Leading from Within a SPIRITUALITY of the HEART

Psychological Hazards and Theological Responses

by Gerardine Doherty, fdnsc, Issoudun July, 2012


In his article, Leading from Within, Parker Palmer reflects on five ways spiritual leaders tend to cast ‘shadow’ rather than ‘light’ in their ministry of leadership.  These five “shadows”, as he refers to them, are as follows:            

  1. The leader’s insecurity about their true personal identity and worth;
  2. A perception that the world is against humanity;
  3. A belief that the leader is responsible for everything;
  4. Fear of chaos;
  5. A denial of death.  

Palmer’s has the strong conviction that

” … the inner journey (can) transform leadership at each of these points”.

(Palmer, p 45). 

In this presentation, I will offer my own (unfinished) interpretations on some of the ways these realities are casting ‘shadows’ in today’s church. I will also draw on contemporary theologians who offer insight to Palmer’s observations, suggesting sound theological responses to help dispel the ‘darkness’ of these shadows and allow the true ‘Light’ to shine.

PALMER’S FIRST SHADOW: Insecurity about true personal identity and worth of the leader

Through escaping and/or becoming locked into a role, the spiritual leader in today’s church runs the risk of being very quickly blinded to his/her own sense of true worth and personal freedom.  Caught in the web of busyness, institutional expectations or even ‘noble causes’, leaders can actually live at a great distance from the very belief they wish to witness: the personal love that God has for each individual. Having no time for reflective living, more and more they begin to hide behind the mask of ‘function’, and consequently unconsciously embody that, ‘I am of value, because of my position.’   Human vulnerabilities, powerlessness and limitations are buried under an exterior façade, and, over time, become personal inner enemies.  As a result, human vulnerabilities are not understood or tolerated when met in others either.

Being threatened by and running from their own human limitations is NOT a characteristic of strong spiritual leadership.  Mary Catherine Hilkert, an American theology professor and spiritual author,   observes that it is only in experiencing the mystery of human limits, both personal and communal, that the spiritual leader finds God, and in finding God, the leader finds their own true identity and worth.  How often has this age-old truth been restated throughout Christian tradition?

Reflecting this truth, Teresa of Avila’s writings are full of such statements as, “In my opinion we shall nevercompletely know ourselves if we don’t strive to know God”(p. 292).  In a more contemporary manner, Thomas Merton clearly emphasizes this same message:  “For me to be a saint means to be myself.  Therefore the problem of sanctity… is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self. … To work out my own identity in God …The secret of my full identity is hidden in God (Merton, p  31, 32, 33 ).

The importance for the leader to be grounded in God is supported by scripture scholar and theologian, Sandra Schneiders’ reflection on John’s gospel: “A principal difference between Jesus and his enemies is that he knows where he is from and where he is going and they do not” (Schneiders, p 191).  The leader must work at establishinghis/her true identity and inner worth found only in God . . . not in their title, role or what they do!

Scripture scholar, Raymond Brown, highlights two Gospel characters and offers the spiritual leader a choice: following the apostle Peter, whose energy was often used gaining ‘the first place‘ among the apostles; or, alternatively, following the Beloved Disciple, John, whose energy was refreshed resting on the heart of Jesus and finding there his true identity, as well as the wisdom to empower others in their search for meaning and worth.  It is this contemplative stance of love that must be the foundation and the life-energy to any ministry of leadership within the church.  It is essential that the spiritual leader is, at best, growing in the knowledge of where they are from and where they are going, otherwise their ministry will only cast confusion, insecurity and darkness.  To remain resting on the heart of Jesus, is for the leader to remain at the source of their own personal value and worth ~ ”You are precious in my eyes and I love you”  (Isaiah: 43: 4).   To believe in the personal love God has for them, the leader, will, in turn, mirror this same love to all they serve.   

PALMER’S SECOND SHADOW: Believing in hostility of the world towards humanity 

If the nee “to be first; be ‘on top’” is the underpinning attitude of the spiritual leader, then their world view will certainly be an aggressive one.  If claiming a position of power is the leader’s priority, their language will undoubtedly be dominated by words of strategyand competition.  The leader is not only concerned with obtaining first position, but then he or she is plagued with having to maintain their place of superiority.  Unconsciously, “life is fundamentally a battleground” (Parker, p 45); winning, not losing, becomes their motivating force. 

In a church (and world) where patriarchal structures still dominate, is it any wonder that  challenge to such power and domination is perceived as threatening, hostile? Those who believe they have exclusive power must take on a position of self-defense if they are to maintain their hold.  It is well past the time for spiritual leaders to authentically search for what Parker simply refers to as ” … another way of going about things …” (Parker, p 45).   He suggests that this “other way” will be based on more inclusive values such as consensus, co-operation and community.  Such values are sought today in the church by men and women wanting holistic, mutual relationships.  

In order to cast light, today’s spiritual leader needs to bring this inclusive vision of the world, indeed of the universe to birth.  One powerful means to make this vision real is through dialogue.  Schneiders shows that, in a gospel strongly characterized by ‘theological monologues’, it is with a woman that Jesus is able to engage in a serious and fruitful dialogue.  The Samaritan woman (John: 4) proves to be “a genuine dialogue partner, as she listens toJesus’ self revelationwhile, at the same time, revealing herself to him(Schneiders, p 141).   In a land, detested by the Jews (Samaria), Jesus respectfully converses with a woman.  As a result of this conversation, the Samaritan woman comes to believe in the real identity of Jesus, she leaves behind her usual way of living, she witnesses to the messianic revelation of Jesus and she evangelizes the hard-of-heart. She is transformed!  However, the disciples do not like this! When they return, they are surprised to find Jesus speaking to a woman (Jn 4:27), and Jesus far from apologizes for this.  Rather, he endeavors to reveal, through this incident, the desires of the One who sent him: “that the incarnation is inclusive of all human beings of all races and historical conditions and of both genders,  … (Johnson, p 167).  Today’s spiritual leader must seek “another way of doing things” (Parker, p 45) grounded in life-giving theology to ensure that the need for “being first, being ‘on top’” no longer casts shadows over the need for equality, inclusivity and love in our church ~ all valued qualities of a Spirituality of the Heart.

PALMER’S THIRD SHADOW:  the belief that responsibility for everything rests with the leader!

If a spiritual leader always needs to “be on top” then having the attitude of responsible functionalist”falls naturally in place. This domination usually perpetuates a lack of trust and confidence in the capacity and the God-given-giftedness of others.  In fact, there is no room for anyone else, and that includes God.  The leader becomes a one-person show!  Unfortunately, what the leader does not realize is that in choosing to “be responsible for everything” they are not only smothering the potential in others, but they themselves are missing important opportunities to grow in a balanced and integrated way.  Once again, it is not difficult to see how in our patriarchal church, such shadows continue to be cast over the people of God.  The challenge for spiritual leaders is not to set themselves up as the only responsible authority, but rather to ‘step down’ and help create an environment in which every person’s contribution is needed, appreciated and finds meaning in the whole.

Schneiders’ describes two dysfunctional forms of ‘service’ that emerge if the leader is unreflective regarding their motivation for serving others:

1.  As leader of the community, it is their duty to serve those under him or her, the meremembers of the community;

2.  By serving others, the leader can be, in fact, serving their own needs: the need to be needed, the need for power or the need for self-importance. 

Such unexamined forms of servicehave existed in the church, and unfortunately still do, in multiple ways:

  • the principal of the school
  • the pastor in the parish
  • the administrator of the hospital
  • the missionary in ‘pagan’ cultures,
  • the director of finance,
  • the ‘overly directive’ spiritual director,
  • the superior of a local community, etc, etc. 

All these services can aptly image the leader as standing at the top of a ladder, while those being served are at the bottom, and God is situated well beyond the view of both.  Hilkert proposes that the leader descends from the top of the ladder and forms a circle of friendship, a circle in which all are on equal terms and God, in the center, is accessible to all.

A similar image is painted by Schneiders as she interprets the foot washing scene in the fourth gospel.  Here she presents a style of service based on an equality which she equates with true friendship.  In this gospel story service is given, but demands no return other than the trust of true friendship.  Such a model is totally foreign to the responsible ‘functionalist’, and the degree of threat that he or she might experience is depicted through the character of Peter.  Peter’s claim to stand at the ‘top of the ladder’ is being severely challenged in this story.  The ladder is toppling, as Peter realizes that Jesus is deliberately abolishing any inequality that exists between himself and the disciples.  There is no ‘standing on the top of the ladder’ in a community of friendship.  The disciples are to “live out among themselves the love of friendship, with its delight in mutual service that knows no order of importance (Schneiders, p 174).  

As Peter demonstrates, the descent from the top of the ladder to a place in the circle is a long journey for the leader who no longer wants to be ” … the only act in town” (Parker, p 46).  It is from within a community of friendship and mutual service that the leader does only what he or she is called to do, and, that, to a significant extent, is to empower and trust the contribution of others (Parker, p 46).   Who was it who desired that “mutual charity” be a decisive characteristic in their communities and relationships in ministry? 

PARKER’S FOURTH SHADOW: The fear of chaos

Often, the first perceived task of a spiritual leader is that he or she must organize everything and everyone in order to have all important matters clear, precise and easy to follow!  This is necessary to a degree, but what can be happening, is that the leader is unconsciously building a protective shield around him or herself in order to avoid the occurrence of what Parker refers to as  “…  dissent, innovation, challenge (and) change (Parker, p 46).  The fear of creative chaos is well and truly thriving in today’s church.  So often spiritual leaders will seek answers to new questions in pre-existing doctrine, rubrics or structures.  This approach to life and ministry can be tragic for the ‘spiritual’ leader, who is, by definition, meant to ‘stay alert’ to the creative possibilities that God may be inspiring in them and/or in the people in their midst.  Chaos usually isn’t a priority that leaders choose to ‘sit with.’  To obliterate chaos as soon as possible, leaving it no space to breathe or to speak, is the more desired reaction.   Could it be that this somewhat rigid approach reflects an inner rigidity that prevents the leader from entering into their own darkness of inner unknowing, and eventually of inner transformation?   If the leader is too fearful to enter his or her own inner world of unknowing, then there is little chance that they can allow the community to engage in its own natural, transformative processes.

The Genesis story begins with the image of God’s Spirit sweeping over chaos, transforming it into the creation of God’s loving design.  God’s creative activity continues when Jesus comes into his own, but ” … his own people did not accept him” (John1:11).  They did not accept him because he  “ … radical reinterpreted Jewish tradition and laws of Sabbath observance ….  His liberating lifestyle, (sometimes) shocking parables …, and unconditional compassion of God that he embodied in his person and style of relating were all profound challenges to religious and political structures of the day” (Hilkert, p 114).   Jesus created chaos !!  

After Jesus’ work was accomplished, he gave the gift of God’s own creative Spirit.  However, Jesus warned that ‘the world’ would hate those who truly received the Spirit into their lives (Brown, p 92).  Think of the historical conflict between the Jewish and the first Christians.  It was a conflict grounded in the creative movement of the Spiritwhichthe synagogue authorities could not tolerate.   As Schneiders makes clear, the Jewish community were “attached to their own interpretation of the law … The Jewish authorities had become committed to their commitment rather than to God” (Schneiders, p 82).  By clinging fearfully to “correct procedures” and the “letter-of-the-law”,the Jews refused to submit to the creative movement of God and to hear the call to go deeper into their “covenant relationship with God” (Schneiders, pp 81-85).   These Jews would have experienced personal inner conflict, confusion and insecurity, as they witnessed some of their members choosing a new way of living.  They would have felt inner pain as old answers no longer seemed adequate, but their fear of this creative chaos gave them only one choice – cling to the familiar!  Although outer chaos erupted around them, they found safety in their rigidity and secure structures.

God’s creative activity continues today. (Take, for example, what has been interpreted as the “crisis” of religious life in the church today).  As spiritual leaders are we prepared and equipped to listen to the creative potential dwelling within in the human community that brings into focus the image of God?  If founders/foundresses were fearful of chaos, would the countless responses to grace and creativity have existed in our church and world through the ages?  Now it is our turn to respond to “crisis”, to uncertainty .  . . what will our response be?  . . . to cling to the familiar, or ? ?  ?

PARKER’S FINAL SHADOW:  The denial of death

The ultimate fear for leaders can be the fear of death itself ~ not only physical death itself, but so many forms of reality that require a spirit of letting-go: hurts, failure, health, control, success, cherished ministries, youthful energy, to name just a few.  The hard lesson the leader must learn and encourage others in their learning, is that there can be no new life unless the pain of letting-go is experienced.  Death, in its many forms, is the ultimate limit of the human experience.  Its grave intensity of darkness, of unknowing and of grief, bring the leader to the most fragile place of human limitation where he or she must choose to either run into denial or remain present for the signs “of transcendence” to emerge from “within the human experience” (Hilkert, p 49-50).  This is not an easy place to be and within the church there are many signs that indicate that the ‘shadow’of denial is more often chosen in preference to the painful ‘light’of ‘staying-with.  Unfortunately, at a deeper level, not letting go is a refusal to enter into the paschal mystery where the deepest expression of faith has the possibility to be born: “death is not the final word. … allowing something to die is also allowing new life to emerge” (Parker, p 46).  To believe in new life in the midst of death, the spiritual leader is giving total permission to God ” … to be God in one’s life” (Schneiders, p 86).   This is embodiment of true spiritual leadership!

One expression of living at this level of faith would be for the leader to freely open him or herself up to the regular process of reflectiveevaluation.  The lack of serious on-going evaluation in the church is a definite form of denial and consequently a rejection of new life.  This feminine image of pain-to-life, of letting-go in order for the newto emerge, speaks profoundly of the contribution women have to offer both in church and social leadership.  And yet, how many leaders take seriously the evaluation of what is being done or not being done to ensure that this happens?  It would mean a letting go of patriarchal structures that have provided interpretation and ‘direction’ for too long. 

‘Deafness’, has been the response, to a large extent, to contemporary women theologians.  What percentage of today’s spiritual leaders take seriously the contribution and consequences of women scripture scholars and women theologians and spiritual authors?

Liturgical inclusive language?  Women proclaiming the gospel?  What would such a turn-around mean?  It would mean a lot of pain; it would mean much dying within the present church order.  It would mean standing at the cross ~ with MARY.  Such an experience of the ” … ‘dark night’ is at the same time a call to ‘move on in hope to a new vision, ”  (Hilkert quoting FitzGerald, p 123).   “I see a new world emerging . .  .”  For Chevalier, part of this new emerging world was collaboration of men with women in mission together ~ FDNSCs, MSC men, MSC women, lay partners  ~ together!


“Whom do you seek?”

(John’s gospel)

This question, appearing so often throughout John’s gospel, requires constant loving contemplative reflection in the life of the spiritual leader, for its response bears serious consequences on his or her ministry of leadership.   

“Whom do you seek?”

  • true self or public image?
  • self-defense or mutual empowerment?
  • serving from the top-of-the-ladder or service in trust and equality?
  • frozen fear or creative vitality?
  • denial of death or everything new?

“Whom do you seek?”

Hopefully, our response as Chevalier Family and today’s spiritual leaders is:

We seek

“… the Word who is Life …”

(1 John 1:1)

For this alone must be today’s spiritual leader’s guiding “Light”.


Brown, Raymond E.,              A RETREAT WITH JOHN THE EVANGELIST, Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1998.

Hilkert, Catherine Mary,         NAMING GRACE, New York: Continuum, 1997.

Johnson, Elizabeth A.,           SHE WHO IS, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1994.

Julian of Norwich,                  SHOWINGS, New York: Paulist, Classics of Western Spirituality, 1978.

Merton, Thomas,                    NEW SEEDS OF CONTEMPLATION, New York: New Directions Book, 1972.

Palmer, Parker,                     LEADING FROM WITHIN, Noetic Sciences Review, Winter, 1996.

Schneiders, Sandra M.,          WRITTEN THAT YOU MAY BELIEVE, New York: Herder & Herder Book.  Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999.

Teresa of Jesus,                    THE COLLECTED WORKS OF ST. TERESA OF AVILA, Vol. II, The Interior Castle Washington, D.C.: ICS, 1980.

Scripture citations from           THE CATHOLIC STUDY BIBLE, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.