point is.”

My assumption around most “issues” is this: the problem is someone else’s fault and someone else (often you) should solve it. In family systems’ language, an “issue” (C) is often triangled in as a way to avoid the responsibility of the persons involved (A and B). Issues invite projection; the problem is out there. Issues, on the other hand, can challenge those in relationships to take responsibility for resolution.

Consider this rule of thumb: redefine issues as challenges to deepen relationships.

Let’s try this with the above examples. From “racial issue” to “How are we in relationships that cross racial lines?” From “Islamic terrorists” to “How can we foster understanding and deepen relationships with Islamic persons?” From the “abortion issue” to “How are all relationships, including with the fetus, impacted by the option of abortion?” From “Pastor, our giving is behind . . .” to “Thanks for raising this. Who do you think, along with the two of us, needs to join us in deciding how to respond?” From “Jan doesn’t . . .” to “Have you talked with her or him about your concern?” From “ . . . don’t visit enough” to “You are exactly right. Help me. Since you know these members so well, would you be willing to visit with me, perhaps even set up the appointments? A bonus would be getting to know you better.” From “getting lost in your sermons . . .” to “Thank you for letting me know. I want you to understand my messages, and I want to listen to your questions and confusions. How about us getting together over coffee and talk about last Sunday’s sermon?”

My biggest pastoral challenge in this regard was when a gay couple in the congregation asked for a public service of blessing on their commitment to each other. Most people, including the media, wanted to define this as a “gay issue.” I kept saying, with limited success, “No, this is not an issue. This is about people, two members who are part of our community. Let’s ask, ‘How will we be in relationship with Jim and Bill, with each other, with our sense of God’s purpose?” And I kept saying during our many months of discernment, “How we decide is as important as what we decide.” That is, how we listened, how we expressed ourselves, how we studied, prayed and worshipped together would either deepen our relationships or fracture them.

In retirement, I have been gifted with close Quaker friends. By valuing the leading of the Spirit within and between persons, they make every effort to listen and not coerce. In fact, for them the process of decision-making is an extension of worship. Making decisions, for them, is another way to deepen their relationships with each other, with the Spirit and with the world. That is their intention.

I suppose there are “issues” that are just that, issues. But, most of the time, I submit, they distract us from the hard work of deepening relationships.

 


Friends That Form You

June 21, 2010

“You and I are different because ____________  lived among us.” I liked to include this sentence in the opening statement of a funeral or memorial service.

Andy, my first long-term friend died last week. Suddenly that sentence became intensely personal.

It’s true. Without Andy I would not be me. I am different because he lived. But how? How has our friendship of 46 years formed me?

I have begun the pleasure of living that question. I mark his disciplined naivete, leading with curious questions; his gift of listening others into being; his relational understanding of reality; his discovery of dying as birthing; his authority/authenticity that authored hope in others. There is more, much more to be harvested from my grief. But this awareness startles me: these are not primarily ideas. These are embodiments that, to some extent, are being embodied in me. I see him in me. These, and other revelations to come, hint at the difference in me because Andy and I were friends.

I confess. I am an “idea” junkie. I relish, like the bite into a fresh peach, new “insights” or fresh perspectives.  Over the years I have fallen in love with theories, and only with stubborn reluctance have I been able to acknowledge the limits of each one. I’ve assumed that it was ideas that formed me.

More to the point, I am suggesting to you, we are being formed by friendships. Maybe the ideas and theories that stick to our bones, those that become transformative, are the ones embodied in relationships. Maybe our friends create us. Or better said, they provide containers in which God’s on-going creation and creativity occur. Friends are “believing mirrors,” to use Julia Cameron’s phrase. They mirror back to us our competency, craziness, possibilities, limits, options, and encouragement — all marinated in laughter and wonder.

Intuitively I have known this. From the first “cell group” in university days, I have always been a part of a circle of peers that met regularly to befriend our lives and work. And now in retirement, I am still at it, fostering clergy collegial communities — yes, named AnamCara (soul friend). In addition, there are the less structured friendships along the way, nurtured by an occasional e-mail, coffee or vacation together, or telephone call. It’s clear to me now  — friends, including familial friends, are our truest social security.

We are trained to think of the lonely artist or lonely pastor. It is their name we see on the book, or portrait, or sermon. But if you look closer and inquire, any artist or pastor “worth their salt” will talk about the circle of friends who make their work possible.

Not surprising, this reflection has been formed with friends.