Dear Setbacks (if that is your real name),
For many years of studying ministerial leadership education, I have explored the leadership development possibilities that emerge from reflective practice, otherwise known in my field as “theological reflection.”
The gold standard for lifelong learning in ministry, reflective practice involves trying new things, looking at both process and results with honest and nonjudgmental curiosity, asking God to shed light on the contours of the experience, and reinvesting that learning in plotting a path forward.
I’ve often said that the difference between 25 years of experience in ministry, versus one year of experience 25 times, is theological reflection.
I’ve never been satisfied with the advice that we should learn from our mistakes. Mistakes are yucky. They’re embarrassing and upsetting. How can we learn from them when everything about them repels us? Looking closely at our mistakes is like trying to see underwater in a swimming pool. Everything’s blurry, and the chlorine hurts our eyes. Theological reflection practices, if we’re to continue to milk the metaphor, are like swim goggles. They give us protection that results in less suffering and more clarity. The alternative is closing our eyes altogether, which results in isolation and estrangement.
To even face our mistakes, let alone learn from them, we need a process that relies on something bigger than us. We need a framework that transcends our egos and our fears for our reputations. We need something higher than the views of Other People who would, if they could, define for us whether we’ve even made a mistake. For me, that means giving over my insecurities to a God who makes all things new.
Even though I talk about it all the time, I’m rediscovering theological reflection for myself and realizing that I need it to bounce back after your shenanigans, Setbacks. Is it my imagination, Setbacks, or have you changed? I used to have a clear sense of where my life and leadership needed to go: flourish, pursue mission, cause more flourishing. I’d encounter you, Setbacks, feel sad or mad or afraid, reflect with God’s help, and get back on-track.
Today, amidst an in-between time, our communities lack a shared compass. No longer do my setbacks come in the form of two steps forward and one step back. Rather, I take two steps forward and then am knocked off the path completely when someone it’s my calling to serve questions whether the path I’m on is even any good. I want to move forward but sense quicksand ahead.
I’m discovering in this beginning (or middle?) of the end of an era that I’ve fallen into a quasi-atheistic understanding of my choices that’s overly reliant on a humanistic definition of “progress.” My falling is understandable, given the context in which I’m trying to lead, which is in the world, even if not of the world. Setbacks, you’re morphing in such a way that I’m realizing how risky reliance on “progress” can be. I think I’ve done something to great success, and then a question arises as to whether it was the right thing to have done in the first place, and I’m not so much set back as set on-edge.
If we’re to continue to grow as leaders in a time when consensus about direction is hard to come by, reflective practice’s loops have to get smaller, and we need to direct them inward without falling into militant self-reliance. To quote 90s rap artists Arrested Development, “Space-age man’s final frontier: man’s final frontier is the soul.”
A few days ago, I made up a new exercise to help me reflect on my leadership. I was pondering an event that didn’t go how I’d expected or hoped. Such ponderings often take me to a dark place. In a recent workshop in my ministry setting, Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, Iyanla Vanzant described inward reflection as an activity that requires adult supervision.
With this learning in mind, I decided to babysit my own thoughts through this discipline: I wrote down five things I think I did wrong, and then I stayed put long enough to write down five things I’d done right. That small step of closing the loop with a practice of self-affirmation made it possible for me to dust myself off and imagine trying again.
Pointing our reflective practice inward doesn’t mean disregarding the effect we have on others, or their opinions about what we ought to have been doing in the first place. The impact we have on others matters, and their views broaden our perspectives. But impact on and views of others aren’t the whole story; they’re among many considerations we include in our theological reflection.
Setbacks, you are still a part of life and leadership, but I think I need to redefine you. I used to think that a setback is what happens when we are moving toward a goal and lose ground. I now think that setbacks are moments when we lose track of whom we serve, can no longer hear the voice of our own reflections because the opinions of others are louder, and find ourselves too overwhelmed to try again.
Self-reliance is great, but we need our higher power’s help when it comes time to reflect on our actions and plot steps forward. We need adult supervision, which for me means growing as a leader by and while leaning hard on faith: faith that God loves me unconditionally, that there is nothing I could do to separate myself from God’s love, and that, in the cosmic battle between life and death, life wins.