When was the last time you paid attention to the cycles that surround our lives? Day and night. Waking and sleeping. Working and resting. Every aspect of our environment is ruled by a coming and going. Rhythms and seasons are the essence of the created order and the backbone of our life journey.
The orbital web of planets has a cadence, a drumbeat that regulates our seasons of the year, the phases of the moon, and the shifts of the tides. As I write this, I have only to look out my window at the ornate skeletons of bark and limbs that stand sentinel around my cabin on a chilly November morning. It’s hard to believe they will all awaken from their coma in just a few months, risen from the dead, as it were. A grand tease, to be marked by hoots of laughter at the vernal punch line. Gotcha. We were just sleeping; ha.
So what if your leadership held the vibrancy of such rhythms? The ebb and flow of real work and real rest? Of outgo and inflow? Of praying the hours and managing projects, of spiritual direction and staff meetings, of Sabbath and spreadsheets?
Let’s reach a little further. What are some of the other rhythms crucial to thriving leadership? Think about the continuum of noise and silence: Truly spiritual leaders know when to engage the thrill of purposeful energy and when to withdraw to the womb of solitude. They know when and how to speak, when and how to listen. They know when to do and when to simply be. Breathing in and breathing out: We can’t do just one or the other; we need both.
If we feast every day, our bodies and souls groan with indulgence. If we fast every day, well, we die. The wise king Solomon once said, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Rhythms. The flow and backflow of times and seasons are the fertility in which our gravitas grows and our roots go deep. In the next chapter, you’ll have a chance to articulate the rhythms you sense God calling you to in this season of your life.
Monastery Meets Marketplace
The topic of renewal lends itself more to personal practice than to workplace practice, but I’ll make a couple of points here. First, the more you embrace personal renewal, the more life and vitality you will bring into your workplace. You will bring a different kind of energy to your leadership. That’s a no-brainer.
Second, as you increase your personal value for renewal, you will find that it shapes your organizational culture. Rather than believing good leadership means constant performance pressure on your team members, you will begin to want renewal for them too. The more you discover and integrate healthy rhythms in your life, the more you will set an example for them to follow. In this way, your personal practice will cascade into your workplace atmosphere. Let’s look at a few specific practices.
Practice 1: Sabbath
We’ve discussed the reason for taking a weekly Sabbath above, but what does that look like practically? We must resist the urge to create a one-size-fits-all approach to Sabbath keeping, which means that your direction for Sabbath must flow out of your relationship with God. What might God be inviting you personally into this week’s Sabbath?
There are a few general principles, however, that can help guide us on the journey to rest. First, don’t work. How do you know if it’s work or not? I admit there are shades of gray here, but just be honest with yourself: If it feels like work, don’t do it. Take a break.
Second, accept the gifts of the day. What brings you joy? Taking a nap? Going for a hike? Reading a book for pleasure? If mowing the yard is refreshing for you, then go mow. If having friends over for a wine tasting is fun, then invite away. If art delights your soul, then go visit a gallery. If doing nothing at all is what your body and mind need most, then by all means, do nothing.
Third, Sabbath is a day to connect and to love. Gather with your spiritual community. Have neighbors over for a drink or meal. Call a friend you haven’t talked with in months. Snuggle in bed with your spouse. Visit someone who is sick or in need. Get creative. Follow your heart.
Practice 2: Personal Retreats
Periodic retreats have become part of the pulse of my days, the lifeblood of my leadership. Rarely a month goes by without at least an overnighter alone to quiet my soul and refill my divine-love tank. Have you noticed how you can fill the emotional tank of your children with intentional, loving eye contact? It’s like magic. Wilted souls perk up with just minutes of such focused attention. We need the divine gaze in the same way.
The simple three-step exercise below reflects a rhythm I’ve fallen into for almost any extended time I take with God, whether it’s an afternoon of prayer or a weekend spiritual retreat or a longer sabbatical. You have already used it in the first few chapters. I like that it’s simple and flexible and can scale up or down to the time available. I like that it offers a gentle structure that keeps me from feeling lost in the space yet can adapt to the uniqueness of how I’m encountering God in the moment. I invite you to come into the monastery of your own choosing and either warm up to the inviting fire on the hearth or perhaps wander off across the open countryside. God envelopes all.
Refresh. Take some time and enter the world of belovedness. Let your imagination explore the dimensions of such unmerited favor. See yourself being baptized alongside Jesus and hear the Father’s words spill over you, that you, too, are beloved and that in you, too, God is well pleased. Delighted. Dancing in exuberant, unquenchable celebration. Sheer joy.
Let down your guard. Let go of your resistance, that part of you that wants to stop short and say, “But, but, I haven’t . . . And I’m not . . . And I can’t . . .” Allow yourself to be caught up in the bear hug of the Prodigal Dad. Both Henry Nouwen in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son and more recently, Tim Keller in his book The Prodigal God point to the definition of prodigal as not meaning lost or morally corrupt; the root of the word is lavish and extravagant. That is the Father’s heart toward you. Own it.
Reflect. What is the message of your past or current season? Mentally scan over the recent weeks and months to connect the dots of revelation and understanding. The experiences you have perceived as either successes or failures—what are they speaking to you? What are you supposed to learn from them? Write it down.
Of the three emotional programs for happiness—the need for control, the need for approval, and the need for security—which one do you gravitate toward most often? How do all three typically show up for you? What tends to activate your sense of scarcity around those needs, and what do your “programs” look like? Journal your answers and talk to God about them. Write down God’s perspective and how it differs from yours.
Now reflect on the abundance of God’s provision for all three of those needs in your life—how God is powerful on your behalf, affectionate and approving without constraint, and committed to taking good care of you even in the midst of painful situations. Engage God in conversation and journaling on this topic too.
Refocus. Consider the invitation to surrender yourself in obedience to God’s trustworthy purposes. Name your desires for God and God’s desires for you in this next season. What is God calling you to either emphasize or deemphasize in this coming time period? Who or what needs more of your attention, less of your attention? Write it down.
Here’s a big question I have borrowed from Graham Cooke: Who does God want to be for you in this next season of life and leadership?[i] Hmm.
In this phase of your retreat, it’s time to move toward the actions that will reflect your obedience to God. Make a list of the important tasks. Add and delete items on your calendar to better align with these new invitations. Now rest in the assurance that what God instigates, God empowers. You don’t have to get the formula just right; you simply have to pay attention, show up, and engage the divine partnership. It won’t all be perfect and pretty, but the journey will be good—definitely good.
Practice 3: Sabbatical
Sabbaticals are a natural extension of the Sabbath and were part of the communal experience of Israel. Every seven years (and every fifty years) the Jews were called to step away from their normal responsibilities for an extended time of rest and renewal (Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:8-12). These extended Sabbaths were an even louder declaration of God’s sufficiency and care to meet all their practical needs.
The essence of retreats and sabbaticals is solitude. Sabbaticals may not be entirely, or even mostly, alone, but the deepest work—in my experience—occurs in solitude. This is a practice embraced by virtually every monastic tradition, and I won’t lie: Solitude is challenging. It tends to bring us face-to-face with our demons, the nagging questions and unresolved matters of soul that we can so effectively mask in the hustle and bustle of daily activity.
Barry and Doherty, as they chart the origins of the Jesuit monastic order, describe it this way:
These Exercises put the [monastic] novice into the crucible of solitude where he is forced to face his alleged trust in God. He will confront his own self-will and sinfulness, his own fears and anxieties, his own weaknesses and strengths during days when he has few, if any, outlets that will divert him from this self-confrontation before God. . . . During these Exercises it is expected that the novice will experience various movements of the heart that will agitate him and challenge him. He must learn to discern which of these movements are from God . . . and to put his trust in his discernment.[ii]
Although this makes solitude sound daunting, these challenges occur within a safe environment: the unshakable love of God for you. In God’s characteristic wisdom and patience, we are led precisely to what we are ready to see. We are inevitably led to places where God wants to liberate us from the false self and usher us into fresh freedom. I have personally come to find solitude the place where I feel most alive, most connected, most whole.
A sabbatical can be any meaningful length of time, but I recommend taking between three weeks and three months (sometimes longer) every seven years as a healthy rhythm of renewal. Before you scoff and discard such a suggestion as impractical or impossible, I would ask you to first honestly assess: Would you if you could? If your soul answers with a strong, authentic yes, then I guarantee you that a way can be found. Remember, we’re not talking about a vacation per se; we’re talking about a deeper kind of renewal. It will likely have elements of a vacation to it, but much more is going on here.
It’s difficult to address all the logistics of sabbatical taking in this space, but fortunately, I have an extensive guide for this on my website. In fact, all the practices in this book are available for free download on my site at www.Thrive9Solutions.com.
Bonus Practice: Sleep
The medical community has begun to document the fact that sleep deprivation is now a national epidemic. While every physical body is wired a little differently, the target of at least eight hours of sleep a night is still the benchmark for optimal performance. Yet the national average has dropped from 7.9 hours to 6.8 hours over the last 70 years.[iii]
The point I’d like to make is that sleep is not merely a physical requirement; it has a strong spiritual dimension. Aside from legitimate medical or aging challenges that some face, much of our physical mismanagement flows out of our emotional and spiritual mismanagement—the very dynamics this book was written to augment. If this rings true for you, I urge you to reevaluate your prioritization of sleeping. There are also spiritual dimensions to both nutrition and exercise, but those lie outside the scope of this book. I leave it for you to explore them on your own.
You’ve been reading from the intro of Gravitas: The Monastic Rhythms of Healthy Leadership. Continue reading chapter one for free right here. Jerome Daley is an executive coach with specialties in culture-crafting, communication and conflict, self-leadership, and team development. Get his books, schedule a retreat or learn more about him at thrive9solutions.com.
[i] Graham Cooke, The Nature of God: Upgrading Your Image of God and Who He Wants to Be for You (Tonbridge: Sovereign World Limited, 2003), 22.
[ii] William A. Barry and Robert G. Doherty, Contemplatives in Action: The Jesuit Way (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002), 20–21.
[iii] Jeffrey M. Jones, “In U.S., 40% Get Less Than Recommended Amount of Sleep,” Gallup, December 19, 2013, http://news.gallup.com/poll/166553/less-recommended-amount-sleep.aspx.