Three Leadership Lessons from John Woolman

In this time of multiple pandemics and many crises, I struggle with how to relate to those with whom I disagree. How do I find the wisdom to interact in a loving way; how do I speak my truth so they might hear?

I find the eighteenth-century American Quaker John Woolman inspiring and instructive for this time. He faced one of the impossible challenges of his own time, slavery, with prayer and action. Through prayer and discernment, Woolman discerned what was his to do. He felt called to travel to visit American Quaker slaveholders to challenge them to free the people they had enslaved. Woolman was both loving and prophetic. He didn’t give in to hating the evildoer while denouncing the evil of slavery. He didn’t water down his prophetic message in order to “love” the slaveholder. How did he hold this tension?

He held it through prayer and discernment. After visiting a slaveholder, he would return to worship, holding that person in the Light, reflecting on the pro-slavery arguments with which he had been presented. Not getting hooked by his ego, he would systematically refute each argument, returning to the slaveholder and presenting his thoughts clearly, with humility and love. He knew that oppression hurt the oppressor as well as the oppressed. He met each slaveholder with love, yearning for the slaveholder’s liberation from slaveholding as well as for the enslaved people’s liberation from slavery.

What can I learn from John Woolman in this time in which I find myself? Can I love our President, for example, a person I see as dangerous for my country and my world? When I pray for him, I do feel compassion and I long for his liberation from the fear and hatred that seem to imprison his soul. Will I be called to speak truth to him? Is there hope for his transformation? These are questions that are beyond me. All I know is that I will continue to pray for him and I will seek to be faithful as I am led.

Closer to home, how do I love those in my own family with whom I disagree? I know that I can pray for them, too. When I pray, I am changed from an oppositional stance toward them to feeling compassion for them as I see the fears and hurts that draw them. As I am led, I can speak to their fears and hurts, and also speak prophetically to them. And when the conversations grow tense, I can keep returning to my spiritual grounding, keep praying that I will come from a place of compassion. When my ego gets hooked and the conflict escalates (which happens more frequently than I like to admit), I know it is time to take a break and center down. Loving and speaking prophetically at the same time is a spiritual practice for me. Will it change others? I don’t know. But I do know that it changes me and that it can sow seeds of transformation in others that might take root and grow, either now or sometime in the future.

There is no template for loving across differences, no formula that we can follow that will result in transformation of others at the end. There is the lifetime work of spiritual practice, practice that will change me and, through my actions, sow seeds in the world. Whether those seeds grow is up to other people and to God.

So, in this time of multiple pandemics, how can we have courage, faith, hope, and love for all, even for those with whom we disagree? First, by staying spiritually grounded through daily spiritual practice. Second, by making the practice of loving across differences one of our regular spiritual practices. Third, by discerning in community “What is mine to do?” and being faithful in carrying out our part.

September 09, 2020 by Margaret Benefiel 1 Comment
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Jesse Palidofsky
Jesse Palidofsky
3 years ago

Margaret, this is so timely for me and I’m sure for many of us. I am so glad that you remind us of John Woolman’s special witness. And I appreciate the way you bring your own experience into this sharing, acknowledging just how difficult it is to be faithful to this call. “Loving and speaking prophetically at the same time is a spiritual practice for me. Will it change others? I don’t know. But I do know that it changes me and that it can sow seeds of transformation in others that might take root and grow…” Amen.


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