Thursday, November 27, 2008

Spiritual Formation, Leadership and the Arts

My life as a writer at times is a journey of clarifying moments, threads coming together and epiphanies trickling forth in the midst of events, relationships and worthwhile work. During the past several days I have tasted deeper confirmation that my key passions have centered around three spheres that, in my opinion, intersect in many ways: Spiritual Formation, Leadership and the Arts.

Spiritual Formation

For the past decade I have been drawn to the deep, spiritual thinkers from across the ages and their hunger to become more like God in thought, word and deed. I am intrigued by the intention of tapping into that “hidden life” of the spirit while simultaneously tackling whatever day to day tasks or challenges must be attended to.

The great Christian mystics and devotionalists have equipped me with a foundation for my own journey with Christ. Augustine and his assertion that “our hearts cannot rest until they rest in God,” speaks to the ubiquitous discontent of this age. St. John of the Cross, describing the “dark night of the soul” in which I have frequently found myself, reframed this experience as an opportunity for “sheer grace.” Catherine of Genoa exclaimed, “It is as if I have given the keys of my house to Love with permission to do all that is necessary.” Methodism founder John Wesley viewed prayer in particular as the “spiritual breathing” that sustains our life in Christ. There are countless other voices I am not listing here, an abundance of volumes readily available for consumption.

From the 20th Century, I am blown away by Thomas Kelly, who reflected that the urge to pray sometimes “rolls through us like a mighty tide…when the inner life becomes complete and we are joyfully prayed through, by a seeking Life that flows through us into the world of men.” Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, eventually martyred by the Nazis, said that participation in the Lord’s Supper is “the superlative fulfillment of Christian fellowship,” where “the community has reached its goal.” Contemporary spiritual formation giants such as Richard Foster and Dallas Willard have taught me much about simplicity and discipleship..

I also appreciate—as I have cited in this blog on occasions—the contributions of thinkers from other religions or those who do not necessarily subscribe to a particular religion. The late mythologist Joseph Campbell’s “Journey of the Hero” motif and other observations have helped me to increase my wonder at the reach of God into all cultures, and the similar yearnings of the human soul. The writings of Ghandi have shown me examples of a life as close to the teachings and practices of Christ as you will find in the last century. Recent contributors such as Elizabeth Gilbert (who sports an amazing hunger for God) and Eckhart Tolle (calling for us to seize the present moment in its power and possibilities), controversial or labeled as they might be, nevertheless stretch our minds and have helped me to look at my faith with fresh eyes. I find this faith completed in Christ, but these luminaries help me accept that there is far more to God than I can categorize or classify—which only serves to amplify this same faith.


Great leaders from all eras in all disciplines inspire me. Jesus modeled for the ages an approach to developing and equipping a small group of emerging leaders that is applicable to any industry or effort. John Wesley’s direction for the Methodist movement gave it shape, discipline and depth and unleashed a spiritual awakening in both England and America. Lincoln was a shining example of how to stand firm for something much greater than one’s own political fortunes. Gandhi again, along with Martin Luther King Jr., demonstrated the power of non-violence (drawing from the teachings of Jesus) to elicit powerful change in two very different societies.

Contemporary thinkers such as Peter Drucker (a guru on management in particular), Jack Welch and Warren Bennis have shaped my thinking during the past several years as I have served as a pastor, executive coach, speaker and trainer. I have especially been impacted by The Gallup Organization’s work on coaching and engagement, and firmly believe that the process of individuals learning and applying their strengths has huge ramifications on both performance and leadership. Leadership as an art has evolved from enforcing hierarchical demands to becoming partners in performance with those who serve on the leader’s team, equipping and coaching them to leverage those strengths toward accomplishing shared goals. Peter Block’s works have taught me much about the power of leaders asking the right questions to energize and build community.

There is a hunger these days, in business, government and non-profits of all sorts, for someone, anyone, to lead. Those desiring to pursue motives larger than self-interest or self-preservation, striving to build consensus among disparate groups for the sake of greater goals, will rise to the surface in this fragile age.

The Arts

The creative spirit has meant a great deal to me throughout my life. As a youth I was deeply moved by films such as The Graduate, albums such as The Beatles’ Abby Road, and books such as Catcher in the Rye. I began writing novels around the age of 11, cranking out 15 of them before I was 17, and then produced a huge outpouring of song lyrics in my mid-to-late teens. I have traced the stories behind my creative writing in a spiritual memoir called Chased by the Wind, noticing that “prevenient grace” spoken of by Wesley, seeing through hindsight the hand of God at work in my life long before I joined in the labor.

I am moved by a powerful film, play, or piece of music in extraordinary ways, making it impossible for me to allow artificial silos between the arts and work, arts and faith, arts and politics, arts and relationships. The arts scream the truth to us about the human condition, and God is the source of all truth whatever its packaging. I am in a season of life where I am writing novels once again, seeking to tap into that truth while telling stories about characters who will hopefully touch readers in a manner that both entertains them and drives them to reflection.

We cast aside the relevance and practicality of the arts to our peril. To marginalize their influence is to segment a key aspect of our hearts and minds apart from the experience of being fully alive. There is another hunger in this present age, and that is for meaningful experiences and purposes, for sustainable inspiration amid the tyranny of many urgencies. The arts provide nourishing food that can help to satisfy this aching and deepen our resolve.

Synergy Among the Three

These three spheres interact and play off of each other like a great jazz outfit. Those seeking to constantly develop their spiritual dimensions are naturally more effective in leading others. They have learned to crucify the ego, desiring more the success of others and the group than their own accolades. Similarly, they are more receptive to those divine tributaries that flow forth from the river of the arts, paying attention to the nuances of truth found in creative human expressions.

In like manner, leaders who intentionally develop their spiritual core are bound to build a stronger ethical and moral foundation that makes not just good human sense but good business sense. Those leaders who give themselves permission to be influenced by artistic offerings become more complete individuals and managers, more apt in inspiration and seizing metaphors to help others commit to a goal and refine their abilities.

Artists who are receptive to spiritual growth find a deeper richness to the art they produce. The novel bears truer to the human dilemma, the crescendo of the music that much more inspiring, the three act play a window for the observer to peer into their own soul. They become thought leaders among their peers and among the masses, helping cultivate more critical thinking that is so desperately needed in a world of multi-tasking and distractions.

My personal challenge is to continue to pay attention to the details and seams of these three amazing spheres, growing more intentional across time to how they intersect, inform and strengthen one another. I apply all three to my executive coaching, writing and speaking, using the power of words to equip and inspire, and these efforts often feel more like play than work.

The wonderful bonus in this unfolding vocational journey is how much I receive in the process of seeking to share what makes me tick. I pray to dance even more to the rhythm of what Campbell called “the music of the spheres.”


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