What Is Spiritual Leadership?

Women's Theological Center

When we began using the term “spiritual leadership” to describe our work, we realized immediately that the term had its problems. Definitions of both spiritual and leadership are many and varied. Associations and feelings about each term also vary greatly depending on a person’s or group’s experience, ideology, and identity.

For a while, we found ourselves using “spiritual leadership” in certain contexts but then changing it to “transformational leadership” in other contexts. We meant the same thing in each case, but we assumed that using language associated with spirit, spiritual, or spirituality might close doors in certain contexts. Over time, we stopped doing the translation – in part, because we found that where there was an openness to the concept and its associations, the work was more successful; and in part, because we become clearer all the time about why we had chosen to use the term.

In a process of writing down WTC's approach to the work of social justice in order to make that work replicable, we have had to find words for what has in large part been intuitive. Finding words is a rigorous process that often bears surprising results. At one point in this writing process, we were challenged to prove that our concepts are not first of all Christian – the tradition out of which WTC was born and in which both WTC co-directors were raised – that we came to clarity about a deep assumption we bring to this work. That assumption is about what Donna named "spiritual justice" as she struggled to give words to what we think we're doing.

In struggling to explain the motive behind our approach, Donna began making a comparison to economic justice, which for us rests in a belief that no one should suffer from material need in a world that has the capacity to feed, shelter, and clothe everyone on the planet. "And no one has the right to crush the human spirit," Donna said. "Spiritual justice is a human right." In that moment, two key assumptions about our approach were made evident: 1) our work is rooted in a deep belief in the presence and power of the human spirit – regardless of an individual's religious tradition or spiritual path; and 2) the protection and nourishment of spirit is a human right.

So what is spirit? At the root of the English word spirit are the words breathe and life. The term has come to mean "life" and "soul." As a verb it means "animate, encourage, cheer." To be "out of spirits" means to be sad and depressed. To be fully alive is to be "inspired" – that is, full of spirit.

Bernice Johnson Reagon in her essay "Women as Culture Carriers: Fannie Lou Hamer" * writes, "We all have souls, an inner voice that wants to find its essence through the expression of our living. Often we feel that the world would not tolerate us if we followed our hearts. The [Civil Rights] movement provided a nurturing ground that encouraged us to open up and move beyond our fears and become who we were in our hearts."

Our spirit is "a creative force at the very center of each of our beings – a flow of energy, pushing, stretching, demanding to be transformed into the world." + It is our life force and we each have a basic human right to full expression of that spirit. Oppression of any kind is ultimately an attempt to crush the spirit. It is the unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power. What most of us tend to notice about oppression is the effect on bodies and minds. The effect on the spirit is often overlooked.

While much oppression is carried out and experienced on a material level such as through the withholding and theft of resources, forced labor, or physical cruelty (to name a few), there is a war going on at a spirit level. Systems of oppression that seek to crush individuals, communities, and Peoples, must not only deal with the forms of physical resistance oppressed people may leverage, but also with the power of the human spirit.

Spiritual leadership is leadership that comes out of our life force, our spirit. For some of us, that spirit is nurtured by a connection to "Spirit" or Tao – that is, the creative force that makes and sustains life. That force that breathes into us, that inspires us has many names: God, Goddess, Tao, Love, Mother Earth. Some find their spirits deeply connected to the spirits of their ancestors, of plants and animals, of the elements, of their People, of the wider human community.

You may have a strong and healthy relationship to a particular religious or faith tradition. You may feel religion is something to stay away from. It is not our intention to impose a particular religious perspective or spiritual path on those with whom we work. It is our intention, however, to provide resources and opportunities for them to strengthen and nourish their spirit so that they increase their capacity to transform themselves, their relationships, organizations, and communities in such a way that everyone can blossom in the world.

By using the term spiritual leadership we are not only bringing together many traditions and many concepts, we are also attempting to bridge and make space for many traditions. WTC came out of Christian feminism and while those roots are obvious, WTC today is being co-created by women and men from many religious, spiritual, and secular traditions.

One of our assumptions is that spiritual leadership is rooted in communities and histories and therefore one person or group cannot define it for another. That assumption is made evident in Donna Bivens’ speech (reprinted below) in which she describes her understanding of spiritual leadership as it comes out of her experience as an African American woman.

We sometimes say that spiritual leadership is “the use of the power of our deepest vision, values, and hopes as a creative force to strengthen ourselves and our communities, to bridge difference, and to work for justice.” This definition assumes that every individual, group, and community has the capacity to exercise spiritual leadership. It also assumes that in order to exercise spiritual leadership, we as individuals, groups, and communities, have a clarity of vision and awareness of our purpose and gifts.

Spiritual leadership is not a role or activity reserved for a select few. It is not about being or becoming an “authority”, an “expert”, a “director”, or a “head.” It is not about taking the lead and having others follow. Spiritual leadership is also not about solving problems. We acknowledge that the world suffers from many problems and we need people who have problem-solving leadership and skills. We need people who can assess situations, assess what isn’t working, and fix it. We need people who can narrow their focus to “the problem” and see a limited set of causes, effects, and solutions. In crisis situations this kind of sight is invaluable. When your house is on fire, for example, you want people who can react quickly and with focus to put the fire out. You do not want a fire fighter who worries about the effects of water damage to your walls and ceilings.

In No Enemies Within, Dawna Markova contrasts two different ways of thinking. She calls one "problem solving" and says that "it can help us cure disease as well as do our taxes." But, it is not the kind of thinking that is required for healing and wholeness. That kind of thinking she calls "learning."

In a world full of problems, we need the kind of leadership that can see beyond one set of problems to the relationships between the problems we are facing. If problem-solving leadership is all we have, fixing one problem simply creates others, or it solves the problem for one group while creating problems for another. To see the connections and relationships among people and things requires the perspectives and insights of everyone involved or affected. In our understanding, spiritual leadership is about tending relationships in four spheres – within ourselves (internal), between individuals (inter-personal), within structures (institutional), and among cultures (ideological). It is about creating and maintaining alignment among these spheres – so that what is best at every level can be drawn out for the good of everyone.

Our work offers opportunities for individuals and groups to explore what is happening with them, their organizations, and their communities in each of these areas. Exercising spiritual leadership requires ongoing support in the areas where we are strong and ongoing development in the areas that are not our strengths. No individuals can be balanced and whole if the structures and culture around them do not support their balance and wholeness. Likewise, no institutions can be healthy if individuals within them are unable to develop awareness of the distresses they are responding to or to bring the fullness of their gifts into each circle of their lives.

Spiritual leadership is not a place we get to once and for all. It is a lifelong process of growth and transformation. We are grateful to be on this journey with so many kindred spirits. ♀

* In Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trail Blazers and Torchbearers 1941 to 1965. Edited by Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993, page 204 to 205.

+ Dawna Markova, No Enemies Within. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press, 1994. Page 45.

© Women's Theological Center


What Makes a Good Leader?

a speech* given by Donna Bivens, WTC Co-Director

A couple days ago, I heard a radio interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s former national security advisor, that made me rethink how I needed to frame the answer to the question we were given to start the panel: What makes a good leader? In the interview, I was agreeing with much of what Brzezinski was saying about his new book about U.S. global policy called The Choice: World Dominance or World Leadership until the host asked him why his title suggested that dominance and leadership were being presented as mutually exclusive. Brzezinski answered, “You’ve got a good point!” and they went on to agree that leadership demands that you dominate; it was just a question of how.

Their conversation made me go back to the remarks I was preparing and more fully ground myself in the fact that my concept of leadership differs wildly from today’s prevailing notion of leadership. The best leaders in African American reality have not been those who dominate. Often they had no position or authority the world was bound to respect. They have been people who possessed what I’ve come to know as spiritual leadership. It is that part of leadership that is grounded not in fear and domination but in love and connectedness. In terms of spiritual leadership, what makes a good leader is a person who knows what their purpose and gifts are and uses them in the service of their deepest vision and values that are in harmony with creation.

My understanding of what makes a good leader has been shaped most by the diversity of African American – and particularly of Black women’s – leadership that I have witnessed and benefited from in my lifetime.

I think of the fiery outrage and thirst for freedom of Fannie Lou Hamer that coexisted with the behind-the-scenes coaching, toiling and encouraging of Ella Baker. I think of the youthful exuberance and defiance of a Diane Nash or Angela Davis interfacing with the fierce tending of family and community of my own grandmothers. Or I think of the patient and strategic teaching of Septima Clark alongside the use of writing or song to express and excite the uncompromising demand for equality of an Audre Lorde or Nina Simone. Such women were so different and yet they had something fundamental in common in that they didn’t focus on what they were against or who they wanted to control and dominate but on a vision for themselves, their People and the world.

This wealth of leadership inspired my own commitment to celebrate, engage and support that kind of leadership in myself and others. Such leadership taught me that human beings are built and equipped with our heads, hearts and spirits for leadership. It is our responsibility to our humanity to express spiritual leadership as often as we are able in the service of our world. It is measured not by our education or title or ideology but by our being true to our spirit and taking responsibility for that leadership day-to-day.

I don’t often refer to myself as a leader except in the context of a role like co-directing the WTC where I work. But I always challenge myself to express spiritual leadership to the best of my ability. For me this is facilitated by having people around me in form and in spirit who want, expect, and challenge me to step up and grow and to better utilize what gifts I’ve been given. People who – in the words of another inspiring African American leader Rev. Yvonne Delk – “tell me who I am in ways I cannot walk away from.”

The greatest barriers to spiritual leadership – my own or in general – are unconsciousness and lack of responsibility for power and privilege that accrue to us through the systemic oppression of others and unconsciousness and lack of responsibility for wisdom that accrues to us through the areas where we are oppressed by systemic power. This unconsciousness when it becomes exposed does not necessarily hinder my ability to express my spiritual leadership but it is the cutting edge for that ability – my growing edge. It demands that I reach beyond my limited sense of self.

Another barrier started to come clear to me as I was preparing these remarks. The dominating U.S. culture does not encourage spiritual leadership but rather encourages consumption as its replacement and an end in itself. It is a barrier that there are so many forces urging us to consume fears and excesses that blunt our spirits and our leadership. What we consume — be it physical, mental or spiritual – should be fuel for our spiritual leadership and give us energy to love and do our work in the world. It takes strong community around me to help me consume consciously and not get lost in the cultural demand for accumulation and waste.

Spiritual leadership is about checking in with my deepest belief system and living by it. It is about deepening my integrity, compassion and awareness. It is not first about showing someone elsewhere to go, but about going there myself. I was raised by my parents but also by grandparents and other elders, by the spirit of those out in the forefront of struggle mentioned earlier – a circle of mature, spirit-guided, balanced people. They didn’t boast about their gifts. They didn’t rush or overload themselves, because they didn’t go on their own fuel but on their belief in something beyond themselves. It is all these ordinary and extraordinary women and men who continue to be my model, my vision of leadership.

* Speech delivered at "Colors of Leadership: Women Making a Difference,” hosted by organizational members of The Girls’ Coalition of Greater Boston (March 11, 2004)


© Women's Theological Center