Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Allow Her to Roam Untamed

Written by: on November 4, 2020

There is a fine line between “strategic” and “controlling.”

Years ago, in my days of leading a church in the San Francisco Bay Area, we found ourselves in the process of strategic planning. We sensed that a new season was dawning for our faith community so we invited groups of community members to join our staff and elders in a series listening sessions.  Rather than vision-casting nights with the goal of our leadership seeking the buy-in of the congregation, this series of twelve conversations was oriented around surfacing what the Spirit was saying to the community from within the community.

Full disclosure: I quietly entered the first listening session with some hunches about our future. These hunches leaned in the direction of convictions. While I loved the idea of multiple evenings of listening and shared discernment, I was prepared to cherry pick ideas in support of my hunches in order to validate and give shape to the strategy that would move us forward.

In the opening moments of the first session, everything changed for me.

As was always the case, we convened in a living room of our one of our community members. We began with a centering experience that was designed to bring each of us fully into the room. To do so, one of our pastors invited us to ask the Spirit to draw our attention to something in the room that caught our eye. Having located that object (a lamp, a piece of furniture, a toy, a painting, etc.) she invited us to wonder with the Spirit about what She may be saying to us through that artifact. After five minutes of quiet reflection, our pastor opened the space and invited the community to share what they observed, what they heard, and if there was a word for us and for our process that evening.

As was his custom, one of the artisans in the community waited until the end of the sharing session to offer his perspective. When acknowledged, he walked over to a painting that imaged a countryside landscape. What stood out to him was the decision of the artist to depict the river as channeled rather than flowing naturally.

“The decision by the artist to channel the river,” he observed, “seems to have made all of the other landscape decisions within the painting.” The channel, while well-intentioned and well executed, was a decision made in a moment in time that set the flow and the destination of the river and made it so that the rest of the landscape would remain static. He concluded with this: “What if we made the decision not to channel the flow of the Spirit, choosing instead to allow Her to roam untamed among us?”

His caution was that in our desire to be strategic, we would acknowledge the difference between strategy that must always be  nimble and Spirit informed and control which often relies on what the Spirit “said” to us in one moment of our shared life together.

His word set the tone for our process then and the method by which the church continues to listen well and live what they hear. In hindsight, that was a DNA-planting moment for a community of people that set us on a long journey of “following the current” and “tapping in to the energy inherent” and available to us in the form of the Spirit’s whisper. (Renner & D’Souza, Not Doing, Kindle location 2129).

About the Author

Jer Swigart

9 responses to “Allow Her to Roam Untamed”

  1. Darcy Hansen says:

    This is beautiful. I love how you all took time to listen for Spirit’s lead. Was silent listening a common practice for that community or was it new? While I agree what transpired was culture changing for the community, what might have been missed by not staying in that listening posture for a longer period of time? It’s satisfying when we get a revelation quickly, but were you all fully prepared to wait if nothing emerged immediately? I feel like that’s when life gets really challenging, and often, in ministry, it’s the time when those hunches turn into full fledged plans to be executed.

    Also- I really appreciate how you image Spirit as feminine. Many male ministery leaders image Spirit as masculine. Have you always imaged Spirit as feminine? If not, how was your perspective changed?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      What happened in those opening moments was, in fact, a culture-shaping moment, but it wasn’t t the end of the process of listening for us. In hindsight, I would say that it set the tone for how we listened together over the subsequent 12 listenings sessions. The immediate repetition of that key learning reinforced it as a practice for the community that I observe remaining in place to this day.

      That said, I resonate deeply with the caution of “hearing” something and then prematurely “discerning” that a particular direction is “God’s best” for a person or a community. It has not been my experience that the Spirit suddenly shows up just because and when we need her to offer direction. It’s likely that, in those moments, what I’m hearing is actually my preference.

      Vetting what we hear in community seems to be an approach that helps us determine the nexts steps that we take.

  2. Greg Reich says:

    Waiting for many is hard to do. I seems we tend to lean toward taking action and forging forward. When those times come how do you resist the desire to take action and patiently wait for the Holy Spirit to move?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      For me, it entails paying careful attention to my sense of urgency as well as my personal preferences. Its humbling to look back and recognize how both my urgency and personal preferences shape what I “hear” the Spirit saying to me.

      Committing to a listening process in community with others seems to both hold my urgency at bay and check the priority that I’m placing on personal preference.

  3. John McLarty says:

    I can’t even count the number of times I’ve entered a strategy meeting having already decided what needed to happen. After all, I get paid to think about this kind of stuff all day long! Your post reminded me of similar moments where the prophetic voice of the Spirit was raised loud and clear. And while I knew we were right to listen, I also couldn’t help but utter an internal, “damn it” as I acknowledged we’d be going in a different direction. Going along with one of your other posts, where is the current taking you now?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      If I had a dollar for every one of those “damn it” moments…

      The current is taking us in a direction we never could have anticipated pre-pandemic. We’ve discontinued the most central program of our mission in order to help teams of leaders bring immersive experiences to life all around the country. Just two weeks ago I was in San Antonio where I team I had been consulting with officially launched their local immersion that is seeking to bridge the divide between the white, fluent North-Side and the black, impoverished East-Side. It was remarkable to watch a small group of city leaders be trained for the hard work of Everyday Peacemaking…and I didn’t even say a word the whole day.

  4. John McLarty says:

    By the way, I explored the link to the faith community you planted. I was moved by the designation given to you and another as “sent” pastors. We had a ritual in a church I once served to “commission” those who were moving away, specifically inviting them to extend the work of our church into their next church family. I regret that we weren’t as intentional about staff or pastors. It certainly helps to reinforce the idea that “church” is bigger than any one faith community. Anyway, just thought I’d add that.

  5. Chris Pollock says:

    Allowing her to roam untamed…energy inherent…listening.

    How it is possible to even try to channel the Spirit of God?

    Allowing her to roam untamed, kinda denotes that it’s possible to restrict this from happening? Can we ‘not’ allow her to roam untamed?

    The Spirit of God is. Everywhere (regardless). Rumi has some neat things to say about the ‘isness’ of Spirit (Her/Him).

  6. Shawn Cramer says:

    Ah, the dance of strategy and listening. No short answers exist.

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