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A Question for Church Leaders: Who's the Expert on You?

April 01, 2011

Do you know who you are? Every leader needs to consider this question. And it's a question Christian disciples have been pondering from the beginning. The best ideas are not necessarily new. I've come to appreciate the sayings of the Desert Fathers,Christian hermit monks of the fourth century. Some of them are startlingly relevant. I've been reflecting on this one: "A certain brother went to Abbott Moses in Scete, and asked him for a good word. And the elder said to him: Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything." (The Wisdom of the Desert, trans. by Thomas Merton, Shambala, 2004, p. 44)

What relevance does this have for church leaders? We don't live in monk's cells; we are constantly engaged with people and with the world at large.

First, in order to function well as leaders, we have to be comfortable with ourselves. Leadership means living in our own skin. No one else can tell us who we are or who we ought to be; that has to come from within-that's what our "cell" can teach us. Plenty of folks will try to tell us, but becoming ourselves is an internal discernment process. It doesn't happen overnight: in fact, it may take a lifetime to discover ourselves.

Second and related, we have to depend on ourselves and our own understanding. There is a barrage of information out there, some of which is useful and some of which is not. But if we think that the answer is out there somewhere, we are less likely to discover our own inner resources, the strengths and capabilities that are our birthright, unique to us. No one else can offer what we do, but a focus on outside answers can distract us from discovering our unique contribution to our leadership setting and to the world in general.

What might your "cell" be? I myself have found that visiting a monastery for a retreat has been a useful way to get the essential quiet time. One church leader I know found flying his plane was the only place he felt removed enough from the stress of his everyday life to reflect quietly on his calling. The answer may be as varied as the individual.

We will still find it useful to listen to outside wisdom. Sometimes we need another perspective, because we are too close to our problems. Often the leaders I coach say, "I never thought about it like that before." But we cannot slavishly take the advice of others, assuming they know better about our lives than we do. The more we know who we are, the more we can evaluate the outside input. Frederick Buechner uses the phrase "listening to your life." It is more important to listen to your life than to the advice of others, whether it is the latest guru or your best friend.

Here are three questions to consider:
How are you taking time to develop yourself as a resource?
Where is your "cell," the quiet place where you can get to know yourself better?
What good ideas have you given yourself lately?

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