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Thinking Out Loud

Cultivating Resilience

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 23, 2016

resilienceIn recent years, a great deal of attention has been paid to one particular personal characteristic as a key to thriving in leadership and ministry: Resilience.

Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy, in their popular book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back (New York: Free Press, 2012), described resilience as “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances” (p. 7). In a chapter titled, “The Translational Leader,” they explain that while they had not intended to write a book on “the seven habits of highly resilient people,” they discovered in the course of their research that whenever they found communities that were able “to reorganize dynamically in the face of disruption” they also “encountered the same character over and over again” among the leadership of these communities. “These leaders demonstrated an uncanny ability to knit together different constituencies and institutions – brokering relationships and transactions across different levels of political, economic, and social organization” (p. 239).

re●sil●ience (rĭ-zĭlˊyəns) n. The ability to come back from failures, disappointments, grief, and humiliation, and to come back stronger because of what was learned in the midst of circumstances that might discourage or even break another person.

This is a quality valued by many leaders. We have heard political leaders of both parties talk about what they have learned from being rejected by voters or from the “beatings” they have taken. We have heard also of inventors and artists who repeatedly tried and failed until they found that original contribution only they could make.

Ministers and other leaders of religious organizations will recognize the quality which Zolli and Healy describe because the term “resilience” is so similar to what Edwin Friedman often referred to as “persistence” and “stamina” in his A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury, 1999, 2007, pp. 188-189). More recently, my friend and colleague, George Sinclair, Jr., the senior pastor of Government Street Presbyterian Church in Mobile, Alabama, explored the spiritual and pastoral dimensions of resilience in his book, Walking in Wonder: Resilience in Ministry (Eugene: Cascade, 2014). George identifies resilience as a spiritual quality. “Pastoral leadership,” he says, “… is more art than science; it is more dance than technique. It is less about management and more about imagination. And imagination is grounded in wonder” (p. 105).

The question we are left to ask is this: Can resilience be nurtured, or is it simply a personality trait you either have or don’t have and there’s nothing much you can do about it?

While we might examine “resilience” in psychological or sociological terms, I think George’s pastoral exploration of the subject is especially helpful, at least to me as a person of faith. It leads me to believe we can, indeed, nurture resilience as a theological or spiritual quality. George opens the door to understanding how spiritual disciplines and practices can make us more resilient when he says that resilience is fundamentally “grounded in wonder.”

Recently I asked a colleague in ministry, someone who is known as much by their ability to deal with the stresses of leadership as she is by her success, to tell me what she believes is the key to her own resilience. Though the words she used are different from those used by George, the theological insight is the same. She is learning (and she resisted saying she “has learned”) to understand that everything and everyone she loves and values and cares about and all she works to accomplish belong to the God who is greater than she can conceive and more loving than she can imagine.

“How do you learn to do that?” I asked.

“Prayer,” she responded. “Prayer.”

I used to have a cartoon taped to my door when I was a pastor. I think it came from Leadership magazine, a quarterly that was published by Christianity Today. It showed a church secretary poking her head into the pastor’s office, and, seeing him on his knees praying, she says to the person behind her, “Oh, good. You can come on in. He’s not doing anything.”

We active-minded, high-achieving Protestant sorts tend to think of prayer either as intercession for things we want God to do or as navel-gazing. I suspect that is why many people, some pastors included, complain that they have prayed and prayed but “nothing happened.” Many of us just don’t seem to understand a concept of prayer that runs throughout the histories of Christian and Jewish thought. Prayer isn’t primarily intended to change God, but us.

We tend to think of prayer as “talking to God.” And there are times, places, and occasions when prayer is a matter of “talking to God.” But prayer is far, far more than this. And when it comes to developing, nurturing and maintaining resilience, stamina and persistence in us, it is to this “far, far more” that we need to look.

Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware, in an essay he contributed to a book exploring the relationship between Thomas Merton and the spirituality of the Eastern Church, writes: “The Russian Orthodox saint Seraphim of Sarov says, ‘Acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation’.” [Jonathan Montaldo, editor, Merton & Hesychasm: The Eastern Church & the Prayer of the Heart (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2003), p. 3]. And how do we attain this inner peace that benefits not only ourselves but all of those with whom we come into contact (including the congregations and organizations we lead)?

Bishop Ware continues:

“‘Act out of stillness.’ Unless by God’s grace we possess in some measure stillness of heart, a quality designated in the Greek Orthodox mystical tradition by the word hesychia, our acts will prove superficial and ineffective. But if we act out of the stillness, our actions may effect healing and transfiguration far beyond anything we imagine possible. ‘Act out of the stillness.’ Contemplative action is the most powerful action of all.” (p. 3)

There is no shortcut to the stillness of heart that produces and maintains resilience in us. It requires practice, regular practice that gradually suffuses our whole lives and shapes our responses to others.

Some time ago, in a previous blog, I mentioned the thought of another teacher of Eastern Christianity, Evagrius Ponticus (345-399 AD). His understanding of equanimity in the face of all the changes and disappointments of life is particularly relevant in this context. The disposition of inner calmness and composure which he teaches us to cultivate is closely related to resilience.

What is required in order to cultivate this inner calmness, this equanimity which keeps us balanced no matter what life brings and prevents us from living in dread of the future, regret of the past and resentment of those who may differ from us? Evagrius invites us to find places of sustained silence and periods of solitude where God can strip away all the false images of ourselves that keep us from being the persons God created us to be. Evagrius invites us to risk placing ourselves in the proximity to God’s Word beyond the reach of distractions that amuse us and keep us from seeing ourselves in light of God. He invites us, first and foremost, to listen for God. And, if we listen for God, undistracted, he believes we will learn to offer ourselves to God without reservation, trusting God to do with our lives as God intends.

And, so, Evagrius encourages us:

“Pray not to this end, that your own desires will be fulfilled. You can be sure that they do not fully accord with the will of God. Once you have learned to accept this point, pray instead that ‘thy will be done’ in me. In every matter ask God in this way for what is good and for what confers profit on your soul, for you yourself do not seek this so completely as God does.”

Practicing the presence of God in our lives, a practice that necessarily begins in silence and some degree of solitude, has the potential to stream into every aspect of our lives, making it possible for us to see God present wherever we find ourselves. Ironically, it is precisely in the consciousness of our emptiness in the presence of God that we can be filled with God’s Spirit of life and love; it is in the awareness of our brokenness that we are healed and made whole however life may have bruised us; and it is in our weakness that we experience God’s strength. And it is by this that resilience is cultivated in us.

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