Administration in the Wilderness: Academic and spiritual leadership

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the role of spirituality in professional life, and especially in the life of an administrator.  Because I work at a faith-based institution, it might seem natural to assume that we talk a lot about the spiritual aspects of what it means to be an organizational leader, a department chair or dean, or that we are regularly conducting conversations about the role faith plays in how we organize our lives together.  In fact, like any other organization or institution of higher education it is extremely easy to be caught up in the grinding day to day, to be focused on how I’m going to get the next e-mail (or 100 e-mails, no lie) answered, or fret about how late I am to the next meeting or whether I have too many priorities for my school or too few and whether they are the right ones and whether I have any budget to have any priorities at all.

While we expect our faculty to be able to understand and articulate a cognitive relationship between faith and their disciplines, and while we have learning objectives for students that are related to character and Christian life, and while I think our educational program does a pretty good job or reaching these expectations, we don’t often pause to think about what role spirituality might have in the mundane business of meeting or cutting budgets, organizing and running meetings, setting policy, formulating workloads, and the like.  In the busy context of the day to day its very easy to imagine that spirituality is something I need, but it’s something that I get mostly after work, gassing up, so to speak, in the morning or the evening for the long road ahead where there aren’t many gas stations on the horizon.

I’ve come to doubt this. And I’m a bit bemused that I’ve come to doubt this even more seriously since my experience at the Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Education, Harvard having some time since lost its reputation as a bastion of the faith or faiths.

But as I discussed in my last post, I was surprised at how much of the MLE experience focused on how leaders needed to practice forms of self-care and seek to be more fully human and humane in what can easily become an inhumane job.  Beyond this,  some of that attention was on what could only be called spiritual care, spiritual care of the self to be sure, but also the spiritual care of others.  Lee Bolman, in his concluding sentences of what I found to be three outstanding two hour sessions, declared that “administrative work is God’s work.”  My caps :-).  This could only mean, to my ears, that administrative work necessarily entailed spiritual attention and spiritual work and that, whether they wanted to be or not, administrative leaders are spiritual leaders and ought to recognize and embrace and take that role seriously in thinking out who they want to be and how they imagine the work of their department, school, or institution.

I think this must have meant many different things to every person in the room at the MLE. For it to have any useful meaning to the diversity of religious and spiritual experience represented in the room and in higher education generally, Bolman’s understanding of spirituality was capacious enough to cover about everything from those of use who were Christians in a traditional sense of embracing the Apostle’s Creed to a more generic and Tillichian sense of having an Ultimate Concern that centers one’s being and sense of self in the world, however secular or divine that Ultimate Concern might be.

Regardless,  it focused me in a new way that I had and have some kind of spiritual responsibility for the health of my institution and the people in it, and that I needed to be sure my own spiritual house was in some state of repair.  Moreover, it meant to me that I have to figure out ways that spirituality is something that imbues what I do as an administrator and how I understand the issues that I and others in my school or facing, and to encourage a spiritual sense in our life together, rather than assuming we should mostly draw our spiritual life from elsewhere and deplete it during the days (and too many nights) of administrative and educational labor.

I’m still, to be frank, not exactly sure what this looks like.  One small step I’ve taken is that I’ve renewed my practice of the Daily Office for Individuals and Families found in the Book of Common Prayer, my home tradition now being among that ragtag group, the Episcopalians.  The Daily Office happens throughout the day and requires only a few minutes of prayer, meditation, and reading, leaving me almost guilt-free about the time I am taking away from the latest policy memo or the letter of evaluation I should be writing.

It’s a small thing, but the pause that it entails refocused my mind and heart, and reminds me simultaneously that email is a small thing, but that even the small things we do need to be of God.  A Buddhist colleague at another institution once told me that Buddhists believed attentive states of awareness could and should be achieved in the most mundane of settings, even in the produce aisle of the grocery store.  If that’s true, it may be possible, strange as it seems to say it, to experience and live out one’s sense of spiritual vitality in the midst of a department meeting or in the reading of a policy memo.

I am not sure, right now, where else to go with this.  To be sure, I think this kind of spiritual attentiveness is not something an administrator could mandate in others, however much it could be encouraged.  That, in itself, could become destructive and oppressive.  However, I’m increasingly convinced that in the crises that are facing higher education, and that so many of us are feeling in our workaday lives, that we actually need more of this kind of thing and not less.

Along these lines, I concluded our school meeting with a meditation on Psalm 81, the evening Psalm in today’s lectionary, a privilege afforded me in my location at a faith-based institution:

Sing aloud to God our strength
shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song, sound the tambourine,
the sweet lyre with the harp.
Blow the trumpet at the new moon,
at the full moon, on our festal day.
For it is a statute for Israel,
an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
He made it a decree in Joseph,
when he went out over the land of Egypt.

I found this passage unusually helpful today.  The people of Israel in this poem of are told to worship, not because they felt good, not because their budgets were flush, and not because they had everything that they wanted.  Indeed, quite the opposite, they are told to worship as they leave the land of Egypt….and set out in to the wilderness for forty years as the story goes, subsisting on manna, beset by enemies, and lost to uncertainty, until most of them had died in the desert.  (I also especially like this passage because although my reading of the daily office has waxed and waned over the years, and more often waned than waxed, my spiritual life has been sustained by singing and my very deep conviction with St. Francis that he who sings prays twice.)  Although the commandment to worship in the midst of difficulty seems perverse, it rings true to my sense that in the midst of difficulty, we are sustained and healed when we understand those difficulties in relation to and connection with a reality larger than ourselves.  In pausing to remember that there is no thing beyond the care of the Creator, we are sustained in the effort to care for one another.

As I say, I think we may need more of this in higher education and not less, whatever the framework of our own spirituality may be. Along with our depleted budgets, we need to be wary of our depleted spirits, since the greatest policies and the most well-conceived programs will only live as fully as the people who live in to them.

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