Dear Spiritual Innovators, You Are Not Alone
The first time I heard the word “spiritual innovator” was at a gathering at the Fetzer Institute called Sharing Spiritual Heritage. I looked around the room of extraordinary spiritual leaders and thought that perhaps they had made a mistake by inviting me. However, when they started to raise questions, questions I’d been holding deeply and with great discomfort on my own for so long, I felt a deep sense of relief and kinship, like I’d found a new family. I realized then that I was a spiritual innovator, someone who was reimagining spiritual practices (while remaining rooted in their lineage) to be relevant, accessible, and meaningful for today’s world. And finally, I wasn’t alone.
Though we were grounding our work in lineage, we were each pushing the boundaries of interpretation and practice in our spiritual traditions, breaking “rules,” and in some cases, reclaiming wisdom that was lost long ago. A word we used in the room to describe ourselves was “heretics.” It was no wonder that some of us found greater solace, support, and connection with others across religious traditions than in our own. Some of the questions we surfaced were: How do we stay connected to our lineage while responding to the needs of seekers today? How do we not abuse the teachings, misrepresent them, or appropriate them? How do we know what we’re doing is “right” when there’s no authority, no one who has practiced these teachings in this way before? Who gives you authority?
A GEM of an Idea: Centering Marginalized Voices
In our last day together, there were a few key needs that arose. One was the need for deeper dialogue and relationships grounded in trust and shared practice. Another need was a hunger to understand how to contribute what we were doing in this new field of spiritual innovation, particularly how to inform the spiritual infrastructure of the future that could serve all of us. Finally, in looking around the room, we realized that people who are marginalized are often not centered in these discussions. And we agreed these voices needed to be heard now more than ever.
Over several months, a team of passionate participants from the gathering, spearheaded by Michelle Scheidt at the Fetzer Institute, came together and brainstormed. Building off the work that Fetzer had been doing already, they dreamed up the idea of a spiritual sandbox or incubator, where GEM (Global Ethnic Majority, or BIPOC) spiritual innovators could gather and learn, test ideas, and practice together. In one of those conversations, I offered to help.
Beyond Transaction: A Design for Our Time
As one of the first steps for designing what would become the Learning Cohort, we had conversations with GEM spiritual innovators in the field, listening to what they dreamed of doing, what they were challenged by, and what they needed. It soon became apparent that the usual models for innovator programs would not be a good fit. There were certain principles that were not transferable. For example, in the innovation field, there’s a concept of time-to-value, where you need to demonstrate value to the “customer” as soon as possible to be successful. However, some GEM spiritual innovators operate on a different time scale. One innovator put it as “Indigenous time” as opposed to “Western time.” They rely more on alignment, on deeply listening and being responsive, not just to the needs of others and their communities, but to the sacred and even to the land itself. One spiritual innovator spent six years to develop the right relationship with the land, taking the time to listen to and heal the land before even thinking to build her retreat center on it. On closer examination, some “best practices” from business, nonprofit management, and entrepreneurial fields can come from intentions that completely counteract the very purpose of bringing new forms of spirituality in the first place, which is to unlearn ways of thinking and being that perpetuate our own suffering and in the world.
Since popular program models did not seem like a good fit, we decided that our work was not only to help support innovators, but to reimagine innovator cohort models as well. In order to understand which practices fit and which didn’t, we decided to invite spiritual innovators into the design process. Together, in one of our design conversations, we discussed, “What would it look like to decolonize cohort programs?” What could arise when we don’t limit or constrain people by our programmatic objectives for funder-driven priorities, but rather invite people to offer up what they see and want? What would funding look like from a spirit of trusting relationship rather than that of transactional exchange?
Based on the conversations, research, and recommendations, we adopted three design principles for the Learning Cohort:
Reimagining Selection: Relationships over Metrics
We discussed how many programs use a set of criteria to identify the “right” people. This approach often favors metrics that are easy to gather, such as size of organization, language on a website, or level of impact, over less quantifiable qualities, such as depth of wisdom. Even interviews rely on first impressions, inadvertently favoring articulate and extroverted individuals. In researching alternative forms of innovation, we came across “The Relational Work of Systems Change,” an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. It emphasizes how prioritizing relationships can invite the sacred, transform power dynamics, cultivate space for healing, and facilitate inner and outer change. We decided to elevate relationships as the key basis for selection by deepening our relationships with the BIPOC innovators from the initial gathering. In addition, as a means of expanding beyond our direct networks while maintaining relational trust, we asked them to nominate the remaining members of the group. This recommendation came from another cohort program at Fetzer Institute, called the Racial Justice Praxis Project. They found that this nomination process facilitates a transference of trust, potentially allowing the cohort to go deeper with each other faster.
That being said, using relational networks has its limitations. Like all methods, it is not perfect. When we tried to find innovators from indigenous communities, we discovered that while everyone wanted to include them in the cohort, few were directly connected to anyone from these communities in a meaningful way. We favored going the extra step, extending our timeline, and ultimately, finding a connection in these communities. We learned that sometimes extraordinary measures are required if you’re truly trying to innovate.
Reimagining Program Design: Emergence over Outcomes
Instead of creating outcomes and working backwards to identify what we would do to achieve them, focused on creating the conditions to have the work unfold by centering those who were doing the work, and trusting emergence and sacred mystery. This meant not having program expectations, outcomes, or even prescribed activities. This approach is grounded in trust, trust that the participants would know better what needed to be done together than any program team, and trust that they would show up without guardrails or expectations. To balance the spaciousness of an emergent process and to provide a meaningful purpose for coming together, we started with a question, “What would serve all of us to build the spiritual infrastructure of the future?” This rebalancing from outcomes to trusting emergence and relationship is an experiment, and we have no idea what will unfold. That is part of the trust and letting go.
Reimagining Funding: Generosity over Expectations
Even if we did not have explicit program outcomes, we know that funding usually comes with certain expectations, whether they are explicit or veiled in “some language of having to fit in some program criteria,” as one participant put it. We decided to use a radical approach grounded in recognition and appreciation, which was simply to give each participant a small grant of unrestricted funding, with participation in the group the only deliverable. Particularly for GEM leaders, who have historically suffered from bias and lack of equitable compensation for their efforts, we felt it was important to underscore that we did not have any explicit outcomes tied to the Learning Cohort, and that we valued their emotional labor, wisdom, and time they spent on this work. The response on hearing this was extraordinary. Ranging from disbelief to deep gratitude, we found that participants needed to be reminded in ensuing conversations that there were no strings attached.
Our intention in sharing these design principles is not to claim there is “a right way” or that we found a better way of designing learning cohorts, or that we’ve achieved anything in particular that is superior or great. In fact, we’re only at the beginning of our journey. Twelve extraordinary GEM spiritual innovators from diverse spiritual traditions, communities, and racial ethnicities have said “yes” to joining the Learning Cohort and experimenting with us, and we've already met once. Here’s who they are:
- Keshira haLev Fife
- Teresa Mateus
- Maka Black Elk
- Netanel Miles-Yépez
- Venerable Pannavati
- Su Yon Pak
- Afton Lewis
- Cari Jackson
- Michelle Scheidt
- Uvinie Lubecki
- Abdul-Rehman Malik
- Alicia Forde
- Milicent Johnson
We hope that in sharing about this Learning Cohort, we might inspire others who are looking to do similar work and invite greater dialogue on new forms of designing structures that can invite a truly reimagined future. In our process thus far, we’ve found opening and possibility in asking questions rather than determining answers. In that spirit, we’d like to offer a question to contemplate: “What questions are arising about your spiritual heritage and where it’s going?”
Uvinie Lubecki, founder of Leading Through Connection, is a leadership development trainer, consultant, and coach focused on compassionate leadership. She is a member of Fetzer's learning cohort on Sharing Spiritual Heritage.