For years the Alban Institute has encouraged clergy and other congregational leaders to build personal support systems. Over the years these systems have taken many forms, involving therapists, physicians, spiritual directors, financial advisors, mentors, friendship groups, peer learning groups, and the like. In recent years, major foundations and many denominations have also begun encouraging clergy to think creatively about their self care and to put some kind of supportive structure in place. New resources have emerged in the last decade that model and fund ways for clergy to step out of the day-to-day flow, to stop and think, to pray, to gain perspective, to learn about themselves and their callings, to practice healthy patterns of life, and to reflect on their practice.
At Alban we know that not everyone has such a system or structure, that many of America’s clergy and congregational leaders still “go it alone.” We also know there are many others who have been very intentional and creative about their need for reflective space and who participate in a wide range of activities that allow them room to grow, think, and be. We encourage both groups to keep working to create the space to learn, to change, and to go deeper into themselves and their callings—and to periodically take inventory of these spaces. As our ministries unfold, our needs and interests change and we need to regularly ask what kind of space and what kind of resources we need now, at this point in our lives and work.
Recently, I was provided with an opportunity to fill in a hole in my own personal structure of learning, reflection, and self care. It came from an unexpected source, the Aspen Institute, a national educational institution that focuses on the needs of leaders in our secular society. The structure of the offering is simple: a group of 25 of us read great literary texts, gather once a month with a facilitator, and have a conversation. This past month, for example, we read an excerpt from Plato’s Republic, Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, and Bernard Shaw’s play, Saint Joan. We each brought to the session a question the readings had evoked in us, which we shared. Then off we went into two hours of conversation.
Lest this sound like a gathering of intellectuals with time on their hands, let me be clear that the participants in this program are busy leaders who spend most of their days dealing with institutional issues, money, political causes, and making an impact on contemporary life in the U.S. and around the world. Few have lives of leisure that allow them time to read classic texts that raise the deepest questions about life. Instead, they are in a non-stop flow of meetings, report reading and writing, policy setting, and strategic planning.
As the only clergyperson in the group, I find it invigorating to reflect with influential leaders in the public arena, and to discover that my questions are also theirs. I learn immensely from these people who do not share the preoccupations of my work. A part of me comes alive in these gatherings, and I am renewed by discussion of the deep things that get pushed to the edge of my normal routine.
Saint Joan, for example, confronted me with fresh questions about leadership, a topic I work at every day. Shaw’s play about Joan of Arc gave me a chance to think about and talk with other leaders about what makes a good leader, about the criteria by which we judge leaders, about our expectations of leaders. We pondered this heretic-turned-martyr-turned-saint, this woman who challenged the rule of men, this fearless warrior who succeeded and failed, this leader who inspired many and was put to death by a conspiracy of all the powers of her age. Then we asked ourselves about the role of spirit and religion in human events, about the difference between short-term and long-term consequences, about the different kinds of leadership that are required as situations emerge and then change. As one might guess, this Washington, D.C. crowd could not resist the temptation to take the insights and questions raised by Saint Joan and test them against American political leaders. We disagreed, we challenged, and we went home troubled and awakened.
Saint Joan helped us see that leadership is always part of a larger drama. In Joan’s case, the drama included the pretensions of the English empire, the emergence of French nationalism, the overreach of the Catholic Inquisition, the rise of Protestantism and individualism, and a prototypical expression of the power of feminism. We went home with fresh eyes for the larger dramas we are part of and with new awareness of the contending dynamics that make leadership so difficult. We also went away with new insights about the work we have to do as leaders. Quite a return on a few hours of reading and a monthly two-hour conversation.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including “The Alban Institute Special Report on Leadership.”