4 marks of the busy contemplative leader

February 7th, 2022
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For reasons of vocation and a case study, I took the job as interim senior pastor of a thousand member congregation with a staff of twenty. With a sabbatical from my work as a seminary professor (of preaching and pastoral leadership), returning to full-time church ministry after eight years would be a good idea. Stories from my last stint in parish ministry were growing mold.

I also teach that pastoral leadership should take a contemplative approach, now more than ever, and I wondered if I could practice what I teach. Over thirty years ago Eugene Peterson penned The Contemplative Pastor, decrying the perception that pastors had become corporate managers, abandoning their proper work: shaping communities attentive to the work of the Holy Spirit. It sounded idyllic, but did contemplative practice ever catch on?

And now, hip deep in polarization and a pandemic, and trying to strategize survival on the other side, it’s unlikely that church leaders are going to declare, “Of course we should consult Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross to help us navigate our way out of this mess.”

After five months into this parish, and busier than I’ve ever been in my life, I still think contemplative leadership practices are crucial for navigating and surviving the disruptions.

As leaders starving for spiritual growth, it’s time to radically reassess our approach to ministry and follow a path that above all else becomes open, available, and responsive to the transforming work of God’s Spirit. Unless we have indeed become functional atheists; unless we believe a thriving future depends on our hard work and ingenuity alone.

One stereotypical view of contemplative leadership seems incompatible with high-demand ministry. I wondered about that a couple of weeks ago on a day that included: dashing off a newsletter, finishing a sermon, responding to seventy-six emails, officiating a funeral, prepping for an evening finance meeting, and hosting a conversation about where we were going to install twelve junior toilets so the county wouldn’t close our preschool. I imagined the ghost of Eugene Peterson tsk-tsk-ing in my ear; Peterson, who thought that busyness is a symptom of the “blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.”

Worse, I was haunted by the idea that Jesus himself might have been shaking his head, chiding me as he did Martha for being distracted by my many tasks.

But that anxiety is derived from a pejorative, stereotypical picture of contemplative ministry: lots of sitting around doing nothing, hands held open in our laps. To the contrary, the word contemplative applies to all ministry, no matter how active and results-oriented.

The word contemplative describes an intention bent toward life that seeks openess to God’s presence and leadership. It’s that simple—and that hard. The contemplative leader thinks, I’m not here to tell you what to do or to shape you in my imagination; I’m here to create the conditions for this community to discern the presence and leadership of the Holy Spirit—and respond.

Sometimes creating the conditions for discernment can feel like hard work. Anyone who is honest will tell you that responding to the Holy Spirit can feel like hard work.


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Someone watching a contemplative leader in practice might not distinguish the difference between contemplative thinking and any other approach to leadership (visionary, strategic, data-driven, and so on.). But further investigation typically reveals characteristics of a contemplative approach, that is, aspects of a posture that informs everything a contemplative leader does. Four characteristics or marks can be observed.

Attentiveness. A contemplative leader savors the moment, fully present to it—or at least trying to be. They will attend to the situation in front of them—the person, challenge, or email message—the way a sommelier drinks wine: delighting in the texture and flavor of each sip. They will allow an attentive Christlikeness to blossom in their daily tasks, because Christ himself gave compassionate attention to whoever was in front of him; he criticized Martha not for her many tasks but for being distracted by them—which might mean that he believed she could have been attentive to him through her many tasks. A contemplative leader recognizes that each moment is a word from God, a gift, a sacrament of God’s presence and grace. God is as present in a meeting about junior toilets as in a service of worship. A contemplative leader appreciates this fact, even delights it.

Patience. We typically think of patience as going slow, but the heart of patience is the willingness to be out of control. The situation in which impatience burns most fiercely—such as when we’re stranded in an airport, stuck in traffic, or herding small children out the door—are those moments when our lack of control confronts us most directly. To be patient is to accept that reality, trusting that a Divine Agent—God’s own Spirit—is still in the situation, transforming it into one of possibility. It’s difficult to be open to the agency of God’s Spirit, the wooing, cajoling love of God, when we are focused on wresting back control.

Contemplative ministers know that the moment they walk into a room with other people, they are out of control. But with patience this can be received as a gift, because if they can practice faithful “out-of-control-ness,” then others might also relinquish their agendas, and a shared openness to God might prevail.

Playfulness. “My problem,” writes Belden Lane, a scholar of Christian mysticism, “is one of limited imagination. Like most of us, I simply can’t believe that God’s love is actually as exuberant and playful as it is.” Playfulness is part of a contemplative posture toward life and ministry because it is able to spy new avenues in what look like dead ends, able to find the fruits of God’s playful love in a barren desert.

And what has felt more like a barren desert than ministry in a pandemic? We are for years required to shift and improvise, to test approaches to ministry we’d never imagined, all the while pretending to be public health experts. No wonder the great resignation has been as evident among clergy as any other profession.

But when approached contemplatively, these years have also given us a sandbox in which to play, to experiment, to drop our seriousness. To say, “Why not give it a try?” And I’ve heard enough testimony from clergy friends to believe that beautiful things can happen when we approach congregations not as problems to be solved but as playgrounds of a Holy Spirit who is beckoning us in love to join in and play.

Prayer. Eugene Peterson taught that a contemplative pastor will be one who prays. Many ministry leaders can relate to Peterson’s sentiment: “I want all of life to be intimate—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—with the God who made, directs, and loves me.” But God’s loving direction is hard to discern in the rough-and-tumble of daily ministry unless we take time to do nothing other than give God our full attention.

I think of my thirty-minutes of morning prayer before anyone else arrives at the church office as unlocking the back door for the Spirit. Sometimes—rarely—I sense God’s presence during prayer, hear God speaking personally to me through scripture, experience God’s healing touch within the silence. But more often I become aware of that presence, voice, and touch when I least expect it: as I’m commending ashes to their final resting place, as I’m preaching a sermon, as I’m listening to a church member tell me teary-eyed how she praises God in gratitude while walking her dog. I pray in the mornings because I want God to be able to sneak into the back door of my life anytime God wants.

Nothing about ministry in a pandemic precludes a contemplative posture. In fact, it demands it. Congregations are confused and nervous about what’s next. What “worked” in 2019 may never work again. Who knows if worship attendance will ever bounce back, even if the number of online worshippers remains steady? So many unknowns lurk around each corner. Even when the acute disruption of the pandemic ends, we won’t be out of the wilderness. We’ll simply be stepping into a new one.

Contemplative leaders are comfortable leading a flock through a wilderness. Even there—especially there—they can demonstrate attentiveness to God’s presence. They can display the necessity of patiently releasing control, embracing a patience grounded in trust. When we drop the reins, God hasn’t dropped anything at all. Contemplative ministers can play in the wilderness, seeing the forest or scrub brush as full of hope. And they can pray. They can remind us to pause and give Jesus our fullest attention, so that we can better listen to him through—not in spite of—the demands of life and ministry.

I wrote this essay on Friday, my day off, my Sabbath. Until I sat down at the computer, I hadn’t gotten much done. Isn’t that the point of Sabbath? I read a couple humorous essays by David Sedaris while I sipped a cup of coffee. I talked to my wife and commiserated with my children who are learning virtually from home today because of bad weather. Now that I’m approaching these final sentences, I’m strategizing a nap and planning when I’ll pray.

I’m being contemplative.

But I know that in two days I’ll be at the church for eleven hours, beginning at 6:00 a.m. to practice my sermon. I’ll preach at three services, lead a two-hour mission-discernment team meeting, record a publicity video, and offer the welcome at a classical music concert hosted by our church 

And I will try through it all to be contemplative—busy yet available. Back door unlocked for God’s Spirit. Patient and playful with what comes my way. Likely not as open as I would like to be. No doubt controlling and guarded at times. But I hope nonetheless to practice a little of what I teach in the classroom, a contemplative openness to God. Because I believe that’s what churches need from their leaders.

Now more than ever.

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