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The Conversation Continues: Contemplative Leadership (Part 4)


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Editor’s Note: This is the continuation of a series of articles by Ken Curtis.

Read the first three in the series here:
A Fictitious Conversation: Listening for God in the Other (Part 1)
Continuing a Fictitious Conversation: Lectio Divina (Part 2)
Still Talking: Contemplative Spirituality (Part 3)

This morning finds Jerry and Bob once again meeting together for breakfast and conversation. They often talk about family, mutual interests, or things going on at work, but because they are both intentional about their own personal spiritual lives, these conversations often include considering how their walk with God shapes how they see things. They have been doing this almost weekly now for some time, and it has become a part of the rhythm of their lives. Breakfast having been ordered, we join them as they enter into their conversation.

Jerry: It’s good to be here this morning. There’s something about knowing that I’ve got some unhurried time to sit and talk, and just enjoy eating breakfast, that sets a nice tone for the day.

Bob: You don’t usually enjoy your breakfast?

Jerry: Well, actually, I do generally like what I eat for breakfast. But often when I’m getting ready for the day, breakfast just sort of happens while I’m doing other things.

Bob: Sounds like those days when I realize I’ve just finished eating, but hardly remember what it was I ate, or even how it tasted.

Jerry: Exactly. And then later, I want something to eat, not so much because I’m hungry, but because I missed out the enjoyment of the food. I guess when we’re not really paying attention to what we’re doing, good stuff can get missed.

Bob: That sounds like a Tich Nhat Hanh quote I was reading the other day where he was describing how sometimes when we’re eating, we’re not always very present to our food.

Jerry: Yeah, I think I’ve heard of him…Isn’t he a Buddhist monk or something?

Bob: Yes. He writes a lot about the experience of mindfulness.

Jerry: Which has something to do with “paying attention,” or “being fully present in the moment,” right?

Bob: Yeah, that’s the basic idea. Anyway, he was talking about how when we’re eating while we’re talking to someone, or watching TV, or doing something else, we can get so focused on those things, that we hardly even notice or experience the food we’re eating.

Jerry: Been there, done that!

Bob: And then he goes on to describe what it’s like to be fully present to our food; smelling the aroma, feeling the texture, noticing how the flavor bursts into our mouths when we bite down or take a taste…even down to the satisfaction of savoring and swallowing.

Jerry: Reminds me of the times I used to tell my kids, “why don’t you try chewing that before you swallow!”

Bob: Yeah. But it did getting me thinking about how some of the richness of what we do every day sometimes slips past us because we are not really paying attention, or being present, to what we are actually doing.

Jerry: That is a rich insight. I’d love to share that with some of the leaders at church, but I’ll have to find a way to do that without quoting Tich Nhat Hanh.

Bob: Ah…the spiritual formation police?

Jerry: Yup. They would have me tagged in a moment as a secret Jesuit infiltrator, or someone who was trying to sneak in dangerous mystical ideas, or something else just as sinister. It does get pretty exasperating at times.

Bob: Well, while I am certainly no Buddhist, I think his insights on being present to what we are doing are right on target!

Jerry:(striking a bit of a lighter note) Next, I guess I’ll have to confess that I like Asian food, too. And yet, strangely enough, for all the time I’ve spent eating in Asian restaurants, I have never come away wanting to be Hindu or Buddhist…but I have eaten some great vegetarian meals there, and picked up a few good food ideas, too!

Bob: Well, just don’t bring them to potluck! And watch out for Italian food, too! It comes from Italy you know, right there in the heart of Vatican country, and we all know what means!

Jerry: Ok, so only cottage cheese loaf for potlucks then.

Bob: That sounds pretty safe…at least for now…

Jerry: But, seriously though, the idea of being more genuinely present to what we are actually doing, really does appeal to me. 

Bob: Me too. I could do with a bit more focus, and a bit less distraction, especially when it comes to things that matter a lot.

Jerry: Which reminds me…one of the things I was wanting to talk to you about is that they are asking me to lead out in chairing the board that oversees the ministries at church.

Bob: Oh, which is why you mentioned sharing this with the leaders. Well, congratulations on being offered the opportunity to serve. I think that reflects some good judgment on their part!

Jerry: That’s nice of you to say, but I’m sure there are others who could do just as well, or maybe better.

Bob: Maybe, but you’re the one they asked. So how are you feeling about that?

Jerry: Well, I really do have a heart for the ministries we do, and would love to provide good leadership and support, I am just not sure I know how to do this.

Bob: Seems to me that you’ve had some experience leading groups and chairing committees at work?

Jerry: Yes. And that’s gone pretty well. And if it was just about running meetings, or going over financial statements, or making sure stuff gets done, that would be one thing…

Bob: But…?

Jerry: I guess I don’t just want to be a leader that just gets a lot of stuff done, but one that helps us “get” just what it is that we are doing…and maybe makes sure that what we are doing, and how we are doing it, is what God has in mind for us.

Bob: Not just getting things done, but being fully present to what you are doing…?

Jerry: Yeah, maybe something like that. I mean, shouldn’t spiritual leadership involve being present to “God being present” in some significant way?

Bob: It does seem like it should, doesn’t it?

Jerry: Yeah. So how does one lead like that?

(About that time, breakfast arrived, which provided a few moments for that question to linger a bit as they began to eat breakfast. After a few moments, they returned to their conversation.)

Bob: I wonder if leading spiritually is not all that different from the way we tend to our own spiritual lives…?

Jerry: Well, of course my own spiritual life is important, but when I’m tending to my own personal spiritual life I’m more focused on following than leading.

Bob: And that, my friend, might actually be the point.

Jerry: How’s that?

Bob: Ever notice that when Jesus called His first disciples, those who would become the leaders of the church, he did not say, “Come lead with Me,” He said, “Come follow Me.”

Jerry: Now that I think about it, it was usually when the disciples slipped out of the stance of following and got into the mode of trying to lead that things kind of went sideways.

Bob: Perhaps there’s a difference between leadership that is focused mostly on getting things done and making stuff happen, and the kind that is focused more on listening carefully and responding faithfully.

Jerry: Hmm, a kind of leading that is actually all about following?

Bob: Yeah, maybe something like that.

Jerry: So what does that look like, where leading is actually following? Seems a little fuzzy to me.

Bob: I guess it depends on whether your idea of “leading” is about others following you as the leader, or about the One who you as a leader are following!

Jerry: Ok…say more about that…

Bob: What if your role as a church leader is not so much to make things happen or get things done, but rather to help others to focus on, and listen well to, the God who invites you to follow?

Jerry: Isn’t that kind of what we are supposed to be doing in worship services?

Bob: It is exactly what we are supposed to be doing in worship services. But what if worship services are not the only context in which we are supposed to be that way?

Jerry: Ok, I can see that…how we worship should spill over into how we live…

Bob: Yes, and perhaps even in how we lead.

Jerry: Ok, so help me get a picture of how that kind of leadership works.

Bob: Well, if what we’re doing, not just in worship services, but all through the week, is being aware of God’s presence, seeing things through God’s eyes, and living out of that awareness…what if our actual leadership intentionally made that central as well?

Jerry: Sounds like you’re talking about something more than just Christian people leading things, but a different way of leading that more intentionally flows out of who we are as people who follow Jesus?

Bob: Yes. I think that is a good way of looking at it. Just as we take time individually on our own to tend to our own personal spiritual lives through study, reflection, and prayer…and just as we gather to do those same things as a community when we worship together…what would happen if we were just as intentional about that in the way we plan and lead as well?

Jerry: Sounds like you’re talking about something more than just a devotional thought and prayer before we get into the actual business of a leadership meeting…as if those are just the things you do before you get to agenda, which is often seen as the real reason for the meeting.

Bob: Yes, something much more. What if the “real reason” for leaders to gather was to first spend time reflecting on what God has to say in scripture, and then responding to that in prayer, and then deal with the other agenda items in the wake of that?

Jerry: …You mean, as if focusing first on who we are following and who we are together as we are following, really was the main thing, and the agenda items were only addressed in the light of that? Oh, I think I am beginning to see what you’re saying…

Bob: As one of my mentors used to say, “We need to be the people of God before we do the work of God.”1

Jerry: I like that!

Bob: Which makes you wonder how the agenda items that followed might be addressed differently if God got the opportunity to speak first, and really be heard, as though God’s input mattered the most…

Jerry: …and if we had the opportunity to pray about what we heard, and perhaps for each other in the context of what we were hearing from scripture, before we got into making plans or decisions without the awareness that that would bring?

Bob: It might just be that leading well has more to do with making sure that the way we go about leading and making decisions looks a lot like how we tend to our own spiritual lives.

Jerry: As if leading was more about following well, than just getting things done quickly and efficiently?

Bob: Exactly!

Jerry: That is a kind of church leadership I could get excited about being a part of.

Bob: I probably should warn you though…

Jerry: Oh, now the other shoe drops, huh?

Bob: …Once you experience leading this way, it will forever ruin you going back to leading another way.

Jerry: That’s what I am hoping. Maybe I should let both shoes drop?

Bob: How’s that?

Jerry: The kind of leading you are talking about…well, it gives me the sense that we might just find ourselves standing on holy ground!

Bob: Wouldn’t that be amazing!

Jerry: I would love to find some good resources on how to go about leading this way.

Bob: There actually are a few that I have found really helpful to me.

Jerry: Would you like to share?

Bob: Sure. You might want to check out Chuck Miller’s book, The Spiritual Formation of Leaders2

Jerry: Great, I can see the title will already get me in trouble.

Bob: Still really good material though, and besides it was Paul that first introduced the idea of spiritual formation by suggestion that God wants to form us into the image of Christ. Let people argue with Paul…

Jerry: I’ll just get a book cover…

Bob: Another one is An Unhurried Leader by Alan Fadling,3 also an excellent resource!

Jerry: Wow! Thanks! I’m actually looking forward to how all this might go!

Bob: So…how was your breakfast?

Jerry: Um…it was actually pretty good, especially at first…but I guess I must admit, I got so excited about what we are talking about, I don’t remember the last part…

Bob:(both of them laughing) I guess learning to actually be present to what we are doing takes some practice, and maybe some patience as well…

Jerry: I guess so…but it is never too late, even if we find ourselves being caught up in other things, to pause and become present once again…and so I am going to give these last two bites my full attention and enjoy them to the fullest!

Bob: I guess we’ll have to keep practicing so we can continue to grow in our efforts to do breakfast better!

Jerry: Sounds good to me! Same time next week?

Bob: Wouldn’t miss it!


Notes & References:

1. This was an often repeated statement of Chuck Miller, author of The Spiritual Formation of Leaders (see following footnote), when speaking to church leaders about how to lead as Jesus did. 
2. Chuck Miller, The Spiritual Formation of Leaders: Integrating Spiritual Formation and Leadership Development, Xulonpress, 2007.
3. Alan Fadling, An Unhurried Leader: The Lasting Fruit of Daily Influence, Downer’s Grove: IVP Books, 2017.


Ken Curtis is Associate Pastor at Calimesa SDA church and blogs at KensFootnotes.

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Navigator on Unsplash.


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