Exploring the God-Field: A Systems Approach to Spiritual Direction/Hashpa’ah in Communal and Organizational Life

a sample chapter from Seeking & Soaring: Jewish Approaches to Spiriatual Direction

Chapter 25 by Shawn Israel Zevit

Rabbi Shawn Zevit offers spiritual direction for individuals, groups, communities and organizations. He serves as mashpia and core faculty for Hashpa’ah: The ALEPH Ordination Program in Spiritual Direction, and was a spiritual director at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College from 1999-2007. He has been an organizational consultant, congregational rabbi, teacher, author, composer and performer for over 25 years, and is the author of several works including, Offerings of the Heart: Money and Values in Faith Communities (Alban Institute, 2005) and a forthcoming book on Jewish masculinities.

The Jewish mystical tradition views each human being as a creative spark awaiting more kindling on his or her soul journey. This nitzutz (divine spark) is often the nurturing focus of hashpa’ah (spiritual direction). Yet if we expand our Godly lenses to a broader, “satellite” view of God’s Presence in this Universe, then exploring this Presence in the context of faith community, family systems, organizations and societies in which we live and work, live and die, is equally important. In a holographic, non-dualistic world-view, there is no place outside of Godly existence.

Bringing “God” or “Spiritual/Ethical Values” to congregational planning, ritual and policy decision-making, conflict, and values clarification can be a gateway to engaging and releasing untapped Godly potential. These approaches are keys to unlocking the very spiritual, emotional, and intellectual energy that may be dormant or blocked in a congregational, organizational or larger communal system.

Take for example this text, taught in the Warsaw Ghetto, where discerning the sacred mission, and “God’s will” for a community was just as important in times of life-threatening crisis:

“Our association is not organized for the purpose of attaining power or intervening in the affairs of community or state, whether directly or indirectly. Quite the opposite: Our goal is to gradually rise above the noise and tumult of the world by steady, incremental steps. It is not consistent with our goals to hand out awards as to who is advanced and who lags behind. The whole premise of our group is the vast human potential for both baseness and elevation. Our bodies and souls are currently quite un-evolved, but our potential for holiness is very great. Holiness is our key and our primary value; honors and comparisons serve no useful purpose.[1]

Even in the midst of times of questionable survival, Rabbi Shapira and his community in Warsaw were taking a stand for a clear God-centered mission and saw the importance for a shared, openly articulated purpose for being together as a faith community. We may do individual work in hashpa’ah to clarify our own purpose and spiritual path, but are we asking ourselves within the collective context of a living system?

BUY NOW: Seeking & Soaring, Jewish Approaches to Spiritual Direction (30 contributing authors, leading innovators, teachers & scholars in this field)

Spiritual Direction: A Systems Perspective

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, “systems theory” emerged in the fields of family therapy, anthropology, and communications, as well as in the business world. A systems approach looks at the totality of a social organization and the interaction within it. This approach recognizes that the parts interact with complexity, with the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

As applied to group life, a systems approach sees the totality of a communal or organizational system and the interaction of the component parts, rather than looking only at individual roles and functions. Mordecai Kaplan wrote:

The human being is not a self-contained atom, but is the product of the biological, historical and social forces that operate in the group to which he belongs…. What has been said of words in relation to their context is true of human beings in relation to their communities; they are not “pebbles in juxtaposition”; they have only a communal existence; the meaning of each interpenetrates the others.[2]

Congregations, communities and organizations also go through lifecycles, just as an individual who may come to us for spiritual direction does over time. The process of communal hashpa’ah requires assessing what the roles are of current leadership in this community at this moment in its development. For example, working with a board of a newly formed congregation or a congregation-in-transition in a group spiritual direction process may reveal that, while solving complex and long-reaching presenting issues may be the goal of certain individuals in leadership positions, divisiveness may prevail if secondary stages of stability and consolidation are not reached beforehand. A group mashpia can help the leadership tune into where God, or Truth, or Mission and Vision are clear and accessible, a coming together of spirit that can form a healthy grounding for the work at hand of group or communal spiritual formation.

Note: Each group will have a comfort level and language of its own to describe God-experience; the mashpia must be careful not to assume anything, nor to impose one’s own.

Walking the “God-field”: Creativity and Choice-Making in Community

A 300-household Jewish congregation wished to reconnect with its founding principles and mission, with its pre-building, pre-rabbi, pre-staff stage of communal life, which began two decades ago. They described themselves as having lost their spiritual center, despite have achieved programmatic diversity and increased membership. People had joined the community for the warmth, inclusivity and creativity of services and programming. Even so, leadership and members could not articulate the mission of the community or consciously understand why the community in fact felt the way it did to them. The approach to group hashpa’ah selected for this community was “creative” both in the sense that they employed narrative, imagery, role playing, and imagination, as well as in the sense that they were generative of something new, unexpected, and alive.

We began the first session together gently with some moments of quiet reflection, with a familiar ritual, a niggun - a wordless melody that brings focus to the group’s energy and acts as a reminder of the sacred intent of our gathering and the commitment to the relationships formed in the name of community. I put a chair in the center of the group and invited them to think of God/Holy of Holies/Core Values (whatever language worked for people) as in the center or seated in this chair bearing witness to what they were about to share- and as a locus of holy inquiry to turn to for clarity and vision as needed.

Next, we projected a photograph that wastaken at the original meeting two decades ago where the idea of starting the congregation was hatched. Both seasoned and new members were invited to use the body language and expressions of the people pictured to suggest what they were thinking. Wonderful stories came to the fore from the founders, and creative interpretations were offered by newer members, especially children and youth.More photographs were then projected from the congregation’s twenty-year history, with an invitation for sharing of more real or imagined thoughts or dialogue for those pictured. When we arrived at a current photo of the synagogue itself, participants were asked to find a partner and share what it was they believed this building would want prospective members to know about its people and its history, and what God as Eternal Witness would remind them was important even before a mikdash (sanctuary), holy space, had been built around this Sacred Heart.

The final image was a supersized version of the congregation’s mission statement, which the president was invited to read aloud. Then everyone was invited to “become” the adjectives included in the mission statement, e.g.

“You are ‘warm and welcoming’- Why are you in the mission statement and what are you here to remind us of?”

“I am here to remind everyone that we are to always be an open tent like the one our ancestors Abraham and Sarah had, like the ancient festival celebrations in Jerusalem that welcomed in the Israelite and the stranger,” one participant responded.

“That we are to be open to people who may have been alienated from religious life and are seeking a non-judgmental home to return to,” offered another.

We went through all the descriptive words in the mission statement in this way: “You are ‘egalitarian’…you are ‘inclusive’… you are ‘valuing tradition’… you are ‘innovative.’” More and more voices joined the exploration, each contribution punctuated by a return to the niggun with which we had begun, and a moment of contemplation. Following each third or fourth offering, I asked what they felt “God was for them” or “where they experience their soul’s Truth” in response.

I offered appreciation for the mission statement and thanked its initial crafters for the wisdom they imparted through it. Participants were next asked to explore what they had learned from the document that expressed the reason for their community’s existence. An hour later, with the conversation still buzzing, the evening was brought to a close by my offering a series of questions for everyone to consider in preparation for the next day’s session: “Imagine that you are back at that founding meeting 20 years ago. Would you change this mission statement in any way and why? What values would like to see reflected in it? What does your soul (God/Truth) tell you is most important to remember, reclaim, change, from this foundational time, when you were wanderers coming together to find a place of promise? Imagine that it is five years from now and you are looking at a photo of this weekend: What was said at this time that supported the congregation in growing and thriving in the years that followed?”

That evening the past was present and the future was glimpsed. Individual and congregational stories were brought to the table, later to become inspiring references for the work ahead. On subsequent days of the retreat, we began each session with a group spiritual direction session, and contemplatively studied texts on living in community from the Torah, the Talmud, and the hasidic masters, pausing whenever someone felt moved to share an insight or response to a text that connected them to sense of purpose, touched their own spiritual life or evoked a call to realize an aspect of their own community.

We looked at other congregational mission statements and a previous five-year plan to examine the elements needed to help build a conscious, supportive, and spiritually and intellectually vibrant community. We broke into subgroups to revise the mission statement, to clarify the value of a variety of religious practices and the synagogue’s worship style, and to explore educational issues that needed to be addressed in the year ahead. During prayer, we paused when one of the values or themes being explored in our work together surfaced in the liturgy, and we added additional prayers for those values (e.g., creativity, love, deep listening, unity, etc.) to be present in the work of the board and committees, the clergy, and teachers in the year ahead. There were no activities—study, group dialogue, worship, brainstorming, or late-night conversation—that were seen as being outside the process and goals of the weekend or the subsequent year in the life of the community.

This is just one example of the power ofhashpa’ah or spiritual direction using systemic modalities in work with communities or organizations. Process and outcome, form and content become mutually enhancing and interdependent ways of realizing the divine potential of individuals, communities, and larger organizational systems, especially when conflict, stagnation, and habit are exerting stress on the congregational or organizational system.

BUY NOW Seeking & Soaring: Jewish Approaches to Spiritual Direction (30 contributing authors, leading teachers, guides & innovators in this field)

Giving Voice to the Unexpressed 

There are many ways to interact with our sacred texts and to weave in how we experience the Divine working through us now. For example, a number of the psalms include dialogue with God. Similarly, one way to work with both young people and adults in the area of congregational decision-making, visioning, and planning is to ask them to write a “Dear God/Source of Life,” “Dear Self,” or “Dear Congregation” letter, allowing for a variety of comfort levels with personal theological language. This exercise provides an avenue to voice what is not in scripture but is informed by it; or to voice something that is in an individual’s heart but is not conventionally expressed. Sometimes I ask participants in this exercise to also write their own answering letters addressing their particular queries or areas of conflict or concern. What often emerges from this exercise is a soul response that is more expansive, flexible, and capable of holding polarities (even when resolution is not always accessible) than is produced by opinion sharing or conceptual discussion. The suspension of judgment and deep listening to the words beneath the words are very important in any of these exercises, just as they are in group spiritual direction or consensus-building exercises.

If we believe that the classroom, the sanctuary, the community center, the workplace, the home, are all places in which we engage in life-long learning, then to live a God-centered life is to actively and consciously express and participate in the life-narrative we are co-creating with each other.

The intersection of theology and creativity invites us into a relationship with the Divine that is a dynamic process, not a static conceptualization: not for the noun God do we look. What we had experienced was not static ENTITY. So VERB and PROCESS are words that fit better.[3]

Bibliodrama and God-Centered Theatre as Group Hashpa’ah

On the twentieth-first century stage God becomes not necessarily less holy or powerful, only infinitely more approachable. This dramatic exploration of human-Divine encounter, or trying to give voice to new midrash about God, whether bibliodramatically from sacred texts, or improvised and scripted new plays, requires sensitivity. Peter Pitzele, a therapist and psycho-dramatist, structured the process which emerged in some Jewish and Christian circles in the 1970s and 1980s into a form of interpretive play he termed “bibliodrama.”He spells out some of the parameters in his book “Scripture Windows”:

“There are times when a bibliodramatic scene cries out for the presence of God. Directors should be guided by their own theological scruples as to whether they will or will not bring God onto the stage. Some may rightly fear the reduction of the mysterium tremendum to the scale of play; others may feel that the personification of the divine offends their own sense of religious decorum or may offend members of the group. Others may feel that God needs to be brought into the drama so that people can find ways of being in dialogue with the divine.”[4]

There is a sense here that the sacred text, and the narrative of our lives, is not merely acted upon, but rather part of God working through us, the working tools of the Holy One, in ongoing creation.

Another exercise involves asking group members to create a human “sculpture” around a particular value as it relates to an issue requiring a decision that will impact the community at large. In the case of an explicit contract to examine the God-center or spiritual core of a community, group or organization’s life; this exercise can be titled “Aspects of Divinity in Our Community” or “Points of Purpose in Our Mission.”

For example, if tikkun olam (social justice and community activism) is the chosen issue about which members are trying to develop priorities, resolve conflict or self-educate, participants can be asked to create a sculpture representing the various values, causes or organizations under discussion. The exercise begins with one person striking a pose expressive of the cause or value they represent (e.g., “anti-hunger,” “environment,” “international relief,” etc.). One by one, others take positions in relation to the first person and offer a one-word description of the aspect of tikkun olam they represent. During the exercise, the facilitator can interview various people as to why their cause is a priority. The different members of the sculpture can be invited to dialogue among themselves. Those remaining seated can be invited to offer what they observe and how the dialogue impacts their view of which causes to invest congregational human and financial resource in, and in what priority.

The art of inviting participants—whether in study, during worship services, in youth or adult educational settings, at meetings or retreats—to give voice to the unspoken thoughts and feelings of characters or situations in scripture can also be a powerful way to assist members of a community to unlock insights in the Bible (“bibliodrama” or “drashodrama” or “contemporary midrash”) and discover their relevance to contemporary issues.

When exploring the dynamics of leadership with congregational or organizational boards, committees, clergy, and staff, I often use the story of Moses receiving and acting on his father-in-law’s advice about delegating and avoiding leadership burnout as a text to explore the dynamics of leadership [Exodus, Chapter 18, or Deuteronomy 1:9-15]. Exploring the scripture bibliodramatically might involve reading a few verses of text, then inviting people to offer suggestions as to why Jethro felt compelled to give Moses his advice, or asking participants to consider what Moses really thought when he heard Jethro’s advice and why he decided to listen to him. What is gleaned from this enactment and the text itself that relates to leadership and communication issues in the community can then be explored in discussion.

It is important to recognize that there are different comfort levels each of us may have with setting up these scenarios or taking on the task of giving voice to God. Only do what you and your participants are comfortable with. At the same time, I have done these exercises with groups ranging from interfaith, multi-faith, orthodox and self-professed atheists, corporate executives and line-workers, clergy and lay leaders, with moving and long-term transformative results. Both children and adults are able to express and reflect on the beliefs they hold about a Higher Source in the universe, how that does or does not align with their actions in the world, and what it tells them about who they long to be Jewishly, and as a human being in general.

Re-telling the Story

Telling a community’s story through a scriptural lens, or creating vignettes of the history of one’s congregation, school, or organization and the values it stands for can help a group realize how it can live in and create sacred community. To translate an older theological view of “And God said to Moshe, tell the Israelites...” we could offer a key question of hashpa’ah in a larger system such as, “To where do we understand as a community or organization that God/Higher Vision/Fulfilling our Mission is calling us?” This creative and maximalist approach is central to a productive values-based decision-making process that can be employed for crucial issues in the life of a faith-based community. A paradigmatic model based on that suggested by Dr. David Teutsch, Director of the Center for Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, consists of:

—study of the sources, religious and cultural traditions and practices

—study of current information from the natural and social sciences (including organizational dynamics, systems theory, etc.)

 —reflection on personal and communal values analysis of the impact of each possible decision on each affected party

―democratic and inclusive processes that maximize the number of participants along the way to a final decision.[5]

To this approach, I have added the creative techniques for reflecting on personal and communal values, or what we might express as the search to understand “God’s direction” described earlier in this article, as well as role playing to help in analyzing the impact of possible decisions. An in-depth process such as this may take a year or more in the life of a community, so this is not a model I would recommend for making minor decisions. However, in the areas of religious services, board governance, operating practices, financial resources, education, and involvement in social justice causes in the larger world, combining creative techniques with this serious approach to discernment can powerfully impact the level of participation, the outcome and ownership of decisions.

Cultivating Active Participation

Many faith communities and organizations employ such participatory processes to engage the entire congregation in renewing and reinvigorating worship services, coming to deeper ownership of congregational Shabbat practices and guidelines, and other areas of ritual. The role of clergy as teacher and guide as well as active participant—is crucial to the success of such endeavors. By trusting that when we openly look at and name the dynamics of power, authority, and responsibility that we, as clergy or lay leaders, have in a congregational or organizational system, we can facilitate ownership by other members of the community for their part in the decision-making process—to everyone’s benefit.

An example of this occurred recently in my own life, when I became the visiting rabbi at a historically lay-led congregation in Pittsburgh, a faith community experimenting with a hybrid of leadership models. In this congregation, we arranged for the signing of the rabbinic contract to be a ritual event. After the president of the congregation convened the evening, the leadership of the havurah, a subgroup within the community that, with the support of the larger congregation, had accepted responsibility for bringing a visiting rabbi to the congregation each month, shared what it meant for them to arrive at this moment. The havurah liaison and I both shared that we experienced the contract negotiations as a truly holy conversation. We then discussed the themes of power, authority, and accountability as they occur in any group or organizational system, studied biblical and contemporary texts on leadership, and explored our hopes for our rabbi-congregational relationship. 

Next, using a ritual format often used at Jewish weddings, the president handed me the contract, asking if I agreed to the covenant of our terms. He then did the same with the havurah liaison. After we had signed the document, other havurah members were invited to sign as witnesses if they so chose. Afterward, we chanted the traditional Sheheheyanu prayer, thanking God for being the sustaining Source and for bringing us to this day. This was followed by a shared meal, where we traded stories about our personal journeys. Finally, we embarked on a three-hour planning session that laid out the year’s activities for the havurah and how it would interface with the congregation as a whole.

People remarked upon how our study together and the sacredness of the signing ritual had directly contributed to the energy, creative thinking, and enthusiasm for the decision-making and planning that followed. At evening’s end, I invited the leadership to share what they were taking away from our first collective working session. A number of participants commented that their fear of losing their voices with a rabbi present had given way to new energy, empowerment, and a sense of being supported to take on greater roles in their spiritual and communal lives. One person shared: “God is in this place and we, we CAN know it!”

Weaving together ritual, individual and congregational stories, study, prayer, a shared meal, administrative objectives, and program planning can mutually enhance each of these components, helping to build relationships and a sense of sacred community at the same time.

I have discovered that capital campaigns and efforts to decide what type of membership dues or fee structure a community will adopt can also be enhanced by these types of creative values-based decision-making approaches. Creative and participatory approaches to the spiritual life of any community are enhanced the more people see themselves as active participants in their individual and congregational religious life. This can help narrow the divide between practices and expressed values both within a faith community and outside its walls. In addition, seeing adults become more invested in the major issues that determine the current and future actions of their community can also inspire young people to become involved. 

Of course, we can misuse any creative or participatory process—to block needed action and consign decision-making to an endless process of processing, for instance. As with an individual mushpa or directee, we want to pay attention to a person’s movement away from or towards more holy and holistic consciousness. We can hide behind anti-authoritarian approaches, undermining clergy and leaders by insisting that everyone needs to approve every decision or that consensus is required at every turn. To avoid these pitfalls, it’s important to be aware of the shadow side of any creative process when we approach core issues in sacred community creatively and with maximal member involvement. Ultimately, when we enter into discussion about an important issue in our community, we are entering sacred ground. Godliness can manifest through the approach and content of our decision-making. We are, in short, striving for a process that contains Godly values and yields an outcome that fulfills the mission of our community and the spiritual growth of the participants.

Whatever approach we take, it’s crucial that we do our homework beforehand, trust in the development of our own styles of leadership and the social and spiritual bonds in the community we are committed to. We also must recognize that we might have a strong bias in favor of a particular outcome. This is part of the creative tension when we move decision-making from an elite activity into greater communal participation. Moses faced this tension with a burgeoning community at Sinai. Managing polarities is part of the decision-making process. In the moment of a creative encounter—as in any artistically alive and spiritual moment—our task is to be present to what the relationships and dynamics in the room are calling out for, in balance with the mission and values of that community. The insights, healing, enjoyment, and challenges people will experience depend on this practice of presence, and the creativity, compassion and conscious choice-making that can be its result.

There are some key questions to hold in your heart as you encourage or guide others into this holy inquiry: What moments have you most strongly felt your faith or a Divine presence, present in a major decision or activity in the life of your faith community or organization? What was the role of spontaneity and creativity in this experience? What was the role of study, weighing values and open discussion of different viewpoints?

We have seen how the process of communal hashpa’ah also invites the individual to see him or herself in relationship to the smaller and larger systems in which they live and move along their own soul’s interactive journey. In the hasidic mystical foundations text, Likutei Amarim, known as The Tanya, we read of how a face to face or relational field is necessary even for independent Divine Energies to function without collapsing in on themselves:

“Tohu (disorder) refers to the state of the original Sefirot (Divine Emanations), as unformed and unordered points. Tikun (restitution; reformation) refers to the state of the Sefirot rearranged, mended and reformed…Thus among the Sefirot of Tohu there is no inter-relationship… no mutual inclusion- each on its own, without relating to its opposite. The Sefirot of Tikun, on the other hand, compound one another…permitting the mitigating influence of Wisdom, and are, therefore, able to inter-relate.”

                                            ―Reb Schneur Zalman of Liadi

We are not inherently broken and in need of repair. We are inherently whole, but not always in relationship with this sense of Ehad (Unity), our Godly potential, with each other and with the world. Perspectives or systems may be broken; their repair happens when we reaffirm our covenant with the Source of Life Itself and take our values and beliefs from the prayer book and the study halls, the mission statement and the budget lines into every aspect of our lives.

BUY NOW: Seeking & Soaring, Jewish Approaches to Spiritual Direction (30 contributing authors, the leading innovators in this field)

A Closing Prayer

Holy One of Blessing
Your invitation is to locate our acts
Of building sacred community
In honesty, in justice, in love for ourselves,
Loving each other and the world.
Without You we may start to believe
We alone are the source and judge
Of what is a right course of action
Without taking our prayers
Out of the sanctuary into the streets
We risk seeking comfort and escape
From the cries around us.
All of the natural world
Has its own song to the universe
When we lovingly open our hearts
When we strive for Godly connection within
And outside the walls of our communities
Then ourtefilot and mitzvot can become
A grounding source for our God-conceptions
And a grounding force for Godly actions.

Recommended Reading

Richard Hirsch, “Decision Making in the Congregational System,” The Reconstructionist, Volume 65, No. 2, Spring 2001, pp. 13-21.

Editor, Rabbi-Congregational Relationship: A Vision for the 21st Century, Reconstructionist Press, 2001.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, Conscious Community, translated by Andrea Cohen-Kiener, Jason Aronson, Inc., 1996.

Peter Pitzele, Scripture Windows: Towards a Practice of Bibliodrama, Torah Aura Productions, 1997-98.

Rabbi Shawn Zevit,Sacred Trust: Values-Based Leadership and Governance, Reconstructionist Press, 2001.

and Rabbi Shira Stutman, Money and Jewish Values: A Twelve-Week Curriculum, Reconstructionist Press, 2004.

and Rabbi Shira Stutman, Jewish Communal Leadership and Congregational Governance: A Resource Manual for Training and Developing Effective Boards and Committees, Reconstructionist
Press, 2005.

Institute for Contemporary Midrash. http://www.icmidrash.org 

[1]           Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, Conscious Community, translated by Andrea Cohen-Kiener, Jason Aronson Inc., Northvale, N.J.: 1999. p. 3

[2]           Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, The Future of the American Jew, Macmillan, NY, New York: 1948, p.148.

[3]           Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi,Paradigm Shift,Jason Aronson, NJ, 1993, p. 141.

[4]           Peter Pitzele, Scripture Windows: Towards a Practice of Bibliodrama, Torah Aura Productions, Los Angeles, CA, 1997-98, p. 221. 

[5]           Richard Hirsch, “Decision Making in the Congregational System,” The Reconstruc-tionist, Volume 65, No. 2, Spring 2001, pp. 13-21 and David A. Teutsch, Values Based Decision Making The Reconstructionist:, Volume 65, Volume 2, Spring 2001.

BUY NOW: Seeking & Soaring, Jewish Approaches to Spiritual Direction (30 contributing authors, leading guides, scholars, & innovators in the field)