A Tool for Attending
to the Inner Dimensions of Leadership
The everyday and lasting pressures of ministry can take their toll on Christian leaders—and venting only helps so much. Thankfully, what we can learn from the practice of spiritual direction is that Christian leaders are not alone in their struggles and that there are ways to notice and reflect upon our experiences more constructively. God is present and stirring. The sustainability of our callings depends on our paying attention.
What I Am Seeing in Spiritual Direction with Christian Leaders
For good and for ill, we bring into every situation our own experiences and perceptions. We cannot escape the material always stirring inside of us. I meet people who come for retreats or spiritual direction whose fires for ministry are in all sorts of states. Some burned out. Some flickering. Some blazing. People come wanting to work through transitions, discernments, griefs/losses, or just to catch their breath. And for as many different stories as I've heard, I also marvel at the many similarities between the stories I hear and, even within the stories I speak to my own spiritual director. What I like about that is the reminder that I'm not alone.
Four Common Dimensions in Christian Leadership
Over the last ten years or so, I have been learning to listen especially closely to four dimensions of Christian leadership. There might be many more we hold in common, but I find that most stories incorporate some variation of these: Cultivating Vision, Navigating Situational Difficulties, Seeking Shared Learning and Practice, and Engaging Ambiguity. Although there might be many more, I find that by looking at the Four Dimensions and using “I statements,” I can explore what I am experiencing in a situation compared to what someone else might be experiencing. Let me show you the tool I use and offer an example.
Example: How What I Bring Into the Conversation Affects the Way I am Responding
As a demonstration of how you might use this framework to reflect after a tough conversation, I'll offer an example from my experience meeting one-on-one with people.
I once encountered a man in great sadness. He had been burned in ministry, as he described it, and found himself uncertain of his own self-worth and calling. I could see in his eyes and body that he lacked the energy to stand up, dust himself off, and step forward. Simultaneously, I found myself becoming enmeshed in the story, at times feeling compelled to ease his pain.
As I explored the experience afterward, the two dimensions that seemed most visible were Cultivating Vision and Engaging Ambiguity. In his deep sadness, this man seemed locked on the left end of both spectrums, saying “It’s just a job.” and “I’m at a total loss.” In myself, seemed further to the right of the same spectrums, saying about Difficult Situations, “I make decisions and frame my work in light of my sense of vocation." and about Engaging Ambiguity, "I’m feeling uncomfortable because there’s no clear way forward."
Seeing our unique experiences of the common dimensions side-by-side helped me realize that I’ve been wrestling with similar themes in my own journey over the last number of years. Even though I have made progress, the memory of that pain remains pretty fresh and triggers intense empathy in me. Maybe that helps me understand why I might notice myself rushing in to affirm, fix, or resolve this person's ambiguity. If I dig a little deeper yet, there is also a part of me that wants to be recognized as someone who "really understands" what this person is going through. Even deeper, I noticed self-doubt—what am I doing here as a spiritual director if I myself am not past all this?
This reflection helped me better examine what was being triggered in me and why. After a few long morning walks, some journaling, and some conversation with my spiritual director, I was better able to stay grounded in future conversations with this man. I could honor my experience as preparation to better accompany him in his difficult situation and ambiguity.
What’s Your Experience?
To explore a tough conversation of your own and to ask yourself what you might learn from how the common dimensions are at play, try a process with the framework something like this:
Pray for the grace to see anew. Listen for the Spirit.
- In this situation, which of the four dimensions was (were) most noticeable?
- Which statement most closely resonates with your experience? With the other’s?
- How might the similarities or dissimilarities between you have affected the quality of your presence/leadership?
- What compassion do you notice for the other? For yourself?
- What aspect of this would be helpful to explore further with your own spiritual director, supervisor, or trusted companion?
However the Spirit leads, pray a prayer of thanks.
No framework offers a silver bullet for tough conversation, but this one, I have found, frequently invites me to better clarity. This process has often proven a more constructive and grace-filled approach for me than venting, especially because it helps me pay closer attention to the presence of the Holy Spirit. Together, these disciplines help improve the quality of my presence and my leadership. May this tool prove a similar blessing to you and those you serve.
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