Only a Feather: Contemplative Leadership in Action

Article by Margaret Benefiel (April 2016 eNews)

“A feather on the breath of God,” Hildegard of Bingen’s image of her life, leaped out at me when I sought a guiding image for my new leadership position at Shalem nine months ago. I return to it again and again as I seek to balance being and doing in the midst of my responsibilities as an executive director.

This symbol speaks to me deeply, both personally and for Shalem. I long to live as a feather on God’s breath, living in radical trust. I long for the Shalem community as a whole to live as a feather on the breath of God.

Yet living in radical trust is not my natural inclination. Some days I do indeed feel like a feather on the breath of God, as the spiritually grounded, contemplative atmosphere at the Shalem office helps me trust and float on the current of the Spirit’s wind. My joy is deep.

At the same time that I feel deep joy when I experience living as a feather on God’s breath, another part of me resists:

“Only a feather?” she says. “What about your accomplishments?”

“Only a feather,” comes the response.

“What about your degrees?”

“Only a feather.”

“What about your training?”

“Only a feather.”

The part of me that resists also wants to control. She wants to rely on my credentials. She wants to believe that if I utilize my training I can figure everything out. She wants me to see spreadsheets as Shalem’s salvation. She wants me to turn to management manuals to motivate the minions.

To be sure, I must use my skills and training. I must draw on the knowledge and experience that I have. I must think about Shalem’s future, and together with the board and staff, make plans. I must read spreadsheets and mind the money.

Yet those skills are mine only to serve the greater good. They do not exist for me to exercise control. They do not exist for me to impress the board, staff, Shalem graduates, or program participants. They exist to free Shalem to listen as openly as possible to God’s spirit. For myself, this means that I must give up control, or rather give up the illusion of control, so that Shalem and I can float as feathers on God’s breath.

Shalem as an organization is only a feather on God’s breath, too, though somehow it’s easy for us to think of an organization as being more solid than an individual. Once we have bylaws and a budget and a board, we’re established. We’re solid. Nothing can move us. Right? Wrong. Organizations are just as vulnerable as individuals. Organizations have a choice: they can live with the illusion of control, or they can exercise radical trust. What does it look like for an organization, for an entire community, to exercise radical trust? What does it look like for Shalem to live as a feather on the breath of God?

It looks like openness to God, listening for the movement of the Spirit in our midst. Radical trust for Shalem as a whole also means holding programs lightly. It means experimenting with new programs. It means assessing and improving existing programs.

Radical trust for Shalem as a whole also means trusting God with money. How many times have you been in a committee meeting or board meeting that has been open and trusting until the topic of money comes up? There’s nothing like talking about money to throw a meeting back into ego, away from radical trust. Trusting God with money means listening for the Spirit’s guidance about how to focus Shalem’s fundraising efforts, doing our part to reach out and ask, adjusting course when needed, and continuing to listen.

Whether with programs, staff priorities, fundraising, or planning, seeking to live as a feather on the breath of God provides an opportunity for ongoing spiritual practice, both for me and for Shalem.

I am only a feather. Shalem is only a feather. But we are feathers that have the capacity to float on the breath of God, which is ultimately where our strength lies.

April 04, 2016 by Margaret Benefiel
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