The mission group is a key structure of our little church, a place in which we share the most important parts of our inner lives, hold each other accountable for our spiritual practices (tithing, daily quiet time, a yearly silent retreat and others), study together, and engage in a common task that might make the world a better place. It’s a small group (usually three to six people), a place of more intimate belonging within the larger faith community. I belong to the interracial Racial Justice and Healing mission group. We have a vision of ending the racism within our own church and in the nation. We meet for about three hours per week.
In our faith community we have come to believe that every member has an important role to play. When a mission group organizes itself or a new member joins, we spend over an hour per person in evoking their individual gifts to help discover that unique role. By “evoking gifts” we mean discerning each person’s specific characteristics and abilities that may contribute to the group, naming them and affirming them. This past Saturday was my turn. We went around the circle, and each person described the gifts they saw in me. It’s an amazing experience! How often do we affirm the value of one another?
I was not exactly surprised by what the others said. After more than a half century of introspection, I know my strengths and weaknesses fairly well, but it’s powerfully affirming to know that others see my gifts, too.
One of the things I’ve known about myself is that I can be a good leader; I do have those gifts, which were again mentioned on Saturday. I have rarely, however, found joy in active leadership. Because I usually see and appreciate the many sides of an issue, for instance, it’s painful to try to lead a group to a decision. I’m quite sensitive to the needs of others (and have a fear of conflict besides), so, as another example, it’s hard to cut someone off who’s talking too much or whose point is only tangential. Responsible for the meeting, I worry about whether we’re being productive. And so on. I don’t enjoy it.
I grew up believing, however, that if a need existed and I had the gifts to meet that need, I had the responsibility to take it on. Not only did that sense of responsibility lead me into doing too much, but it also led me into positions of active leadership that often made me miserable. I had the gifts … so I had to take the role.
When I realized two years ago that I was losing some of my cognitive ability, I began turning down opportunities that didn’t give me joy … including active leadership. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been so much happier since my diagnosis. As my cognitive impairment seems to have stabilized, I have continued to avoid active leadership, but I’ve felt a nagging guilt about “shirking my responsibility.”
On Saturday, as I allowed myself to acknowledge the gifts others saw in me, however, I began to understand that I could offer leadership from behind as well. Having insight and discernment without being attached to the outcome is a gift, as are listening deeply, understanding and affirming others, offering an elder’s wisdom, or supporting the group in its process.
The act of listening is not only a prelude to getting something else done but also a gift in itself. Listening doesn’t require me to march into action. It’s enough to listen with compassion, love, wisdom and discernment.
I would call this “leadership from behind,” and, over the last two years, it’s become part of who I am. Sometimes I hear something said that others don’t seem to hear, and it’s helpful to point it out. Sometimes there are seemingly contradictory opinions or suggestions, but I may see common themes that, when I articulate them, can bring the group together rather than divide us. What my mission group was saying, I think, is that these are important gifts to the community.
This, too, is leadership … only this time I enjoy it.
This willingness to draw back and listen without the need to do anything has been one of the paradoxical gifts of my impairment. I have learned to let go of some of a previously overdeveloped sense of responsibility, and I’m grateful.
Oh, and, by the way, a couple of people mentioned that I could be funny. I like to think I am but since most people either don’t get my humor or don’t think it’s funny, it was good to be affirmed … by a few people, anyway.