Abbey Focus Workshop #1: Leading with an Inner Life

A Kaleo Abbey workshop


This is a recap of the workshop I led on Monday night for Kaleo. I wanted to practice simplifying the idea more, and thought perhaps some of you might enjoy having a “peek” into the still-forming Abbey track, or into Kaleo, or into a more clarified version of what those of you who were there heard on Monday night :D.


Contemplative Leadership


If I had to say what “the Abbey” + discipleship looks like, I’d call it “contemplative leadership.” The word contemplative connotes old-man-stroking-chin-image at first for me, but I’m using it in relation to its latin definition, which is “the act of looking at.” It’s a seeing-kind-of-knowing more than a thinking-(stroking chin)-kind -of-knowing. And our “seeing” of anything is predicated on God’s prior (and truer) “gaze” on us (“This is love: not that we loved God but that He loved us…” - 1 John 4:10). Here are 3 implications of contemplative leadership:

  1. Contemplative leadership is a way of living and leading where there is a commitment to regularly being “seen” by God, or remembering and making space for our own selves to be known, loved, forgiven, remade, and resourced by God along the way (and there are as many ways to do that as their are personalities!).

  2. Contemplative leadership is also about being disciplined in contemplative practices, with Nouwen’s definition of discipline as “the effort to create some space in which God can act,” and as “preventing everything from being filled up.”  In other words, contemplative leadership keeps checking in with God, keeps making space for God to intervene, surprise, reveal, reroute, and refill, via some regular (and keepable, customizable, life-stage-modifiable) spiritual disciplines.

  3. Contemplative leadership also prioritizes sustainability, then, and relies on regular reflection. Rather than always operating in “the urgent,” or moving on from one thing to the next, the contemplative orientation asks: is this working for me? Is this working for those closest to me? Is leading like this sustainable? Are my means reflective of the “end” goals? Am I modeling the kind of faith and discipleship I “preach?”


3 Directions and 3 Practices:


Being present as a leader involves looking in three directions:

inward (at the self),

outward (at others), and

upward (at God).


Although the Holy Spirit enables and courses through each, and although we often are looking in all directions simultaneously to a certain degree, there are practices that can help us make sure we are taking the Great Commandment seriously,  loving God (upward), and loving our neighbor (outward) as ourselves (inward). Three of the oldest spiritual disciplines that support a life of faith can be remembered by the (road safety) adage:

Stop: contemplative pausing via solitude and silence

Look: contemplative awareness via regular inventory (i.e. prayer of examen)

Listen: contemplative hearing via lectio divina (spiritual, personal engagement with Scripture)


Stop, Look, and Listen.* Reminds me of elementary school, but also of Jesus: “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” “for those who have ears to hear,” and “I came so that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” Stop, Look, and Listen also reminds me of Paul’s refrain to stay “awake,” unlike those who sleep, and to remain “alert.”

*my friend Wil Hernandez came up with this


Solitude, Silence and STOPping as a leader:

  1. Solitude:

In order to be able to minister to and love others well, we have to allow our real self and our real life to be ministered to and loved well by God. Solitude isn’t just for introverts and isn’t just about being away from people - it’s about intentionally being alone with God. Henri Nouwen describes prayer as an act of solitude and listening: “To pray is to listen to the One who calls you, ‘My beloved son,’ ‘My beloved daughter.’ To pray is to let that voice speak to the center of your being, to your guts and let that voice resound in your whole being.”

Some of us spend a lot of our days (or days “off”) alone. Much of that time could be “solitude with God,” but it isn’t necessarily, if we don’t have eyes to see it or use it like that. Solitude with God is about intentionally “withdrawing” from the “crowds” (others) and the noise all around us, in order to hear again God’s pronouncement over us and provision for us in our real lives. Solitude with God can be as little as a contemplative walk, or worship in the car, or a few minutes of prayer at the foot of the bed, and as big as a personal retreat.

       2. Silence

One way of cultivating that deep, grounding, resounding identity in God is through the practice of prayer that is more silent than it is talkative, that is more about listening and returning and being-with than it is about formulating, expressing, or supplicating. Centering prayer and Contemplative prayer are two names for praying in silence. Of course we can’t achieve perfect “inner” silence, but the heart of praying in silence is a presenting of our whole selves - our physical bodies and souls and unknown inner recesses, not just our minds or our talking - to God, and to trust that being in God’s presence brings healing and transformation, often in hidden ways that we don’t necessarily feel or understand.

When praying in silence, our minds will start veering away from God’s loving presence, and when they do, we can use a simple word (“Jesus”) or verse (“In repentance and rest is your salvation” or “Be still and know that I am God”) to release whatever we got to thinking about and return our attention back to God’s love, reality, and presence. Over time we might notice that our “surrender” muscles have grown - that we’re able to let go of some of our deeply held resistances (to being alone, to not talking, to not being “productive,” to not being in control, for some examples :D). Gradually, praying via “silence” (although again, it’s rarely ever truly silent) can help God’s truth sink down from our heads into our hearts, unlocking places of pain and longing in us that we don’t necessarily have words for or didn’t even know was there.

       3. STOPping:

Of the Stop, Look, and Listen model, “stopping” as a leader means remembering that at any point, on any day, we can pause and check-in:

“Oh right: GOD! You exist. Sorry I forgot about you all day so far,”

“Whoa, what’s going on? Why am I freaking out right now?” or

“Hey God, it’s me, Vanessa. I don’t know what to say to this person right now. Help?”

It also means we can plan to pause every so often (nightly, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or yearly) and check-in: where was God today/this month/this year? What is God inviting me into? What am I avoiding? Where am I in terms of what I was aiming for? Is my way of doing things working?

In other words, STOPping can be as little (and as creative) as:

  • Pressing “pause”: Taking a beat in your day and mind-cycle when you notice you’re anxious, distracted, obsessing or on autopilot - taking a couple deep breaths; remembering the Lord, and asking what to do

  • “Crossing” yourself when you get up in the morning as a “pre-verbal” sort of prayer, remembering your forgiveness for the past, and God’s promised grace for whatever the day holds (*taken from Martin Marty’s practice in Liturgy of the Ordinary)

  • Using doors as “cues” - taking a breath, looking “up,” murmuring a breath prayer when you walk through a door into a place (home, friend’s house, work, school, church, restaurant, etc.)

  • Pausing mid-meeting to check in with yourself: where are you at? What are you hearing? What are you feeling?

  • On the drive “home” (after anything) - What do You want me to hear? Retain? Act on?

  • Lighting a candle during dinner, a bath, a hang out, a meeting - anytime you want to remember God’s presence

  • Meeting with a spiritual director (this has changed my life!)

  • Keep a weekly Sabbath

  • Going on “artist dates” (i.e. solo, creative dates with God, doing things that are life-giving to you in particular)

  • Working on a Rule for Life

  • Writing down your nighttime dreams and bringing the questions from them into prayer

  • Being intentional about getting enough sleep and having a bedtime routine that frames going to sleep as part gratitude (for the day past), part surrender (as a creature to our Creator) and part trust (for GOd’s provision tomorrow)

  • Making space to exercise

  • Doing a daily Examen (next month’s LOOK practice)

  • Using our “vacation days” and holidays re-creatively

STOPping can also be as “big” as:

  • 20 minutes of silent prayer a day

  • Weekly sabbath keeping

  • Monthly day retreat

  • Yearly (longer) retreat


In summary, contemplative leadership is a way of leading from the heart - with intentionality, healthy (and growing) self-awareness, spaciousness (“preventing everything from being filled up”) and an eye toward sustainability (is this working, what I want, what God wants?). Contemplative leadership necessitates looking in three directions: inward (at one’s one self, story, life), outward (at others), and upward (at God). Three practices that ground these “directions” can be summed up with the phrase Stop, Look and Listen, referring to the practices of silence, daily examen, and lectio divina.

When it comes to the “inward” direction - paying attention to the self - the discipline of solitude (being alone with God on purpose) and silence (presenting and surrendering ourselves to God’s loving presence) are helpful in developing a healthy identity in Christ and experiencing ongoing healing and transformation. Finding ways to “STOP” in our days, weeks, and years not only reminds us of creatureliness - our dependence on God - but also of the ever-present invitation to join God in His renewal of all things.