The Power of Attentiveness

Excerpted from
Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership
By Ruth Haley Barton


I remember one season in my life when stopping to notice became almost impossible. At the time I was on staff at a church where, like most churches and organizations, we had lots of meetings. In fact, it was quite normal for our days to be so packed with back-to-back meetings that there was not time to take care of personal needs, let alone notice anything! On one such day when I had allowed myself to get scheduled in this manner, our youngest daughter, Haley, was at home sick. As I was headed into an afternoon meeting that would last until the end of the day, I realized that in the rush of things, I had not had a chance to call home and check on her. Since I could not be late for this meeting, the only thing I could do was call home while I was (quite literally) running through the hallways. It was not a pretty sight.

As I rounded a bend in one of those hallways—running, talking on the phone, skirt flapping in the breeze—I almost ran into another staff member coming down the hall from the opposite direction. He was so stunned by this mini-tornado careening down the hallway, and I was so embarrassed by the state I was in, that we both stopped and stared at each other with surprise. I finally mumbled a greeting and kept on going, all the while thinking, When members of the pastoral staff are running down the hallways talking on their cell phones, there is something seriously wrong with this picture!

I take full responsibility for my state of being on that day and most days. The way I was careening down that hallway was a microcosm of the whole, and it was no one’s fault but my own. I had allowed myself to get scheduled in such a way that I was running from here to there with no time for listening and paying attention.

Many of us are choosing to live lives that do not set us up to pay attention, to notice those places where God is at work and to ask ourselves what these things mean. We long for a word from the Lord, but somehow we have been suckered into believing that the pace we keep is what leadership requires. We slide inexorably into a way of life that offers little or no opportunity for paying attention and then wonder why we are not hearing from God when we need God most.

There are times when a leader’s deepest longing is to hear a word from the Lord. Beyond the muddle of all of our thoughts and ideas and brainstorming sessions, we long for an encounter with God that will penetrate all of that and bring some clarity to our situation. If we are aware of such a longing, a question we might ask ourselves is How much paying attention am I doing—really? Do I have enough give in my schedule to be able turn aside and pay attention when there is something that warrants it? Could it be because I am moving so fast that I do not have time to turn aside and look? Do I even have mechanisms in my life that create space for paying attention, so that I don’t miss the places where God himself is trying to communicate with me?

I Must Turn Aside and Look at This Great Sight

Contrast this mad dash through the hallways of our lives with Moses’ experience of the burning bush. Solitude brought Moses to a place where he had slowed down enough to pay attention to the bush that was burning in the middle of his own life. At last, all other voices had quieted down enough that he could recognize a new Voice calling to him from this very unlikely place. Finally he was in a position to receive a word from the Lord.

The practice of “turning aside to look” is a spiritual discipline that by its very nature sets us up for an encounter with God. Elizabeth Dreyer, in her book Earth Crammed with Heaven, makes this provocative statement: “In a profound way, our intentionality is a key ingredient determining whether we notice God everywhere or only in church or only in suffering or nowhere. It all depends on how we choose to fashion our world.”

These days there is such a glut of information and stimulation that it is often hard to know what to pay attention to. Should I take that class, read this highly recommended book, attend that conference, subscribe to this magazine or newsletter, interact with this blog or website, watch this television program, read this research, search the Internet just a little more . . . ? When we do create space where we can exercise some discretion about what to do with our time, we may find that we are spinning in circles from one worthy-of-attention thing to another, not knowing what to choose.

Learning to pay attention and knowing what to pay attention to is a key discipline for leaders but one that rarely comes naturally to those of us who are barreling through life with our eyes fixed on a goal. One of the downsides of visionary leadership is that we can get our sights set on something that is so far out in the future that we miss what’s going on in our life as it exists now. We are blind to the bush that is burning in our own backyard and the wisdom that is contained within it. We squander the gift of this day just as it is, these people just they are, the uniqueness and the sweetness (even the bittersweetness) of this particular place on the journey just as it is, the voice of God calling to us in our own wilderness places.

Amid the welter of possible distractions, leaders need time in solitude so that we can notice those things we would otherwise miss due to the pace and complexity of our lives. We need moments in our life when we let the chaos settle a bit and invite God to show us evidence of his presence at work in big ways and subtle ways and allow him to guide us in our understanding of what these things mean. This practice alone can propel us into a very exciting part of the journey—a journey full of surprises and pronouncements and messages from God.

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Taken from Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton. 2nd Edition ©2018 by Ruth Haley Barton. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426.