Contemplative Practices for Innovators
By: Ann Steigerwald
Ann Steigerwald is a consultant and spiritual director based in Portland, Oregon. She frequently works with The Episcopal Church, helping design and facilitate leadership discernment retreats for church planters and redevelopers.
I’ve spent most of my career with innovators in the church—first as part of a church-planting team myself, later serving in leadership for a church-planting mission, and in the past decade designing and facilitating discernment retreats for missional leaders of all stripes: church planters, missioners, and redevelopers. I find innovators to be passionate people, creative, committed, active, and very hardworking.
The last couple of years I’ve also been spending time in contemplative spaces and communities as I trained to become a spiritual director. I’ve learned to appreciate what it means to slow down, to embrace silence and to enjoy the disciplines of reflection and meditation. It’s also been a bit of culture shock from the high-action community of innovators. I’m learning that contemplation and action are two sides of the same coin*, each fueling the other. There is an alchemy from mixing the practices of contemplation and innovation.
We know that all of us in vocational ministry can benefit from dedicated times away, solitude and quiet, and from reflective dialogue in the relationship of spiritual direction.
If you can get away.
These days, I’m curious about how innovators can integrate simple contemplative practices in their everyday life, amid the work. I’d like to offer you three practices that may be a place to start:
- Learn to saunter. Most of you in starting or deepening your work in mission have been invited to a neighborhood listening exercise. In our discernment retreats we use a couple of hours to explore a place. Armed with some starting questions, we walk in a neighborhood, using our curiosity to see what is there, exploring the hospitality of its spaces, and striking up conversations with anyone we meet. People generally start off on this walk with some nervousness, checking and rechecking the instructions. Soon, though, papers are put aside, eyes are lifted, and the pace slows. What I enjoy most is hearing the stories upon return—surprising discoveries made, the kindness of people encountered, or new appreciation about this place. We always encourage participants to try this in their own context—as a missional practice—and I hope you do. I’d like to suggest, though, that you also see these walks as a time for your own nurture. Develop a mutual relationship with your space—you are looking for ways to attend to its needs; let it also attend to yours. Slow your pace, walk without agenda, resist the urge to put on your headphones, and just saunter. Where does your eye fall? What new thing comes to your attention? Look for the beauty of a flower in the sidewalk, a well-tended garden, the smell of the coffee as you pass a shop, the smile of a neighbor. Invite God’s presence to join you and see where it leads.
- Remember your body. It’s my observation that innovators spend a lot of time in their heads. Dreaming, planning, strategizing, and problem-solving are all essential parts of this work. Sometimes, however, our bodies need our attention. I’m not talking about eating healthy food and doing exercise (although I hope you do). I’m talking about simply attending. What does your body need, and what does it have to say? A minister I know shared with me his practice of receiving a blessing from the shower each day. As that warm water fell on his body, he thought about the grace of his baptism; as he scrubbed legs and arms he paid attention to his physical self, noticing his fingers, his toes. Paying attention to any areas of tension, pain, discomfort, and also giving thanks for the marvel of healthy systems, working without conscious thought. For myself, I’m learning to take a simple pause every time I sit down to begin something—closing my eyes, noticing my throat, my breath, my stomach, my shoulders—what’s there? And then without judgment or shame, acknowledging my body serving me this day. It takes me less than a minute but repeated over a day keeps me grounded and aware.
- Nurture your creativity. The call of innovators is founded on the possibility of something new, that together with others you will bring into being. Sometimes, though, the urgencies of everyday ministry and life crowd out the practice of creating. How do you attend to your creative side? What stirs your vision? Creativity might show up in your hobbies, doing a craft, drafting a poem, or dreaming up a story for your children. It might be going to an art class or joining an improv group. Whatever it is, consider inviting the Creator, who has not yet stopped forming this universe, to join with you. To delight along with you in the work of making all things new.
Contemplation for me is just as much a posture as an activity. What about you? How do you weave these reflective pieces into your everyday life?
*Richard Rohr and Howard Thurman both write extensively on this topic.