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The Balance Beam of Risk

By Mimi Marstaller

Thanks mostly to my upbringing at Durham Friends Meeting, my understanding of spirituality has been closely linked with my experience of community. The basis of my spiritual life sprang not from lectures, sermons or personal study, but from spending the first decade and a half of my life in constant contact with dedicated Quakers. By following their example I learned that a spiritual community is nourished by the continuous efforts, large and small, of its members to give of themselves in the ways that the Spirit leads. Thus, my understanding of a spiritual life was built on learning to being present and dedicating myself to making contributions to whatever I am part of today. My spiritual life since then has been an effort to practice this principle of being present, listening for how God would have me contribute and taking the indicated actions with an open heart.

After leaving home in Maine for boarding school and college, my spiritual study became more focused and I intentionally sought the guidance and example of those whose spiritual lives I admired. As a student at a demanding boarding school, it was difficult to engage with an off-campus church community. I gained more spiritual growth from conversations with professors and peers than I did from the isolated services I attended. I found a spiritual fellowship in these conversations. With their support, I could share the daily journey toward stronger faith and my spiritual life took off. It was through this spiritual fellowship that I learned the two essential pillars to uphold my own spiritual development: constant contact with God and continuous engagement with a community of fellows where I can be of service every day.

For the past five years, fellowship with others on the spiritual path has been such a rewarding experience that I am eager to pursue work with a spiritual community through ministry. I now find myself in a position, to intern in a life-role where I can be of service to those around me and help facilitate the kind of spiritual community from which I benefited as a youngster at Durham Friends. This pastoral internship offers me the opportunity to learn from the example of two experienced Quaker pastors, as well as from each member of Durham Meeting. More amazing is the fact that this internship will give me the chance to put the spiritual principles into practice on a daily basis as I try to contribute to the life of the meeting.

In a college class on entrepreneurship, the professor opened our first lecture with a single statement: “Starting your own business involves absolutely no risk.” Members of this class met his assured expression with mild confusion. This little nugget contradicted everything we had ever heard about striking out on one’s own.

He elaborated by offering us a metaphor. “Walking on a balance beam,” he proposed, “is only risky if the beam is up high off the floor. If the beam lies on the floor, the consequences of a wrong step, a stumble to the side, are not at all serious or debilitating.” Continuing on he said, “When starting your own business, you never need to take the balance beam off the floor. By taking actions where failure or mistakes don’t carry a high cost, you insure yourself against risk.”

To my amazement I find this particular business principle has given me some guidance in my spiritual life. I have discerned that the pastoral internship experience during the summer of 2014, reflects the same idea that “new” and “different” doesn’t have to mean “risky”. By having the continual support of my home meeting, I felt I was being offered an opportunity to keep my balance beam on the floor while exploring a path that has pulled at my attention for a long time: the path of Quaker ministry.

One of the fascinating current discussions in education explores how we can reduce the cost of failure in order to encourage students to go out on a limb: try a new idea. When contemplating my path toward ministry, reducing the risk of failure turned out to involve spending a lot of time in prayer and meditation and inviting others into the waiting process I chose to propose the internship because I wasn’t ready to dive into seminary. Without knowing much about “on the ground Quaker ministry,” taking on such a financial, practical and emotional commitment felt risky. Considering the cost, the time spent pursuing a theological degree instead of some other higher degree and the emotional investment in moving to a new place and beginning a new program, the thought of jumping headlong into traditional theological training made the balance beam hover perilously high.

The internship idea came at the right time and developed slowly into a program that includes lots of “new” and very little “risk.” Daily listening and the support of my Quaker community created a floor that is soft and springy that is ready to help me rebound from any missteps.

All this is not to say that the internship is a guaranteed “hole in one.” There are still unknowns; will this internship illuminate a clear path for study? How will I feel about my ability to participate after having been away at school for many years? And more intimately, what if I don’t relate to the Quaker philosophy and faith as much as I anticipate? This project will, after all, be the most intensely faith based activity I have ever undertaken.

Following a spiritual leading might seem more risky than pursuing the socially validated steps of seeking an existing internship that would look good on a resume and lead more directly to long-term employment. But looking back at the process of following this leading, I note that each prayer has been answered. Funding opportunities presented themselves. Beautifully complementary summer classes are being offered at a nearby seminary. Members of the meeting came up with their own ideas for how to enrich the program. Transportation to yearly meeting fell into place. So far the spiritual path feels just as assured as any well-mapped, heavily-traveled life path I’ve been on recently; this new one is assured by God’s encouragement, more so than society’s approval.

I think God wants us to be spiritual entrepreneurs. I think he wants us to knock on new doors, explore unknown territory and embark on new paths, unimpeded by the fear of failure. Prayer and community support offer us powerful tools to keep that balance beam on the floor even as our spiritual endeavors become more and more involved and far-reaching.