Spiritually grounded. As a leadership trait, it may sound a little vague. After all, Unitarian Universalist leaders are generally involved in a Unitarian Universalist religious community. That in itself can be seen as a spiritual practice, a practice which, ideally, grounds leaders in our faith tradition, a spiritual home.
While this is certainly true, being a leader who is spiritually grounded may require more than a commitment to one’s religious community. Being a spiritually grounded leader means making the spiritual well-being of oneself and those we interact with a priority. What does that look like?
Gil Stafford, author of When Leadership and Spiritual Direction Meet: Stories and Reflections for Congregational Life, suggests we turn to the ancient art of spiritual direction for clues to what a spiritually grounded leader may offer. Specifically, Stafford offers these four techniques from spiritual direction:
- fostering sacred safe space
- holy listening
- honoring silence, and
- wisdom storytelling.
Let’s look at these more closely.
The Leader as the Steward of Sacred Safety
Gil Stafford puts it this way: “people who gather in congregations . . . have the expectation of the church being a safe place.” In order to create this space, leaders must “incubate physical, emotional, and spiritually safe communities.”
The Leader as Holy Listener
Stafford says that, “A leader who takes time listening will comfort the congregation.” Holy listening is a hallmark of spiritual direction. Imagine what our religious communities would be like if UU leaders made a commitment to improve their listening skills and practices.
The Leader as Advocate of Silence
Silence is a key component of spiritual direction. On a congregational level, “Silence” can be “the fertile ground for the transformative work of the . . . spirit in the community,” says Stafford. And it’s an important prerequisite for holy listening.
The Leader as Wisdom Teacher
One of the things participants in UU leadership schools learn is to share their personal belief statements. Of course, sharing one’s beliefs is very different from imposing one’s beliefs. The same is true with the leader as wisdom teacher and story teller. Spiritually grounded leaders share stories not to solve problems or provide answers, but to show listeners that they are with them in spirit. As Stafford says, “Without a story, we are without life.”
Of course these techniques are in addition to the kind of skills that are traditionally developed in our UU leadership schools, things like understanding of UU history and theology, leadership development, and system dynamics. But when we add these techniques from spiritual direction to those traditional leadership skills, we can create communities of discernment in our congregations. And discernment — the ability to make wise decisions about the future of our congregations — is an essential leadership skill in the 21st century.