Integral For The Masses
Moving from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm
An Integral Leader’s Story
The wires of the Internet have been running extremely hot the past few days as Integralistas from all corners of the globe have been discussing, with extreme passion, the difference between theory and meta-theory and the rights of philosophers to change their mind and effectively disavow their earlier work. From the great centers of Integral Inquiry, we are being bombarded with theorists attempting to redefine the nature and meaning of what it means to be spiritual or religious here in the 21st Century. They are providing teleconferences and retreats to help us mere mortals learn from their pontifications.
Yet, at times it feels as if everybody is still talking integral, but few are actually doing integral. Don’t get me wrong, talking is not bad, but sometimes we need examples where we can see integral in action. So it was like a breath of fresh air that I had the opportunity to speak with Tom Thresher from Suquamish, Washington, USA last week. “Tom who?” you might be asking; “from where?” being your corollary question. And I shall answer both questions momentarily, but let me state here that individuals like Tom give real hope to this cynical soul that there are real live individuals who are not just talking a good integral story but are wrestling with the beast every day of their lives.
The Reverend Tom Thresher, PhD is pastor of Suquamish Community Church in Washington State just across the Puget Sound from Seattle. He is also a faculty member at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute where he teaches Leadership and Personal Development to MBA students. He has just written his first book entitled Reverent Irreverence–Integral Church for the 21st Century–From Cradle to Christ Consciousness which Robert Kegan from Harvard describes as “weaving vocation and provocation into new possibilities for Church and Christianity.”
Tom is the first person to admit that his life has been a journey of unimaginable twists and turns and that if anybody had told him during his youth “that he would be leading a congregation of 130 souls at the leading edge of evolving church and Christianity in the 21st century,” he would have been the first to call for the men in white coats to cart the individual away. Tom was raised in a household where the only Christian influence was the whisper of his grandmother’s Southern Baptist beliefs. He did attend Sunday school for a few weeks before the teachers decided that he was a lost cause and politely suggested that his presence and disruptive influence was no longer appreciated.
At high school, fueled more by testosterone than religious fervor, he agreed to visit church with his Catholic girlfriend. All he could remember was thinking was, “What is all this standing and kneeling about? What are they singing and chanting about? Are they crazy? More importantly, am I safe?” Christianity, for the young Tom, was most definitely parked in the cubby-hole marked, “tried it, didn’t like it, can see no purpose for it in my life.” He proceeded to lead a secular life and apart from a brief flirtation with a bunch of “Jesus Freaks,” more for the sense of belonging than any alignment with the words of the Bible, his life was pretty much devoid of any spiritual influences.
Not untypical of his generation, Tom experimented with psychoactive substances. At that time, a small group of friends and colleagues provided a safe haven for his experimentation. This was, he recalls, the first time that he felt “held” by a community. It awakened a desire in him to understand the inner intentions of individuals, although he chose not to study psychology until much later in his life. After dipping in and out of college trying to find his way in life, he eventually discovered that he had an affinity for the subject of economics, and proceeded to graduate from UCLA with honors in the subject. With this degree in his back pocket, he headed north to the Bay Area and Stanford. There he studied for his Masters in Economics and Ph.D. in Education.
Tom believes that his time at Stanford served him well as an eventual “Integral Leader,” but not from the subject matter that he was taught. His teachers at the Education School were Marxists and those at the School of Economics were among the most conservative in the country at the time. He learnt, as a matter of survival, how to hold multiple perspectives and worldviews at the same time and how to approach his teachers in, what he later realized, was their stage of development.
With his superb academic qualifications, Tom was set for a quiet life as a college professor teaching economics to young inquiring minds. Life was good and mapped out for him with no worries ahead, or so he thought. In his spare time, he pursued an interest in woodworking. His hobby turned into a small side business that offered an oasis from the politics of academic life. Then at the ripe old age of 38, he experienced a monumental mid-life crisis. As he describes it, “I couldn’t stay in my job; couldn’t stay with my wife; so I picked up my kaleidoscope making equipment and ran for the mountains.”
In a semi-hermetic existence, he turned his former hobby into a full time vocation eventually making high-end kaleidoscopes based upon the works of famous artists such as van Gogh. He also set off on a quest to explore the angst that had lead to his meltdown in an attempt to make sense of it all. One day, while sitting in a coffee bar in Lincoln City, Oregon, he was having a conversation about the paths of inquiry that he was following to bring meaning into his life. His fellow conversationalist suggested that he might “find this guy Wilber” helpful. The rest, as they say, is history. Once introduced to Wilber’s work, Tom felt that he was given the manual that allowed him to join up all the disparate elements of his life, in much the same way as one puts together the components from an Ikea flatpack to create a bookshelf. All the individual components had a purpose and allowed the whole to emerge from the parts. All the crazy things that he had been talking about started to make sense.
With map in hand, Tom started to rebuild his life. He had remarried, had two children and built a reputation for his kaleidoscopes as collectors’ items. As he worked his way through the canon of integral literature, he started to get a better understanding of who he was and that his destiny was to be at the leading edge of evolutionary change. Just how that was supposed to happen was a mystery, but he kept searching and becoming more established in his second career.
In earlier times, the circumstances that eventually led to Tom taking the leap into the ministry might have been called divine intervention or have some such similar mythical name attached to it. When Tom talks about the circumstances, you notice a change in the intonation in his voice and a recognition that his story is tinged with incredulity that might detract from the rest of his work; yet he knows that it is a critical part of his story and needs to be told and shared.
As he describes it in his book, it all started from a conversation with a friend that he had deep respect for. This friend was having conversations on a regular basis with a girlfriend’s dead mother in the same way that you and I might have a conversation with a living relative. Tom admits to being highly skeptical, but continued to engage with the lady out of the well of affection that he held for her. Over time, the conversations moved on through a number of individuals until this friend was eventually having conversations with Jesus. For more than three years Tom received messages through his friend that contained so much information that she could never have known that he had to take her seriously. Ultimately, she told him that Jesus believed that his destiny was to become a minister.
What surprised Tom more than anything was that, when he received this message, it made absolute sense to him. It was as if this was what his life had been leading to. It didn’t matter who his friend was really talking to, or even if it was just the workings of a slightly deluded mind; this was his calling. He came home and told his wife and children that he was applying to seminary in Berkeley. They packed up their home and sold it in weeks in the midst of a dead real estate market. They found a place near the seminary and Tom was on the path to his third career.
Seminary life was not all plain sailing. Tom was an enigma amongst his peers and his teachers. To start with he had no Christian background to call upon in his studies. He didn’t even hold Jesus up to be his God; what he aspired to was attaining some of the consciousness that this Jesus guy had achieved some 2,000 years ago. Achieving Christ-Consciousness was his primary goal, and helping others to have tastes of the same became his driving force. The second problem that Tom encountered was that his theology was based on integral theory and not the dogma of unquestioned mythologies. Finally, with his training and teaching experience, he had qualifications equal to much of the teaching staff at the seminary. To put it bluntly, he was a pain in the butt and there were few who were sad to see him leave the seminary. Tom accepts that the training gave him some additional tools for his new calling, but most importantly it gave him the credentials to set out on this new journey.
His initial foray into pastoring was a limited success. He spent about 18 months with a progressive community in the East Bay area, but logistics limited the possibilities. After tiring of searching church job listings, Tom handed over the selection of his next position to his wife. She read the vacancy list sent out by the United Church of Christ, circled one offering and told him, “here’s your new congregation!” Based in a town that he could hardly pronounce in a state other than his beloved California, he hardly thought that she was being serious. However, when her next move was to sit down at the computer and start checking out the realty market in Suquamish, he knew that he needed to apply and dispatched his resume accordingly. Tom was to find out some time later that there had been 39 applicants for the position. When the selection committee of 15 leading congregants met to review the applications, they decided to conduct a straw poll to determine if they could reduce the time needed for the selection process. He is decidedly non-egotistical when he says, “I am told that I received 13 first place votes, and was second with the other 2.” For Tom it was clearly a match made in heaven, whatever that might mean.
So it was that at the turn of the 21st Century, Tom and his family found themselves living in Washington State with the mantle of “community leader” thrust upon his shoulders. He was to discover that his adopted community was effectively “burnt out” on social justice issues and was looking to take the next step forward, but was uncertain as to what that might be. They were looking to their highly educated appointee with all his fancy theories to light the path for them.
As Tom knew, leading an integral church is impossible. “If you think you know where you are going, you’re wrong,” he ruminates. What he quickly found was that it was good to pretend to be leading the church because, “folks feel comforted if they think you know what you are doing.” He found that by perpetuating the delusion that he knew what he was doing was useful because it bought time; and time is the most valuable commodity any evolving organism can ask for, especially a church.
Tom likes to quote Winston Churchill who said, “Leadership is moving from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” For more than seven years he has had his share of failures, yet his enthusiasm only dims twice a day. This, in part, he puts down to the nature of his congregants who are deeply devoted to the values and ideals of post-modernity, which he recognizes is the ideal launching pad for an evolving church–a church that exhibits many of the characteristics that Ken Wilber lays out in his AQAL map. His community consists of highly educated liberals living in a conservative region of the country. His church is a magnet for those individuals seeking a spiritual way aligned with Christianity but not necessarily bogged down with the dogma.
Some congregants think nothing to driving 50 miles to attend services on a Sunday morning; there is a sense that they are on the brink of something special, but do not necessarily know quite what that might be. In his early days, Tom tried to enthuse the community with Integral Theory and would make frequent references to all the latest developments coming out of Boulder and from other leading edge thinkers. However, as he started to see eyes glaze over, he realized that it was better to move his church forward without everybody having to fully understand the theory. Just as it is possible to gain the benefits of the transistor and laser without understanding quantum theory, so it should be possible to get value from an Integral Church without ever having read a single word of Wilber, Beck, Cooke-Greuter, Kegan et al.
What Tom did discover was that by adopting a few key practices, he could flow from failure to failure and learn both personally and collectively the lessons that strengthened the community. By casting himself as the archetypal fool, the community could make great strides forward. Put simply, these practices were:
- Continually honoring the divine mystery as it arises in himself, in others and in nature;
- Explicitly acknowledging the different developmental perspectives in each of his congregants and recognizing the multiple intelligences that combine to make each individual unique (and not being surprised when you are having a stunning intellectual debate with an individual about some aspect of integral theory, and the next moment she is berating you for having changed a word in the Lord’s Prayer);
- Saying “yes…and” to everything–yes you can start a project…and you need apartner…and you need a plan…and please move ahead;
- Allowing projects to die when they no longer serve the individual or the congregation,honor them and then move on; and finally
- Remembering that it never stops changing!
It was never Tom’s intention to write a book about integral or the evolving church. Like most things in his life it emerged organically. Having stopped mentioning Integral Theory for around two years, he found that it was starting to arise in more and more conversations. The resistance that he was discovering was not to the theory per se, but to the context in which it was being discussed. His congregants didn’t want to wade through the generalities that came with most integral theory books but wanted a specific text that helped them understand how the theory might help them understand the community that they were building.
Tom instituted programs within the church that drew upon Wilber’s AQAL Model, Terry O’Fallon’s Room to Roam adaptation, Byron Katie’s “The Work”, Kegan & Lahey’s Immunity to Change and many others including Joseph Campbell, Ekhart Tolle, Brian Swimme. After a while, he found that he was being asked two questions: firstly, “How does this relate to us?” and secondly, “How can we use this stuff to build a church for the 21st century?” In constantly answering these questions Reverent Irreverence emerged. As Michael Dowd, the evolutionary evangelist, says of Tom’s work, “A fabulous introduction to integral thinking for Christians and an excellent contribution to the emerging field of Evolutionary Christianity. May this book be read and discussed for decades!”
You can almost see the twinkle in Tom’s eye as he writes the opening line to the book “Jesus was not a Christian, he was a spiritual but not religious Jew!” Just as Christ challenged the establishment back in the temple in Jerusalem, Tom Thresher seeks to do the same to the institutions that have grown up in the name of this former rebel. He seeks to recapture and own the mythology upon which the original church was founded and recast it with a myth for our time. When he talks about wanting to conduct a Catholic High Mass in Latin with the full incense and paraphernalia, but only if they can do it with honor, you understand that you are truly dealing with a man who understands the full meaning of transcend and include.
In Tom Thresher, one finds a living, breathing antidote for the integral cynic. An individual who has gone beyond theory, beyond practice into building what others can only dream about. His only desire is “to get out of the way” and in attempting to do so, he will only find himself being drawn closer and closer to the center of the integral movement that is upon us today.
About the Author
Keith Bellamy is a member of the Management Review Board of Integral Leadership Review, COO of Integral Publishers and an international consultant. This column is a regular feature of Integral Leadership Review.