Do you feel pressed for time, caught up in the swirl and white water toxicity of a never ending work culture? It doesn’t have to be that way. Words like rest, alone, a quiet place, and sacred space can and need to be operative realities for how we practice our leadership. For example, when Jesus heard the news of the death of John the Baptist, he responded by saying something like this: “Let’s go to a quiet place, and rest awhile,” perhaps also to grieve.” (Mark 6:31 NLT) Matthew states that “(H)e left in a boat to a remote place to be alone.” (Matt. 14:13a NLT).
His alone space did not last very long, however, because the crowd quickly calculated the planned route and arrived at the anticipated landing point in advance of Jesus. Jesus’ response? He graciously fed the multitude with the miracle of the five loaves and two fish. Afterward, he sent his disciples away on a boat by themselves and sent the people home. And alone, “he went up into the hills by himself to pray.” (Matt. 14:23 NLT)
Time and again the Gospels present us with a similar picture of Jesus, the unhurried focused shepherd leader who was not only always on mission but also someone who seemed to have the uncanny ability to pace himself, someone never in a hurry to get to the next important place of ministry need. He knew his time of service on earth was limited yet near the very end of his life, he could say that he had completed everything his Father had asked him to do. (John 17:4 NLT) Talk about pressed for time.
When we read about Jesus’ life experiences we are tempted to conclude that life then was less frenetic than ours is today. Yet his reality was that “large crowds followed him wherever he went – people from Galilee, the Ten Towns, Jerusalem, from all over Judea, and from the East of the Jordan River.” (Matt. 4:25 NLT) “(V)ast numbers of people came to see him.” (Mark 3:8b NLT)
Some of his family members were harsh critics, observing that he “couldn’t even find time to eat.” (Mark 3:20b NLT). They concluded that “He’s out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21b NLT) Still, he intentionally chose to regularly interrupt his ministry agenda to stop, rest, be alone, and to commune and pray with his Father. His highest priority was to remain rooted in his Father’s agenda.
One of the keys to Jesus’ powerful ministry was his willingness to embrace the importance of sacred space.
One of the keys to Jesus’ powerful ministry was his willingness to embrace the importance of sacred space. He consistently made the decision to step aside from the regular routines of his work in order to stay connected to his Father. The place where he stopped didn’t seem to be that important but what happened within that space provided focus and a renewed purpose. He understood the need to celebrate sacred space in his life. If he needed it, how much more do we! Let’s look at the idea of sacred space more closely.
What is sacred space and why do we need it?
One way to define it is something like this: “Sacred space is a place or experience when and where we recognize the extraordinary presence of God.” It is a place where we know without a doubt that we have been with God and he has been with us. Some use the similar concept of a “thin space,” where the boundaries between earth and heaven are seemingly nonexistent.
I have found in my own life that sacred space usually occurs when three conditions seem to intersect: 1) when I am intentional and expectant, 2) when I embrace boundaries of various kinds, and 3) where I focus on God’s Word, prayer and communion with the living God.
Be Intentional and Expectant
When I welcome sacred space, first, I intentionally choose to stop my normal ways of operating to focus instead on a higher, more important agenda. I couple this intention with expectation – to listen for the voice of the Father in whatever ways that may happen because I want to be rooted in his agenda.
In the story of Elijah (1 Kings 19) Elijah had stepped aside from his normal ministry routine, had gone to a remote place and was waiting expectantly to hear from the Lord. He heard God’s voice, but it came in the form of a gentle whisper, not an earthquake or fire. David said it this way in Psalm 5:3: “Each morning I … wait in expectation.” (NLT)
When I choose sacred space, I say something like this: “Lord, your agenda is more important than mine; I need to stop, to pull away from my busyness, yes, even away from the people I love and care for, in order to listen, to better understand who you are and who you desire to be in my life, and to realign better my priorities with yours.” When we lived in New York City, I found in the middle of the week that the quiet sanctuary of a next door church often provided that sacred space.
Again, Jesus is our example. He would stop his work, separate himself from his disciples, and go alone to a different place to pray.
Second, when I welcome sacred space, I make a decision to embrace boundaries of some kind. Those can include a specific location, fasting, eliminating interruption and removing ready access to technology. I need to ensure that my workload doesn’t exceed the boundaries I set.
Again, Jesus is our example. He would stop his work, separate himself from his disciples, and go alone to a different place to pray. Sometimes he told them to wait while “He went on a little farther” (Matt. 26:39) to pray. There were limits to the disciples’ access to his presence with the Father. Appropriate boundaries provided him, and us, the opportunity to “(B)e still and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10a NLT).
Third, when I welcome sacred space, I make focusing on his Word, prayer and communion with God my priority. That includes silence and listening. The gospels tell us that when Jesus went off to be alone by himself, his focus was specific – prayer with his Father. This was one of the ways he stayed rooted to his Father’s agenda. As leaders we need to be rooted in him so we have his knowledge, wisdom, understanding, discernment, common sense and good judgment reflected in our leadership assignment. There is likely nothing else which will transform and re-invigorate our leadership in these areas more than having access to the heart of God, to know better his love for us and his desires for the organizations we serve. To do this well we need to stop, listen and remain rooted in him.
In The Return of the Prodigal Son (Doubleday, 1992) Henri Nouwen stated that he needed to “kneel before the Father, put my ear against his chest and listen, without interruption, to the heartbeat of God. Then, and only then, can I say carefully and very gently what I hear.” So too must we.
So why does sacred space matter?
Why do we need sacred space? There are many reasons but let me give just three.
- Perspective: Sacred space often provides a better perspective because I start with God and his awesome power rather than with me and my problem. I can now see my problem with a different perspective.
- Clarity: Sacred space provides clarity in terms of my leadership assignment. It allows me to focus more on what God has called me to do rather than on what I’d like to see done.
- Vision: Embracing sacred space often provides a time when I gain a new vision for leading and serving.
Without sacred space, we risk being dominated by the noise and busyness of work, which often is very destructive. That’s why we need to understand the practice of sacred space as essential and foundational for effective leadership.
Finally, embracing sacred space is one of the ways we can put feet to the words of the Apostle Paul (Col. 2:7a): “Plant your roots in Christ and let him be the foundation for your life.” Thankfully, Christ is our example.
Dr. Gene Habecker is Chair of the Board of Directors for Christianity Today, Senior Fellow for Sagamore Institute, and President Emeritus of Taylor University. His executive leadership experience spans more than three decades with presidencies at Huntington University, American Bible Society and Taylor University. His most recent book, The Softer Side of Leadership (Deep River Books, 2018) was listed in John Pearson’s Your Weekly Staff Meeting as one of the “Top 10-Books for 2018.” Habecker holds a B.A. from Taylor University, M.A. from Ball State University, Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, and J.D. from Temple University.