Spirituality as a Public Good

For the past few weeks I have been privileged to be teaching in the Doctor of Ministry Program in Educational Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary. As is always the case with teaching, the most valuable thing I have taken away from this experience is what I have learned as a result of teaching. In fact, I would venture to say that the most valuable learning seems to occur when we are teaching!

A number of “learnings” (as we like to say in the program) stand out as poignant and instructive. I recall the concern of many school people in the program that very little of the conversations on matters of diversity training and awareness touch on perhaps the most profound level at which we differ one from another, the religious level. Our diversity programs need to take this into consideration; otherwise such a vital component of our understanding of the many ways we differ as human beings and cultures will get the “silent treatment,” and we all know the dangers that loom when crucial conversations on difference do not take place, when untested assumptions about the “other” go underground!

We also heard Loren Mead, a longtime observer of church congregations and how they work (or do not work!), speak of his experience studying mainline Protestant congregations for over fifty years. In addressing the decline—both in influence and numbers—of these denominations (including our own Episcopal Church), he made two important references about how we can break the chains of denial and nostalgia that threaten the lifeblood of mainline Protestant denominations these days. As he put it, “We cannot get out of the ditch by using the same practices that got us into the ditch in the first place.” Equally telling was his observation, “Whatever we do to address these problems, it does not mean simply doing more of what we are doing already. We have to have time and energy to be opening new doors.” These are relevant reminders not only to church leaders, but to all leaders, whether they are leading institutions in decline, struggling to stay afloat, or even thriving.

During my time in Virginia what struck me most of all was an observation that a colleague of mine made at one point when we were co-leading case study sessions. Kathy Brown, an astute professor at the Washington Theological Union (DC), was addressing the importance of finding that necessary balance in our lives between self-care and performing the tasks and duties expected of us. As she put it, “We need to remind ourselves as leaders that our own personal spirituality is, in fact, a public good.” Tending to our souls is not only vital for us as individuals, but is something that feeds and enhances our public roles. In this way, our spiritual practices and the time we give to them are indeed done for the sake of others.

Hearing that, I felt I had been given the gift of a whole new perspective on the need to cultivate the interior life through prayer, reflection, and carving out quiet time. In today’s world we are so prone to compartmentalizing our spiritual life into something that simply meets our own personal needs very much apart from the public domain. Rarely do we regard it as something for the good of the common order. But all of us can remember times when we were so depleted of energies physical, mental, and spiritual that we ended up making bad decisions in our public roles. Maintaining a healthy spiritual life builds us up, and in turn helps to build up the good of the community.

Our culture, suspicious of any hint of attempts at conversion or indeed of the very nature of organized religion itself, seems only comfortable with spirituality as a highly privatized activity that has little bearing on public life. Those who lead our schools, who maintain a high degree of public visibility and live with a large, daily dose of public expectations, can all too easily relegate spiritual practices to something akin to a luxury that must take a back seat to all that is done for the sake of the community. Given our tendency to over-function in those public roles, the very thing that can help us thrive is shoved aside. Kathy Brown’s observation reminded me that there is not only a need for spiritual growth in our leaders on a personal level, but that our school communities in fact need leaders who maintain a healthy spiritual life. Their very effectiveness as leaders of these communities depends on it!

As I write down these words of encouragement and urgency, I immediately think about all of you who struggle with this balance in your lives. How do you find the time to tend to the spiritual yearnings found in all of us? Moreover, how do you frame the need for an enhanced spiritual life, one with a dimension of urgency to it, as something more than simply a luxury we think we can afford to forego?

Finally, given the time of year in which we find ourselves, one in which the public pace has (hopefully!) diminished and we are, at the very least, reminded of the possibility of having time to ourselves, how can our summer-times be occasions of renewal on this level?

Indeed, perhaps the vision and energy required to open some of those new doors, as Loren Mead refers to them, come from the shape and depth of our spiritual lives.