No leadership group will be a perfect community until each and every person at the leadership table has seen Jesus face to face and has been finally and ultimately transformed in his presence. But in the meantime, we can at least start to live as the community of Jesus we already are—here and now. We can identify and articulate the values that undergird spiritual community. We can choose practices that will help us to live our values in concrete ways. And we can make a real commitment to God and to each other about how we will seek to live into and minister out of this great spiritual reality called community at the leadership level.
One thing is sure: if we can’t figure out how to live and lead in community as leaders, there is very little chance that those who are following us will be able to figure out how to experience community together.
I concluded our last eReflections by describing some of the mistakes we have made along the way as we have sought to be a community gathering around the presence of Christ and leading out of that place. Despite our mistakes (and perhaps because of them!), there are a few things I know for sure about the values and practices that enable us to participate in spiritual community. When leadership community is at its best we are
Opening to the Presence of Christ
One of the primary ways we open to the presence of Christ when we are together is by engaging in rhythms of prayer at regular intervals throughout the day. Our own Christian tradition teaches us that praying at fixed hours of the day enables us to turn our hearts toward God in ways appropriate for whatever part of the day we are in. In the morning, we begin with praise, affirming God’s love for us and committing the work of the day to him. At mid-day, when tasks are pressing in and human effort is at its height, we stop to renew our awareness of God’s presence, to rest in him and to ask for his peace and guidance. In the evening, we place the cares of the day in God’s hands and make intercession for ourselves and others. If we are together on retreat or for an evening meeting, we close the day with night prayer, confessing our sins, celebrating God’s presence with us during the day and asking him to be with us as we rest.
During these times, Scriptures is read without comment followed by a time of silence which gives God the opportunity to address us directly through his Word. The Gospel readings in particular help us to stay connected to the person of Christ as the model for our life and work.
Giving Good Attention to Our Relationships
Attending to our relationships means we are taking time to listen to each other, express care for one another with encouraging words or a warm hug, and pray for each other when we are together or apart. We affirm one another’s gifts and unique contributions to our shared work. When there is misunderstanding or hurt in a particular relationship, if there is hesitancy or resistance to a particular direction we are taking—we do our best to create time and space to pay attention. Such conversations will often require self-examination leading to greater self-awareness. We may also need to confess sins and negative patterns and extend forgiveness as appropriate. Community at this level is not for the faint of heart nor is it for those who wish to remain permanently settled in a stance of avoidance or denial.
One of Jesus’ specific accomplishments while on this earth was that “he loved his own until the end” and his prayer in John 17 expresses his deepest desire for us—that we would love one another and experience deep unity. So in a very real sense, loving one another is a concrete way of showing love for Jesus. There is no doubt that attending to our relationships in this manner takes more time and attention than just relating with one another about our shared tasks. However, we are convinced that if we fail at this, we have compromised the very essence of Christian community that Jesus came to foster among his people as a testimony to the world.
Seeking to Live Within our Limits
There is something deeply spiritual about honoring the limitations of our lives and the boundaries of what God has given us to do as leaders. In fact, narcissistic leaders are always looking beyond their sphere of influence with visions of grandiosity far out of proportion to what is actually being given. Paul, activist leader that he was, acknowledged that he had learned not to overstep his limits but to keep within the field that God had assigned to him (II Corinthians 10:13).
The field that God has given us includes the body that we have been given, the limits of our personality, the community of people we work with, and the specific calling we have been given. Living within our limits means honoring the finiteness of who we are as individuals and as a community—the limits of time and space, our physical, emotional, relational and spiritual capacities, our stage of life as community and as individuals who make up that community. It means doing this and not that. It means doing this much and not more.
To live within our limits is to live in humble acceptance of the fact that we are the creature and not the Creator. Only God is infinite; the rest of us need to be very clear about what we are called to and say no to everything else.
Living in Rhythms of Work and Rest
Honoring the rhythm of Sabbath-keeping and building time into our schedules to retreat, alone and together, are two of the most significant aspects of this shared intention. Sunday is our normal day for keeping Sabbath but when we have an event that starts on a Sunday, we always take the day following the event as our Sabbath rest.
We are each encouraged to take a day of retreat (extended solitude) once a month. In addition, our leadership community retreats are not merely off-site planning meetings that require us to work longer than we would if we were back at the office. Nor are they conference-type events full of programming, noisy activity, and too much information. A spiritual retreat—whether we take it alone or together—is a time apart when we move slower, take time for rest, enjoy extended time for solitude and silence, receive spiritual input and teaching, eat together and enjoy one another’s company. When we fail to maintain sane rhythms of work and rest, we become tired and disconnected from ourselves, each other and God and then we have compromised some of our deepest values.
Moving Forward on the Basis of Discernment
One of the defining characteristics of spiritual community is a shared commitment to discernment rather than human decision-making and strategic maneuvering. Every time we have made decisions purely on the basis of strategic planning rather than entering first into a process of discernment, we have gotten out ahead of ourselves (and God!) and made mistakes. When we look at things strategically, it always makes sense to do more–schedule more retreats, special events, and new initiatives–but this usually means we end up over-committed. However, when we listen to what God is saying to us in the deeper places of our being, we usually find that less is more.
We are not opposed to strategic planning; in fact, that is an important second step. But discernment— listening deeply for God’s direction—must precede strategic planning. Then we are able to move confidently and with sure step towards our deepest calling, rather than falling into the frenetic pace that often develops when we just think our way into things.
Bad News and Good News
The only way for any church or ministry organization to become a community of transformation is to begin at the center: with the hearts and souls of the board, elders, and staff who are willing to lead together as a spiritual community. Whatever is empty or lacking at the leadership center of your church or organization will eventually find its way out to the very edges. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that whatever is full and vibrant and true at the leadership center will find its way out to the edges as well. And it begins with the leadership community.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2012. Not to be used without permission. For more on cultivating spiritual community at the leadership level, see Pursuing God’s Will Together, chapters 4-8.
Ruth Haley Barton (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder of the Transforming Center. A teacher, spiritual director and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.
When have you experienced leadership community at it best?