leadership from the grounded pause By Beth Hayward
Creativity and beauty are born when we lead from a place of grounded pause.
We need less strategy and more intuition. We need less push and more swing.
In the place where I began, or more accurately the place where the possibility of me began, in the place where my parents met, there’s a swing. It’s quite possibly my favorite swing, though I’ve never met a swing I didn’t like. This particular swing is located on the property of a rural, residential retreat center. I had the privilege of swinging there both as a child and young adult. The view from the top of the swing’s arch—rolling hills, derelict train tracks, and marshy waters—connects me to my dreams. The ruddy wooden seat grounds me in my roots.
I love to swing. I love the soothing rhythm of back and forth, up and down; the exhilarating breeze as it washes over your face, and that unsettling feeling as your tummy suddenly drops. It’s a beautiful coming together of science and faith. The simple design coupled with the right coordination of muscles and mind brings you higher and higher. And though science may well explain how it is that you reach the top only to come back down again; I think the dissent is all about faith. Is this the time the swing will buckle and fail me? How is it that it feels like I’m one with the sky by just tilting my head back? Could I really fly?
There’s a moment in swinging that is at once exhilarating and utterly filled with angst: that moment when you reach your full height either backward or forward and you are about to come back down. It’s the pause between the pump and release. In that instant it’s as if you are neither here nor there, not heading back or moving forward. Suspended as if beyond time, it’s the briefest of moments, but the most important. It’s the pause between inhale and exhale. It’s like that elusive moment in meditation when you aren’t telling your thoughts to take a hike.
Good leaders, effective leaders are the ones who can attune others to that time-between-time, to that place of pause from which clarity arises.
We live in a time when people are less likely to trust institutions and their leaders. Have you ever noticed how everyone is an expert these days? Part of my work is to officiate at funerals. It’s a learned art to create a ceremony that is individually appropriate and sensitive. There’s way more to consider than most people might know. As I sit down to plan the service of a loved one with the family, more and more, I find that they are sure they know how to plan the service better than me with my twenty years of experience. I have at least two choices in those moments: I can set them straight, let them know who’s boss. I can go deep with my ego by insisting that I am the expert or I can pause. I can lean in closer, metaphorically speaking. I can choose curiosity over defensiveness. I can in that suspended, beyond-time moment, make room for more creativity to emerge. I still bring my leadership, my expertise but from a posture of calm and curiosity; from the swing’s timeless moment. My brain often tells me to stand my ground and insist on the victory of my rightness. It’s an open posture, however, that allows for so much more beauty to emerge. That’s what it is to lead from the pause.
I’m more and more convinced that we need less strategy and more intuition. Less push and more swing. I’ve participated in the creation of enough strategic planning reports over the years to fell a few trees. Yet if you were you to ask me what the one-, three-, or five-year goal was for any one of those plans I’m afraid I’d come up short. Think about it, did Moses have a plan? No, his successes, when he had them, were because he stopped long enough to pay attention to burning bushes and holy ground. Jesus noticed those right in plain sight. He attended to the need before him, keeping in mind the bigger picture of what was coming to life. He was fully present to the moment, and those were the times when amazing stuff happened.
A number of years ago the church I serve did away with committees. Except for the one or two mandated by our governing body, we have no endless conversations that go in circles; no committees. It’s been absolutely liberating to no longer meet for meeting’s sake. It’s also had the unanticipated but much appreciated side effect of diminishing the entrenched power of special interest groups. It’s no longer about outreach in a tug of war with choir, it’s more about us now. We wanted to lift the burden from people of filling vacant spots on committees and liberate them to offer their time to the organization in ways that are life-giving for both them and the congregation.
Around the same time, we began offering a program called Living Your Spiritual Gifts. Participants engage in group and individual discernment leading to an articulating of three spiritual gifts that they possess and claim. From there they begin to match those gifts with opportunities available to serve in our community. We’ve learned over the years to build two important things into the process: first, there is always room for you to name a spiritual gift that has never made it onto our list before and, second, you can define a new opportunity in the church to match your gifts rather than slot yourself into an already existing ministry. These two things have provided the creative, mid-air swing energy that enables the program to grow and shift as needed.
These times we live in are marked with angst and uncertainty. Things are changing quickly and what we once knew for sure can no longer be counted on as solid ground. Changing times call for changing leaders. We need leaders who are authentically attuned to this moment, this place, and this time. Our job is not to scribe a well thought out plan in pen but rather to intuit our next best move and that of the people we serve. We do this best in our top-of-the-swing moments because that’s the place where anything is possible. This moment in time demands that we evolve in our leadership, beyond the quick fix to-do list, the consumerist tendencies, the just-give-me-the-goods pressure.
An open, relational way is more long-haul, not as glamourous, not prescribed. It will give you a kick in the shins (or worse) every single time you slip back into claiming you have all the answers from your wealth of experience, every time you start checking off the “best leader” boxes. Open and relational leadership is not bland or passive. It’s about holding that space between dreams and roots. It’s about noticing the pause, so that you can shift things ever so slightly, as needed, in the mid-air moment. It isn’t easy. There is no simple five-step way of making decisions, or a one-size-fits-all approach to take your organization to the next level. It’s more about intuition than instruction, more about swinging movement than structured assent. It’s about you as a leader radiating beauty all the while being open to how your contribution comes back to you.
It is the task of the leader to point to that place. To hop on the swing and call others to join in. To gently, persuasively even, draw the attention of others to the moment at the top of the swing, the moment of still possibility and endless creativity.
Beth Hayward is Lead Minister at Canadian Memorial United Church in Vancouver, Canada. A storyteller, pastor and preacher; she finds rest and renewal in knitting, belly dancing and beach walking. You can watch her preach what she practices here: www.canadianmemorial.org/sermons
* This essay reposted with permission from the author and the Center for Open and Relational Theology. It was originally published as "Pump, Pause, Release, and Repeat" in Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love (SacraSage Press, 2019). To purchase click here.