Spiritual exercise for endurance

Yesterday, at a routine meting of an organization where I volunteer, I discovered that a colleague will begin an emergency medical leave today. From today to at least the end of the year, he will be away from his job and out of town in the home of his mother seeking to restore his health under the care of a team of doctors and medical specialists. The list of his medical problems is long and I’m sure I don’t know all of them, but they include hypertension, sleep apnea, tachycardia, and panic attacks. This is a young and vibrant person decades younger than I who has accomplished much and is widely recognized as a leader. His career has been one of constant promotion and increasing responsibility.

On the other hand, he does work for an organization that has a decades-long reputation for hiring young and burning out its employees. Although he has not yet entered his forties, he is considered to be one of the most senior employees. Few people work for the organization for a decade and those who remain longer are seen as the exception.

You can’t of course, blame health problems on a single source. Our physical health is complex. The diseases with which he is struggling are influenced by genetics, diet, lifestyle, stress and dozens of other factors. It would be wrong for me to jump to conclusions about the causes of or appropriate treatments for his distress.

I do, however, see some things in his life that make me think there are a few lessons I could teach my younger colleague. I am well aware that he won’t be turning to me for advice and that he will receive care from other sources. Still it got me to thinking. We share a sense of dedication and both of us have been generally blessed with high levels of energy. Neither of us is a slave to the clock and both are willing to do what it takes to get the job done. Both of us have a sense that one way to solve problems is to buckle down and work harder. Probably the main difference between us is that I am older and I somehow was blessed by not encountering illness at a younger age.

Endurance in a helping profession demands a discipline of healthy boundaries. I am blessed that my denomination requires recurrent boundary training for all of its authorized ministers. We take time, on a regular basis, to take a look at the complex ethical issues that surround the practice of ministry. We are reminded regularly that self-care is critical to those who work in our profession. We develop plans that help us avoid turning to those we serve to meet our personal needs. I didn’t learn that working harder and putting in more hours made me less, not more, efficient the first time I took a boundary class. It took repetition for me to internalize that lesson. I still struggle with its application.

It isn’t only the health of the individual that is threatened by a lack of boundaries. It is also the well-being of those who are served. Clergy occupy positions of incredible power in the lives of those we serve. A betrayal, whether intended or not, can cause lifelong scars for the victim.

I would also counsel my colleague on the development of honest personal spiritual practices. Sometimes leaders are afraid to allow any vulnerability to show. Some spiritual leaders invest incredible energy in masking doubt and only speaking of their beliefs to others. The reality is that everyone experiences doubt. Several years ago I heard a quote from Anne Lamott that sums it up well: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is certainty.”

Real leaders are aware that making deep connections with those we serve requires our humanity, not our perfection. That is one of the most amazing things about the Christian faith. For us, God comes to us in the form of a human being - finite, subject to all of the limitations of humanity. We, who follow, are not required to be perfect. We are not required to be God. We can be honest with our vulnerabilities and, yes, our doubts. It is in our doubts that we discover our need of faith. The burden of always having to be certain is not a mark of leadership. It is a demonstration that we are not being honest about our doubt. More often than not, spiritual leaders who are constantly certain mask their doubt not only from their followers, but also from themselves.

Daily, and sometimes hourly, prayer and study provide a space to wrestle with thoughts and engage doubts. In the context of my practices, I am free to be a follower and not required to be a leader. I am constantly reminded that ours is a relationship of many generations and it doesn’t all fall on my shoulders. For me regularly engaging Moses, who experienced doubt in the wilderness and Jeremiah who questioned his call to be a prophet and Jesus who struggled with his destiny in the garden reminds me that I belong to a long tradition and our people have a long future. The problem of the moment may be intimidating, but it is not the defining moment of my life or the turning point of religious history.

However, as I said, my friend is not turning to me for advice and there is no reason he should do so. What I can do is what I did yesterday and have already done today. I can pray for him. I can bring him into my consciousness and remind myself that I trust God to work in his life. And I can let my friend know that I am praying. As life has taught me on many occasions: When you can’t find the words for your prayers, it is good to know that you aren’t the only one praying.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!