Spiritual White Space

I recently attended Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Conference.  It was an excellent gathering, providing a great deal of mental fodder for me to mull over.  At times, I walked away feeling as if I drank from a fire hose.  The challenge at such conferences is to boil the messages down to some manageable takeaways.  For me, it typically becomes clear what those are – those God nudges (or strong pokes in some cases) in an area of weakness or deficiency.  This year the gnawing message was the need to cultivate white space in my life.

Not to oversimplify but the speaker, Juliet Funt, defined white space as “a strategic pause taken between activities.”  Length of time does not matter as much as the purpose of those moments – to intentionally recover or frame your perspective in a particular direction.  Oftentimes, it involves reflection and introspection as you strive to strategize or simply breathe.

For me, my life is currently void of much white space.  Rather it is more often than not filled with the tasks related to my family transition to a new community, new schools, new jobs, and new friends.  While invigorating, it nonetheless squeezes out breathable moments.  Thus, I felt God strongly nudging me to incorporate “spiritual white space.”  I’ll be honest it has been a month since the conference.  How am I doing on this?   Some days I am OK; others not so much.

The notion of spiritual white space is not new.  Jesus frequently encouraged and modeled the necessity of peeling away from the busyness of life in order to reflect and prayer.  It is necessary.  It provides moments of reminders in the midst of my day as to what is important – God’s purposes and will in my life.  It serves as a corrective to my humanistic tendency to believe productivity is defined by the quantity of the work rather than the quality of the work.  It stimulates Christ-centered thinking as it creates openness for God to speak into my thought-processes, decision-making, and emotional reactions.  In other words, they are critical means of spiritual transformation.

Spiritual white space is necessary for leaders because it creates room for God’s voice to speak into our leadership.  Many voices whisper at a leader.  It can be external in the form of those around us, e.g. colleagues, supervisors, or clients.  But, the real voices that oftentimes sway us are internal cloaked in ambition, people-pleasing, and insecurity.  Without the constant presence of God’s voice, our minds become overtaken by far inferior messages.

Strategic pauses are also necessary as a means of buffer.  Life is busy.   When decisions pile on top of decisions or tasks slide into other tasks, our thought-processes and decision-making become sloppy.  Expediency drives our work day; reaction defines our emotions.  Healthy leaders recognize the need for times of buffer where our souls can breathe and our minds can rest.  Sadly, these moments are viewed as non-productive.  On the contrary, they are means to full, spiritual productivity.

Lastly, these pauses remind us that God uses us but ultimately does not need us.  A pause is simply that a pause.  Yet, in those moments, God continues to preserve His creation.  Life is still sustained by His providence.  Grace and forgiveness are freely offered and given.  None of this is dependent upon us.  God works when we stop.  Pauses reminds us of this truth.

Relational capital is a widely-used concept these days.  It involves the need to invest in relationships for the purposes of team-building and vision-casting.  It is important.  But, so is spiritual capital – the investment in the health of our soul so that God can most fully use us for His kingdom.  Yes, most certainly, I need spiritual white space.

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Leadership in the Midst of Tragedy

National catastrophes are unexpected and difficult.  The images and stories from Texas are heart-wrenching and depressing.  The devastation and the ensuing human toil pull at your heart as you desire to do something, anything to alleviate a small bit of suffering.  Certainly the country is praying for those experiencing shock and loss.  In the midst of this tragedy, it is equally beautiful to read stories of deep compassion and love for one another.  The strength of the human spirit is fully on display as neighbors help neighbors, strangers are welcomed into homes, and companies give generously to those in need.  Tragedy brings out the worst and best in people.

This beauty is oftentimes unleased through courageous leadership – ordinary men and women responding to tragedy with hope and sacrifice.  Rather than complain, they corral others to come together and rise above the catastrophe.  In Texas, individuals are embodying this leadership in extraordinary ways through mobilization, comfort, and commitment.  Persons who never would have been seen as leaders because they did not have an “official title” are now exhibiting profound leadership through their actions and attitudes in the midst of tragedy.  Difficulties not only develop leadership; they unleash it.

These events cause me to reflect on leadership, specifically as it relates to difficulties.  What truly makes a leader?  How do we see a leader in the midst of difficulties?

Leaders provide hope.   It is easy to see the obstacles.  But, leaders see beyond the obstacles to the possibilities either through the difficulty or on the other side of it.  Furthermore, they instill this hope in others who are paralyzed by the pain.  Hope is oftentimes an elusive reality, especially when there is loss.  Yet, genuine leaders grab ahold of hope and will it to reality.  Titles don’t accomplish this; human spirit does.  In this sense, leadership is available to anyone regardless of background or opportunity.

Leaders produce action.  Rather than point fingers at the inactions of others, leaders pull up their sleeves, step into life, and get dirty.  They formulate a plan to achieve that hope.  They do not sit on the sidelines hoping for change to action; they implement it.  It is not dependent on education or money but rather the willingness to sacrificially commit to rebuilding and restoring.  It is easy in the midst of difficulty to look around waiting for someone to step up.  Leaders, on the other hand, look in the mirror then do something.  It is humbling and praiseworthy to see ordinary individuals displaying extraordinary acts of leadership.

Leaders are empathetic.  The human temptation in the face of catastrophe is to go inward.  We tend to think about ourselves.  We become protective, self-interested, and narcissistic.  “I don’t have time for others because I have so much to do and process myself.”  On the contrary, leaders naturally consider others.  They rise above their emotions and empathize with the pain of others.  There becomes a collective purpose in the mist of the difficulty rather than a “take care of myself” retreat.

In this sense, leadership is available to anyone.  It is not educated, bought, or promoted.  It is made in the midst of tragedy.