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How to master self-leadership through regular reflective prayer

Imagine you’ve been invited to attend an event at your local Youth With A Mission campus. While it’s important for you to be there, you know of a couple of people attending with whom you’ve recently experienced some conflict. You’ve tried your best to reconcile with them yet feel anxious about seeing them. Your stomach even tightens when you think about it. When the day comes, you notice yourself scanning the room to check where those people are so that you can avoid them. You quickly connect with a group you feel comfortable with, laughing a little more loudly than necessary at the stories being shared, as though to let any onlookers know that you’re having a great time.

During the evening, a campus leader shares about a new project being launched. It sounds great to you until you hear that one of those you’ve had a conflict with is on the project team. Suddenly you feel resistant to the new initiative, telling yourself you have valid concerns. In conversation later, you emphasise those concerns to others, becoming more convinced than ever that your resistance is well-founded and not at all connected to the relational stand-off. 

As I consider this imagined but not unusual scenario, it reminds me that the motives driving our behaviour are multilayered; we manage our behaviour in all kinds of mostly unconscious ways to protect ourselves from uncomfortable realities. The discomfort is often felt in our bodies, and these feelings are messages that have something to tell us. Paying attention to our feelings can bring us self-awareness so that we can act differently. This kind of attention might lead us to experience the above scenario differently:

You notice your stomach tightening when you think about the upcoming event and wonder why this might be. Reflecting on it, you realise that even after some mediated conversations, youre finding it hard to trust those you were in conflict with. This means that when you think about being together, you feel anxious. You ask the Holy Spirit to minister a sense of safety to you. You imagine arriving at the event in the presence of Jesus, who loves and understands you, even when others dont. When the day of the event arrives, each time you feel anxiety in your stomach, you consciously return to the sense of Jesus being with you. This helps you feel known and loved which calms your nervous system. When you see those concerned, you are able to greet them respectfully. During the evening, one of the leaders shares about a new project being launched. When you hear that one of the people youve had a conflict with is on the project team, you are able to discern between your own feelings and how God might be leading the group. You are able to offer prayerful support rather than resistance.

This story demonstrates that the ability to lead ourselves through cultivating reflective self-awareness influences the way we show up in team contexts and the way we make decisions. The impact of this is far-reaching because, in addition to coaching leaders in tools relating to vision, teams, goal setting and strategy, in YWAM we also train in self-leadership. This is the idea that unless we are effectively leading ourselves — managing our strengths, weaknesses, growing edges and blind spots — we will be ultimately ineffective and potentially damaging, as we lead and influence others. Self-leadership is another way of talking about our lifelong journey of discipleship.

Self-leadership is not a value only for those leading in a ministry context. In a recent blog post for the Forbes website, Tony Gambill wrote, ‘Ongoing leadership success is mostly determined by one’s ability to develop advanced self-leadership skills which enable one to better navigate important, complex, and relational situations’. A leadership role implies a set of relationships, and it is our ability to navigate those relational dynamics that determines our effectiveness as leaders. This ability flows out of the habitual ways in which we learn to lead ourselves or to direct our own behaviour.

Self-leadership focuses on the space between a subconscious reaction to a conversation, relationship or event, and the behaviour motivated by that reaction. Cultivating habits of reflection might lead us to greater freedom in choosing behaviours which are more loving, less destructive or that lead to healthier connections. This could include the ways we habitually relate to ourselves, to others and to God in the context of experiencing change, concerns, criticisms, conflict or crises. (You might want to take a couple of minutes here to pause. As you do so, reread that last sentence and pay attention to which of your own patterns spring to mind.) Reflection allows us to enlarge the space within which these intra and interpersonal choices are made.

What is the benefit of reflecting in this way? Taking time to consider our behaviour in the context of our relationship with God can make us aware of what is motivating our behaviour. At a superficial level, this might be an emotion such as fear, expectation, joy or sadness. When we sit longer with these feelings, we might become aware of deeper patterns of self-protection, control, ambition or independence that are deeper drivers within us. Every pattern connects in some way with the story of our lives — with what has happened to us and how we learned to manage our personal stories with some sense of safety. Only when we become aware of these truths, which mercifully does not happen all at once, are we able to encounter God in the ways we most need. As many Christian writers have commented, God can only meet me where I really am (not where I think I should be).

The prayer of Examen is a spiritual practice well established in Christian tradition. It is a helpful way to cultivate reflective self-awareness, and the benefits of the practice seem to accrue over time. Here’s one explanation of this prayer reflection:

Step 1. Become conscious of God’s loving presence. Review the events of the day and ask God to bring to your attention whatever He is inviting you to notice.

Ask yourself: Where was I aware of God today?

Step 2. Look over the day with gratitude, taking note of the day’s gifts. Look at the work you did and the people you interacted with. What did you receive from those people? What did you give them? Pay attention to small and seemingly insignificant things.

Ask yourself: What am I thankful for today?

Step 3. Reflect on the feelings you experienced during the day. Boredom? Elation? Resentment? Compassion? Anger? Confidence? What might God be saying through these feelings? Might a feeling of frustration mean that God wants you to consider a new direction in some area of your work? Could concern for a friend be an invitation to reach out to them in some way?

Ask yourself: What did I feel today?

Step 4. Ask the Holy Spirit to direct you to something during the day that God thinks is particularly important. It may involve a feeling — positive or negative. It might be a significant encounter with another person or a vivid moment of pleasure or peace. Or it could be something that seems rather insignificant. Look at it. Pray about it. Allow prayer to rise spontaneously from your heart — whether intercession, praise, repentance or gratitude.

Ask yourself: What could I pray for?

Step 5. As you consider tomorrow, ask God to give you light for the next day’s challenges. Pay attention to the feelings surfacing as you survey what’s coming up. Are you doubtful? Cheerful? Apprehensive? Full of delighted anticipation? Allow these feelings to turn into prayer as you seek God’s help. 

Ask yourself: How do I feel about tomorrow and what do I need?

Very simply, to make this a habit we take a few minutes at the end of each day to review and reflect on the day. The act of writing our responses in a journal can help to deepen our processing. Some people decide to meet with a couple of friends once a week, simply to share what they are noticing in their Examen experience. This adds the support of prayerful friends to the act of reflection in ways that support us to make the good choices into which we are being invited by the Holy Spirit.

By making simple practices like the Prayer of Examen a regular part of our lives, we can grow in awareness of our helpful and unhelpful behaviour patterns. As we do, we open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. In this way, may we all grow to become leaders that help and heal more than we harm.

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