Monday, January 3, 2011

Living in the tension between presence and vision

I'm feeling a tension between two dynamics:

To be faithful and live with integrity, we need to honor both sides of this tension.

I'm currently working as the Interim Executive Director for City House. We connect folks in the mainstreams and the margins for spiritual friendship. As we're discerning ways to take the organization to its next level, we're affirming that the practice of being present and loving without trying to change people is central to our work. At the same time, I think we're being called to do our work in service of the broader goal of "building the spiritual muscle to end homelessness and poverty." That goal pushes us into risks and partnerships that I think we need.

How can we do both of these things--be present and open without an agenda, and also commit to bold goals that inspire results?


debbie rasmussen said...

Thank you for articulating a tension that I too frequently find myself pondering. I have no answers, but it's really helpful to see it expressed in this visual way!

David Fey said...

Perhaps if you are able to be present together, and to openly express your individual and collective sense of purpose, you will discover (or begin to imagine) a course of action that balances this tension, without directly addressing the tension itself? There's no right answer of course, but the one you come to collectively may "feel" right.

Michael Bischoff said...

Thank you, Debbie and David. Both of your comments remind me of an essay by Parker Palmer that a friend recently sent me. Here's an excerpt:

"So I have a choice. I can hold the tension between reality
and possibility in a life-giving way, standing in the gap and
witnessing with my own life to another way of living, slowly
and patiently calling myself and my part of the world toward
something better. But if I cannot abide that tension, I will
try to resolve it by collapsing into one pole or the other—the
same quick “resolve the tension” reflex that creates the fight-or-flight response."

barryclemson said...

You might want to look at the work of Stafford Beer. Stafford was a visionary genius / mystic / artist / management consultant / cybernetician who spent a lifetime looking at this and related issues. His Viable System Model (VSM) provides a framework and a diagnostic language for examining the question of organizational viability, including prominently the tension between the EXISTING & NOW and the FUTURE VISION. His group process methods (syntegrity) are designed to facilitate groups (ranging from small to gigantic) to grapple with these issues. Stafford's work is not easy to grasp, but is well worth the effort.
Peace and Love,

Michael Bischoff said...

Thanks for the tip, Barry, about the Viable System Model. I just read some about it. I see what you mean about it being both difficult to grasp, and also worth the effort. I look forward to digging into it more.

A related model that I have found useful is Human Systems Dynamics, which provides some pretty accessible ways of understandings systems and patterns, and how to influence them.

debbie rasmussen said...

Thank you for the Parker Palmer essay, Michael! It's beautifully-written and touches on so many things I've been thinking about -- the importance of letting our hearts break open even as we're conditioned by a culture that encourages us to avoid it... the power of empathy and compassionate communication... how I can often get stuck in both corrosive cynicism and irrelevant ideology...

What he writes about vulnerability and our culture's encouragement of distracting ourselves from it reminds me of a video I watched recently, also on the importance of vulnerability...

Grateful for all you're sharing about your work/life/learning!

Tom Jablonski said...


Sounds like some very interesting work. When I can remember to do it, I like the Serenity Prayer concept of finding the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. It doesn't necessarily make the tension go away, but it does make it somewhat easier to accept. And being able to stay in the tension, instead of acting to try to avoid it is something most of us have a hard time doing, but need to do more of.

I like your goal of "connecting folks in the mainstreams and the margins for spiritual friendship". It could just be that staying focused on that and holding onto tension might be the answer to the bigger problem, ending poverty and homelessness, which is a huge agenda.

It also seems like so many of the problems that plague our world today, the poverty and homelessness, are symptoms of a world view based on production and consumption, where a few people profit at the expense of many.

So how do we change the worldview of others? I like the John Woolman model, but it is a big source of tension, and something that takes a lifetime. Maybe something to shoot for in the next forty years.

Anyway, just some rambling thoughts. Looking forward to finding out how you address this.

Michael Bischoff said...

Debbie: I watched the Ted talk you mentioned. Great stuff! Very funny as well. I think the way she talked about whole heartedness and vulnerability gets at much of what I try to talk about sometimes as spirituality.

Tom: The things you said helped me further integrate these different goals. When I woke up this morning, I had a visual and verbal inspiration about how it all fit together. Coming soon!

Margaret Benefiel said...

Great post, Michael, and great discussion, everyone. I, too, frequently find myself in this tension. One of the things that helps me is to remember my "stake" in a situation, e.g., that the group with which I am working be learning to listen to God and to one another. Then, when being present in the moment leads me to let go of the goals I thought I was pursuing, I remember the larger "stake" and discern how to serve that stake and reframe my goals.

Michael Bischoff said...

Great tip, Margaret! I think that is a nice simple principle for staying grounded in your intent.

Another person who has inspired my work (as you have, Margaret), told me another tip for using when I get lost in the middle of facilitating. George Lakey told me that there is one prayer that works for him 100% of the time. The prayer is, "God, please help me see this situation from another perspective." When he is stuck in the middle of leading a group, he'll say that prayer, and that has always opened up new possibilities for him.

The next time I'm stuck in a group, I'll bring your tip and George's with me.

Jeanne Landkamer said...

I echo Debbie -- thank you for articulating a tension I live with and inspiring more thoughts and dicussion.