Hell of a question. Truth is, I ask myself this question several times during my week, searching for a cogent answer.
It’s one of the questions, self-imposed, that is usually connected to a particular way that I am spending my time. It’s not a new question to pose to myself. It’s just the urgency that tends to creep in when I start sensing that clock that is ticking. That’s true for everybody, I know, but I have noticed that the ticking is more distinct, more steady, and louder, reminding me of a fact that is undeniable: time is passing on this one precious life I have to live. This “what?” question prompts me to write poetry at times, or lyrics to a song on the wind. Other times, I find myself delving into philosophy on the meaning of life, namely about its purpose, my goals, my dreams, and yes, my fears. But mostly, it is a simple, innocent check on my Self.
However, this time the question is a fast ball over the outside corner, coming from an old high school teammate, golf partner from the famed College Park Golf Course, and fellow refugee from Baptists South of God. This guy was sincere in asking, really wanting to know what I was up to. He had visited me in all three of my parishes, two in Atlanta, and one in the Lone Star State. He knew that I had served as an Episcopal priest but wondered to himself, out loud, “Galloway, what the hell are you doing these days?” So a catch-up was in order.
By the way, this guy is one of those valuable people that you are blessed to come across in the course of your life, someone I call a “keeper”. Now, I know everyone is valuable, and of inestimable worth (only if you can pronounce it!). You are good enough, smart enough, and can complete this three-fold phrase either using the affirmation that I love used by Aibileen in The Help, or with the comedic take by pre-Senator Al Franken. It’s the truth, take it to the bank. But the “big but” is that some people seem to resonate with your frequency more than others. Those are the “keepers”, people you stay in touch with come Trump or high water.
My response, out of surprise at his question, was to default to my American definition of who you are, that is, what is your work? Literally, what are you doing? It was not an existential question as to how am I being in the world. I launched into a recitation of all the work I am doing right now at this time of my life, which made me tired, in and of itself.
I told him that my work these days involves consultation with folks who are on the front line. That front line includes the realm of the Spirit, the Body, and the Heart., In fact, I am finding that the “front line” winds circuitously around the field of play across America, from Boston, Austin, and Seattle, and now, even in the wide world.
In one field, healthcare, I work consulting with folks, mostly in the C-Suite, coaching in the area of leadership, although our firm works in clinical improvement as well. I have enjoyed coaching a few CEOs who are serious about providing value-based healthcare in the communities they serve. This pandemic has been a strain, one that will reverberate for years, with stretched staffs beyond the breaking point, particularly with the people who provide the most direct patient care: nurses. When I had my emergency quad bypass surgery at Emory, it was an amazing team of nurses that got me through. My surgeon, a classmate of mine, performed beating heart/open heart surgery that had me on the table for eight hours. He is singular in his skill. But I only saw him before surgery, and briefly afterward as he was on to other critical patients, It was the nurses that took care of me. I made a point to tell the CEO that at a Christmas cocktail party, that his nurses were the best brand investment he had….and I think he heard me,
I am working with one CEO who is trying to intentionally address the nursing shortage, which is hurting him in a metro system, but killing rural hospitals. We are late to this particular game, but his passion gives me hope as my generation is rapidly filling up hospitals with physical needs and demands.
Another issue that is pressing is the psychological cost to physicians and clinical personnel after the intensity and volume of patient care in a pandemic we weren’t prepared for. I was working with one Emergency Room doc in New York at the peak of the first surge. He had served in Afghanistan in a combat unit, so he had seen a thing or two in terms of trauma. As he was telling me about the care he was giving with Covid patients in the ER, he stopped, caught his breath, and then began to weep, as he told of the body bags stacked in refrigerated trucks. His trauma is clearly not singular, and leaders in healthcare must find creative ways to address it in terms of building resilience and investing in the “healing of the healer”. The abatement of surges in cases of Covid is a positive step forward, but does not let us off the hook for the trauma our hospital staffs experienced. We must deal with it, creatively and proactively.
One of the CEOs I coach told me of being asked to serve as the Grand Marshall in a city-wide parade in a community celebration. He took an ordinary moment and turned it into gold by inviting the nurse managers from his hospital, to ride with him on the float. He said that the crowd, five people deep along the route, clapped, many yelling out to the fire engine serving as a float, “You saved my life” “Thank you for caring for me.” He said the the nurses were overwhelmed by the appreciative response. Of course they did! Good on him for having the creativity to turn a throw-away moment into sheer gold. My question now to him is how to pass that on to the larger staff. We’re working on it.
In the faith community, I am coaching a good number and variety of priests/ministers/bishops about how to be faithful in their leadership, particularly in this odd and precarious post-Covid time. Most seem to be anxious about whether people are going to return to church. Perhaps the convenience of not having to get ready to be presentable for church, being able to sip coffee while you are listening, maybe that will prove too attractive to church people who live in a culture where “convenience” is the coin of the realm. In a sacramental tradition, this question seems even more problematic. And yet, the creative folks that I work with are finding ways to keep the insights they got from the shut-down, and are now reinventing what they are offering by listening to their people. It has been a disruptive time of major proportions, but such is the time that makes change more palatable.
My work continues through time as a spiritual director, working with folks in their pursuit of an intentional spiritual life, namely in prayer, reflection, and focused action. The disruption of Covid has pressed deep questions in the minds of people who may have been in a default mode. People may be tired of the routine religiosity, but now ready to move into deeper waters.
And finally, I told my friend that I am writing, blocking off time in my daily schedule to “bleed into my typewriter” or computer, as the case may be. I am working on a manuscript on leadership with my peculiar take on the creative tension that drives an organization with vision and execution. And South of God threatens to turn into a respectable memoir, or a torrid tell-all exposes, once I secure my passport and lodging in Tahiti, or die.
The blessing is, I love it all….most of the time, which is about as good as it gets. I told my friend that I am busier than ever, and happier. So I got that going for me.
But, I remain in student mode, with my intentional “beginner’s mind”, following my curiosity and creativity, most times not knowing definitively where it’s going.
One piece of the creative work is a gathering of folks that I have come to love. Two are long-time friends, founding members of a discipline, “organizational development”, a discipline and art I have been involved in for over thirty years. It began for me with the pursuit of understanding “the process of change” in organizations, with the emphasis on transformaton. It started with looking at how marriages grow and weather the necessary changes; expanded into families and how they negotiate developmental transitions; morphed into congregations as to how they function and dysfunction, grow and decline: spun into corporations as to how they successfully initiate and cascade change down through the organization; and ended with how do we transform our cities into vibrant and supportive communities for ALL people. What a ride it has been, and I feel like I am just now hitting stride.
These two colleagues have been my guides, my inspirations, one from Austin, and one is living in Warsaw, Poland. Our team also includes a recently retired doc from Seattle, an operational pro who is a fellow Episcopalian in Houston, and a young teacher from a seminary in Minneapolis. We represent a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, which is our gift to one another. When we meet, the fires of life burn bright and we urge each other on into God’s future, with hopes of making a difference.
Through the magic of Zoom, we get together to conspire as to how we might assist in the birthing of a better way to do church, focusing on the spiritual health of those who lead such organizations.
We have been working for some time now to design a creative event for ministerial leaders, mostly clergy types, who are wanting to dive deep into their transformation path. We do this by building a trusting community of inquiry and discovery, asking some profound questions, five actually, as to who you are. We ground the work in the messy stuff of the present moment by asking you to face the very thing that is confronting you right now. We ask: what “stuff” are you dragging behind you? What is repeatedly getting in your way of achieving what it is you say you want to accomplish with your life? What visions and dreams push and pull you to the horizons of your future? And finally, what is needed to liberate you to get on with it in this one wild, precious, short life. It is more fun than humans should be allowed to have. This work and these people have become my “church”, and it is one of the highlights of my week when we gather to plan and dream. The Spirit is present, and moving.
My friend seemed overwhelmed by my answer to his question, innocent or not, He looked puzzled, wisely pausing before speaking. The silence was pregnant, as they say. His voice took on a strange tone, sounding to me like Sam Elliott, but that was probably just my cinematic imagination, once again, running away with me. But he stated, not asking this time, “I thought you were retired and living on some damn island!”
My response was slow, forming a punctuation to my long answer to his earlier question. “Do I sound retired?” And his answer was all Elliott, “Hell no!”
I told you that he was a “keeper”!