by James Murphy
Joan Chittister’s Wisdom Distilled from the Daily brings Benedictine guidance at a most needful time in my vocational life. As our church’s recently appointed “Team Lead,” I have the charge of guiding our staff of six pastors through a challenging time of change. Although my role is not that of a traditional spiritual director, the Rule of Benedict gives me clues on how to integrate the orientations of a spiritual director with those of team leader in my relationship with our staff. This paper is a reflection on how I intend to do that, through asking questions generated by the Benedictine tradition. These questions concern the topics of listening, humility, and holy leisure.
Joan says, “To live without listening is not to live at all.” The Benedictine way calls us to listen to the Gospels, to the Rule, to each other, and to the world around us. Our church is recovering from an extended period of harmful leadership dysfunction that was marked by a failure to listen, especially to one another. Our staff needs to consider the question: “How are we listening?” It is important to discern what we are hearing as we listen, but the question, “What are we hearing?” presupposes that we are listening. How are we listening, separately and together, to the Gospels and to all of scripture? How are we listening to each other and to the world around us? How are we listening to commonly or individually held “rules” — structures that support the life of God within us? How can we listen better? Our church doesn’t have bells like those that call the monastics to listen, so perhaps we pastors are our church’s bells. We need to ring with an inviting resonance that beckons our community to live a listening life.
My next question has to do with humility, which, the Rule implies, “is the glue of our relationships,” permeating our entire way of life. Humility begins with the fear of God and expresses itself in many ways, including the willingness to subject ourselves to the direction of others, and to “give everybody else’s ideas a chance.” So my questions for our leadership team are these: Would onlookers observe us to be subjecting ourselves to one another’s direction in concrete ways? Are our conversations marked with questions like, “What do you think?” Are we able to learn from each other, even to accept criticism? I believe that as these seeds of humility are sown in our staff relationships, this virtue can become a distinguishing characteristic of our church.
In reflecting on my next concern – holy leisure – Joan notes the importance of people living a thoughtful as well as a productive life. Our church is full of busy people, busy families, busy kids. Unfortunately, as church leaders we tend to keep people busier and busier, in the name of holy productivity. Meanwhile, we become less and less thoughtful, less and less reflective about what we are doing and why. Sadly, we pastors tend to be models of busyness, with our full schedules sometimes used to promote an image of importance. My questions for our leaders are these: What do our lives teach our parishioners about the value that we place upon taking time for unhurried contemplation? Is “tired” one of the first words that come to mind when people ask how we are doing? Joan rightly asserts, “The fact is that it is our souls, not our bodies, that are tired.” Jesus promises rest for our souls, but we must step out of the never-ending race to receive that gift.
God the Great Gardener is doing a new work in our church, a work that involves pruning dead, ugly or useless growth, and training new growth toward health and beauty. Listening, humility, and holy leisure are elements upheld by the Rule of Benedict, which acts as a trellis supporting the plant of Christ’s life. I intend to garden with God, securing trellises to sustain these qualities in our leaders and in our church.