Without Form, and Void

May 15, 2009 3 Comments

During my first year of seminary, I took a Practice of Ministry class in which a series of guest lecturers came to share of their practical experiences from several years in the pastorate. One speaker, whose words I will never forget, was the Rev. Conly Hughes, Jr. of Boston’s Concord Baptist Church. His words of wisdom for a group of neophytes were to illuminate the importance of the pastor’s “ministry of presence”, coupled with her “ministry of absence”. He shared that while it is vital for any conscientious pastor to shepherd in such a way as to be visibly attentive to the day to day, mundane, core issues affecting a community of faith, it is also key that the pastor keeps watch so that her consistency of “presence” does not overwhelm, overpower, nor overbear in a way that stifles the leadership of others, hampers the community’s exercise of agency or which, frankly, allows her to be taken for granted by the people. (At least that’s how I recall the insights I gleaned from his very wise words).

Fast forward: a few years ago, when upon familiarizing myself with Interaction Associates’/Institute’s facilitation methodology, I came across the principle of “Balancing Form and Void”: Creating “Form” is providing participants with a framework or approach for moving toward achieving the desired outcomes. Creating “Void” means stepping back and allowing for open space in the room, both verbally and physically. I immediately noticed the reference to the Biblical text, which comes from the first Creation narrative in the Book of Genesis:

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was[a] on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (NKJV)

As is often the case for me with what I believe to be a Living Text, I gleaned a new insight into its meaning, informed by these pastoral and facilitation contexts: Void – or open space, if you will – as a precursor for even God’s most creative, most productive, most awesome works to…(yep, the “E”-word): emerge.

And so, whether it’s the virtues and vices of “presence”/“absence” in ministry, or the balancing act of any good facilitator vis a vis the “form” and “void” of group processes, I am thinking a lot these days about what this has to do with leadership effectiveness, blind spots (i.e., our ability to discern between what the moment/season/organizational growth cycle calls for), and its connection to organizational possibility, potential, and re-creation.

Co-creators, please — enLighten my world.


  • Curtis says:

    I find form and void to be such a helpful concept, whether as a minister, teacher, trainer, consultant, or . . . parent. When to provide more guidance? When to create more space? Reminds me of the experiment in which military folk were invited to run a kindergarten class. Total chaos ensued. Unlike seasoned teachers, they were too heavy on form, not enough void. Apparently good kindergarten teachers pay more attention to establishing outside boundaries of form within which there is plenty of space for kids to explore. Without space, they resist. Without boundaries, they go wild. I sometimes wonder how applicable parenting techniques are to leadership. Of course you don’t want to talk down to adults, but I don’t think you want to do that to children either. Hmmm . . .

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Melinda and Curtis for this great reminder. It’s so tempting to fill the space, fill the buckets, offer people from our copious bounty of theory and practice!

    It’s true, I’ve found that most of what makes for good practice in group work makes for good practice in family life and parenting too! Now, being the parent of a young adult, I’m having to adjust the form-to-void ratio in my parenting. What an interesting dance that has been! And even as I have cranked up the void as a general principle, there have been times when he has asked (explicitly sometimes, implicitly others) for more form. It’s humbling to remember that as a parent I can’t make him do anything any more. It’s always been about leading in such as way that he was free to learn, grow, and own his identity and commitments.

    As for the outside boundaries, I’m also reminded of an experiment with kids on a playground. The ones whose playground was fenced in played with everything, all the way to the edge of the fence. The ones whose playground was not fenced in stayed huddled in the center and did not venture out to explore all of the great stuff on the playground. Some boundaries create the kind of safety and confidence needed to explore and engage fully.

  • Gibran says:

    Melinda! I love the way you show up in the written word! And I was already blown away by the way you show up in the flesh! There is a universality to what you are saying. In the yogic school of Kashmir Shaivism, a tantric school, Shiva, the masculine principle, is that primordial, immovable, absolute, unchanging void. While Shakti, the feminine principle of the divine, is found in the complete fullness of manifestation, she is anything and everything that has form. In this tradition, we seek to understand ourselves as present, here and now, in the magnificence of their copulation – this is liberation!

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