Conversation – A place for mission

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, l tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing, for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The father loves the son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished.” – John 5:19-20


What is important is not that God is a spectator and participant in our life today, but that we are attentive listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the story of Christ on Earth. ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

At the heart of leadership in our Anglican Schools is the art and discipline of conversation.

Conversation is not just about our work it is the work as we seek to care, change and connect as communities of the Christian faith.

The centrality of conversation has not been lost on contemporary leadership and organisational thinking. In the Harvard Business Review 2015, one article reads ‘Leadership is conversation – How to improve employee engagement and alignment in today’s flatter, more networked organizations’. In Short, Traditional corporate communication must give way to a process that is more dynamic and conversational.

Poet and Philosopher, David Whyte, helpfully points out that the word conversation derived from the old latin conversatia means a kind of ‘living with’ or companionship.

Conversation through the lens of the Christian faith can be imagined as a dynamic ‘living with’ the Triune God, humanity and all of creation. This ‘living with’ is both relational and reciprocal, a call to personal communion and active participation.

Leading a chaplaincy team at Caulfield Grammar School in Melbourne, an Anglican school of around 3200 students, 1200 staff and 5 campuses we have been considering the centrality of conversational leadership in the complexity of our context. Conversational leadership is not about endless chatter but rather enabling relational engagement for real change.

Our central question can be summarised as…

“How can we be apprentices and architects of wholehearted conversation in our community, inviting one another into the larger world within and beyond ourselves?”

David Whyte calls this invitational space, a frontier or third experience where we encounter something more enlarging then ourselves and one another. This movement beyond ourselves which includes ourselves requires both humility and openness.

Navigating this frontier, I am reminded of the simple but powerful conclusion of the always relevant Eugene Peterson. Speaking to the ministry of small talk he says…

‘Art is Involved here. Art means that we give ourselves to the encounter, to the occasion, not condescendingly and grudgingly but creatively. Were not trying to make something happen but to be part of what is happening (Contemplative Pastor, 115).

Conversational Leadership in practice is a kind of posture of the heart that we seek to bring into our personal and communal frontier.

Apprentices and Architects

Seeking to apprentice ourselves in conversational leadership we have started to ask some of the questions formulated by Poet David Whyte and his institute for Conversational Leadership.

What is the conversation(s) we need to stop having?

What is the courageous conversation (close in) we are not having?

What are the beautiful questions that have not right to go away?

(the question which we are interested in personally pursuing and we do not know the answer).

Moving from pragmatics to shared purpose

One of the conversations we needed to stop having was our pragmatic view of Chapel –  moving beyond what works to why (purpose).

The courageous conversation was to consider: Is the community compliant rather than engaged in our services? And, do we have the flexibility and conviction to change our known practice in order to meet new shared goals? Could we adopt different styles – conversation, open space, contemplative?

The beautiful question was ‘How can we invite students and staff to participate in more meaningful ways?’

A new conversation that emerged was the need to name more clearly the specific shared intention of each chapel (lifting our eyes from the pragmatics) and in so doing purposely invite more creativity, interaction and meaningful feedback.

Moving from the island to the invitation

Another conversation we needed to stop having was the implicit assumption that our chaplaincy team were a stand alone specialised area of the school.

The beautiful questions emerged ‘Are we invitational?’ – and ‘Are we explicit about who we are and where we seek to go? and What do our school Vision, Mission and Values look like through the lens of the Christian faith?

Working with the overarching School Mission:

To enable quality learning every day in every experience for every learner for life.

We formed our expression for the spiritual life of the school:

Enabling the whole person to live wholeheartedly

The desire for our specific expression was to invite conversation between the distinctiveness of our Anglican Tradition and plurality of our community, the inner and outer life, the personal and communal, the local and global, the mind, the hand and the heart.

The invitation has been well received by staff, students and families. Adventurous collaboration has emerged through a shared commitment to name and step into a larger world. Earlier in the year I was approached by the music team of our school to connect in and with the chaplaincy team and host a musical concert at an Aged Care Community in outer Melbourne. This home is the residence of my mother Janice Holt who suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease.

Sharing my family story with the staff, naming my lament and longing to see my mum remember she is known and loved by the Truine God opened an unexpected frontier. ‘Stepping out’ with my own vulnerability, the 40+ music staff ‘stepped in’ and shared their desire to connect with her community through music. Arriving humbly and hopeful in this new space, we created, connected, and collaborated in a live-enlarging way.

“How can we be apprentices and architects of wholehearted conversation in our community, inviting one another into the larger world within and beyond ourselves?”

Conversation – a place for mission!

Ryan Holt Written by:

Ryan is the Head of Chaplaincy at Caulfield Grammar School in Melbourne, Adjunct Lecturer in Chaplaincy at Ridley College and is currently completing a doctorate with the Australian College of Theology, exploring the culture of service in Anglican schools today.

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