Ten years ago this month we launched a School for Contemplative Living. Our mission began as simply “living in stillness, serving in joy.” Over time it evolved into “creating contemplative communities who practice the presence of God for personal transformation and compassionate service with the world.” Our little motto has been: “Let Love Rule.” An initial vision during a small post-Hurricane Katrina centering prayer group of spreading contemplative living as a lifestyle, evolved into the many weekly classes and groups, monthly workshops, annual retreats, and an annual contemplative conference which we support today.
This weekend we were led in a “Yoga and Contemplative Prayer Retreat” called “In Your Presence is Fulness of Joy” by Rev. Ani Vidrine at our Ecoutez! Retreat home on a cypress swamp in South Louisiana. The experience was typical of our monthly experiences of gathering whoever feels drawn this month to go deeper into the center of our beings, into the Presence within, in community.
This year I will be launching out into other places, like a contemplative missionary, to create or support contemplative communities in other places. And part of that work will involve teaching the Compassion Cultivation Training created at Stanford University by the Dalai Lama’s translator, Dr. Thupten Jinpa. Thanks be to God we are continuing our expanding mission as we begin our eleventh year.
Recently, several young adult women who serve as spiritual leaders asked how one goes about sustaining spiritual leadership. In part they meant financially. But what welled up in me started with some contemplative leadership principles which have slowly formed through experience. Because what arose seemed to speak to the Catholic nun, Protestant spiritual director, and Buddhist priest, I thought it might be of service to share it here.
Some principles of contemplative leadership first:
1. Do not look for traditional employment with institutions. They always have other agendas that will pull you away from your mission to serve the institution, like, “By the way, we need you to give Sundays and many weekends to unrelated church events where staff are expected to ‘come help,’ i.e. do the set up, run it, and clean up.” There goes your energy and open space for aligning with Spirit’s own intentions.
2. Let go of needing people in authority, or sometimes even family, to understand or agree with your calling. Almost no one will grasp it, except perhaps a few with the same kind of calling. Look to them for support. Keep listening within. Spirit will reveal Her desires for you.
3. Let yourself be converted, again and again, as your first priority. Your inner transformation and alignment with Spirit is what radiates the Great Love out into the world. Seekers will be drawn to you, or to Who is at work in you.
4. That means your daily spiritual practice of Sourcing is more important than any acts of service. Get that backwards and you will fill with resentment, even toward those you seek to serve.
5. Do not waste energy fighting against systems or institutions trying to change them. Love individuals inside those places and transmit Who is in you to them. You will find one or two who can see or support your vision. Make friends with them. “Fighting against” is not our path. The world has enough of that.
6. Keep listening down in your inner sanctuary, day to day, for your own personal guidance of where you are led next.
Now for what you really asked about practical sustainability, probably meaning, “Where’s the money for this?”
1. Your clarity of vision, (The world you feel led to create), succinctness of mission, (Exactly how you feel led to create that world), and ability to articulate those to the world who needs you will draw the financial support you need. How?
2. My own spiritual director led me where I did not want to go years ago before we had a School, by discerning this, “William, you are being led to carry a monk’s begging bowl.” I resisted big time. But in the end I had to start asking for what I needed, and I still do every day. Our version is to ask for suggested donations, with openness to whatever people can afford, at all workshops and trainings. We created an annual conference with well known speakers who draw a crowd paying $75-100 for a weekend. That raised anywhere from $5000-100,000 when Richard Rohr came. I also ask specific people of means to help support such events, and several of them donate $500-5000 occasionally.
The point is: be willing to keep asking for what you need, and do not underestimate what you need. You are not asking for a Mercedes, you are asking people to sustain a ministry created by the Spirit of God through you. You matter, your service matters, so you need income to keep serving. Ask.
3. Look to a variety of sources of financial support. I receive income through a small salary in our School, which goes up or down according to what comes to us. I also am paid for private counseling and spiritual direction, and retreat leadership. I occasionally teach at Loyola University, though schools always underpay adjuncts. I spent a year receiving a certification to teach Compassion Cultivation Training. If I teach locally the donations go to our School, which helps support my salary. If I teach out of town, the income comes to me.
4. How much? I ask for $100/hour of leadership at retreats, which is what our School pays each workshop leader. So we ask participants to make suggested donations to attend. That way church groups do not say “we have no budget for this but come do it for free.” Churches are notorious for underpaying everyone except some white male pastors. They also think everything should be free. I don’t do free, because I need to eat too. So sometimes I must say “no” to things I would have enjoyed leading, and some groups say “no we can’t pay you.”
5. How do people learn about what I offer? Write. Blog posts, Instagram and Facebook posts, and articles or books you write help people keep up with what you are offering. Some of them will attend what you lead. Some might support what you offer financially. Create a Go Fund Me or such for a special project, set a real goal and deadline, and do not give up. This helps people see what you are offering and associate money with the service, even when they do not give at that time.
6. Word of mouth is the best way people learn what you offer, so ask friends to help publicize your events in a wide range of settings across spiritual traditions.
7. Interfaith gatherings simply reach a broader range of people than events for only one church, synagogue, or temple, and that also helps more potential supporters know or participate in what you offer. Plus, Spirit loves and wants to embrace all peoples, and so do you. Do not limit your scope to a small group.
I hope these initial thoughts help you know you are on the right path, and sustaining spiritual leadership is what Spirit has in mind, through you.
William Thiele, PhD, founding spiritual director
The School for Contemplative Living
author: Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture
“A Contemplative Path” podcast on iTunes and blog on WordPress.com