The Common Good
August-September 1991

Strength From the Inside Out

by Carey Burkett | August-September 1991

This article is adapted from an interview with N. Gordon Cosby in Washington in mid-June 1991. Sojourners' Carey Burkett began by asking Gordon Cosby what we have to be thankful for, as we look back over the past 20 years. -- The Editors

As a movement, as people of faith, we can be thankful we have survived the past 20 years. Survivability is very difficult when we try to take an alternative position and try to be alternative communities in the midst of the sort of atmosphere and climate we've lived in. But we have developed a capacity to hang in there, and not only survive but grow.

There are a lot of us on the same page. We've got a common language. That to me is a very important thing. We have good people, who are seeing these issues of justice, peace, concern for the poor, work with the inward life, and the importance of prayer.

What Sojourners contributes to this network is a national and international voice that deals with the same issues local groups are. For those people to have access to the thinkers and the commitment and spirit Sojourners brings provides support that is very important for all of us working with these concerns. To have someone out there saying "Amen" is probably more important than most people know.

One of the great weaknesses of our movement, however, is that while we've talked a lot about the inward journey, I doubt any one of us has actually worked with the inner life in the depth that is crucial. Many of the groups working with justice and peace issues have not developed structures that really take people into their depths. So we have an idea, a concern, an aspiration, but it remains an idea because there are too many inner blockages.

Parker J. Palmer has addressed this issue in a very straightforward way:

The question is, why would anybody want to take such a difficult and dangerous journey? Everything in us cries out against it. That's why we externalize everything: It's easier to deal with the external world. It's easier to spend your life manipulating an institution than it is dealing with your own soul. We make institutions sound complicated and hard and rigorous, but they are a piece of cake compared with our inner workings!

... It would be wonderful if the phrase "inner work" could become a central term in our schools and in our churches, if we could help people understand that the phrase really means something ... A second thing we can do is to remind each other that while inner work is a deeply personal matter, it's not necessarily a private matter. There are ways to be together in community to help each other with that inner work ... in a way that is supportive but not invasive, that asks a lot of questions but never renders judgment or gives advice ... in a way that respects the mystery of the human heart, but that still allows people to challenge and stretch one another in that work.

I think each of our local groups needs to be working with whatever would be the appropriate structure for that particular community, that particular local situation. For instance "compassion groups" could provide opportunities for people to explore their own blockages to compassion and love. People in "discernment groups" could talk about their own calls. "Mission groups" could aid their outer work with times of gathering for prayer.

We as a movement should place a serious emphasis on the inner work that needs to be done. And it isn't something that is going to happen around the edges. I think the lack of inner work is impeding us more than any other thing.

Another serious impediment to the movement, in my view, is related to this inner work: the shadow side of power and leadership. I think many of our leaders have power needs that they are unconscious of, and it comes to be an addiction that they are not able to handle.

It seems to me that the issue of power for all the Christian organizations is very crucial. We have a difficult time committing ourselves to the power of love, the power of the lamb, as opposed to the dominant, controlling power we see in most of our lives -- in business and politics. It is just natural that many Christians are using this kind of power for the sake of the poor and for the sake of peace.

But it's not the power that's going to advance those causes and those issues in the world, because we are using the same sort of power that is talked about in the temptation accounts in the Bible, the same sort of power that is ultimately rejected at Gethsemane for the life of the cross. I think we've created a lot of very large, strong organizations that are not necessarily injecting the power of the cross into the ongoing common life of the society.

To quote Parker Palmer again:

What does all of this have to do with leadership and with the relation of leadership to spirituality? I'll give you a quick definition of a leader: A leader is a person who has an unusual degree of power to project on other people his or her shadow, or his or her light. A leader is a person who has an unusual degree of power to create the conditions under which other people must live and move and have their being -- conditions that can either be as illuminating as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what's going on inside him or her self, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.

If I have unexplored needs in my own heart that I have not looked at -- my own darkness, my own shadow, my own needs for power -- then I will project those onto others. So I'm giving leadership in a Christian institution, but it's not going to be any more healing, any more humanizing, or make any more difference in society, because the people I work with are not growing in that capacity for themselves. To project the light of the gospel and to be the instruments of that light takes mental inspiration. Not to have done that inner work means the leader is able to do more harm than good, and do it unconsciously.

And I might add that this is something we should all keep in mind. Today's leaders emerged as leaders somewhere along the line. People who are in the ranks now will be emerging as leaders later. So this applies across the board. A leader who is doing his or her job will be helping everybody in the organization to work with their own inner issues. The only way a person can become an effective servant leader is to begin the work now in taking this inward journey.

One advantage to doing this inner work (and indeed the work of the movement) in a group or community setting is that it helps keep us balanced and focused. If we're doing the right work for us, and we're doing it with the support of a community that cares about us and loves us, then the work in itself is renewing. It is not exhausting work. If we're getting burned out, either the work is not right, or the balance is not right, or we don't have the support system. Community helps keep these things in their appropriate balance.

Then as we need to evolve into new phases of ministry that are right for our spirit, rather than just doing what we have been doing for years, we are helped to discover that new blood of our new call, which is going to be energizing. We can let the work that is no longer energizing go, and pick up the new work.

MY VISION FOR THE coming 20 years? I don't have one. My assumptions about future vision are that we corporately design our call, which will be determined by events in the world, as well as by the deepening inner life of each of our communities. And the future will be determined by the people God will bring into the community who are not in it now. So that call will evolve.

I am very wary of a community that sets about to design a five-year plan, or a 10-year plan, or a 20-year plan. I think for a community, an organization, or an institution to do solid thinking about what might emerge in its missions is fine. We're not supposed to be sloppy in our thinking, but I would hold very loosely to the thinking and depend much more on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the moment.

I think God has a lot of exciting things for us to do in the next 20 years. But I think we're going to discover them by being on this inward journey, by being in community, and by being rooted deeply in prayer.

Gordon Cosby was a Sojourners contributing editor and the founder and pastor of Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., when this article appeared. Carey Burkett was assistant to the editor and food columnist for Sojourners.

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