Skip to Content

USA Today Covers a Courage & Renewal Clearness Committee

Over the weekend, USA TODAY reporter Mary Beth Marklein published a story, “Finding a ‘clear’ path to leadership” about her experience at the Courage & Renewal 2014 Invitational Retreat. She described the Clearness Committee as a powerful “no-action” space, a space where “my time here was not to make things happen but to allow them to happen.”

Courage-170The Clearness Committee is one of the hallmark practices of the Circle of Trust approach, developed by Parker J. Palmer and the Center for Courage & Renewal. Many participants say that the Clearness Committee is the capstone of their retreat experience. It is a deep process of personal discernment that occurs with community support.

A fundamental idea underlies the Clearness Committee–that each of us as an inner teacher, a voice of truth, that offers the guidance and power we need to deal with our problems. In order to hear that voice of truth, we need a “safe space” to focus and listen. This idea of the inner teacher also means that nobody except you has the answer to your problems. For that reason, during a Clearness Committee no one is allowed to offer advice or “amateur psychoanalysis.” Rather, the process focuses on open, honest questions that help an individual see into their own heart.

This same premise supports the Center’s leadership approach, that great leadership comes from the inner teacher.

In the USA Today story, Mary Beth explained, “The Center’s approach is spiritual and practical, premised on the notion that effective leadership hinges on our ability to connect professional goals with personal values,” she wrote, going on to quote Parker J. Palmer who said that this is called “leading from within.”

Mary Beth attended the retreat just as she was preparing to take a break from her job as a newspaper reporter to train journalists overseas in Vietnam.

Her hope for the experience was to get some clarity about her goals for this career transition. She writes, “It did, but not in the way I expected.”

Check out the story at USA Today and tell us what you think–did she capture the essence of the Clearness Committee?

A Way Forward

Two autumns ago, I was experiencing what may perhaps be called divine discontent. I was becoming more passionate and vocal about causes in the world–most notably, environmental causes–but I felt stuck. I found myself arguing with the same three people on Facebook. “What good is this accomplishing?” I asked myself countless times.

After a period of frustration, I at last gained some traction. Having just received my first copy of The Sun in the mail, I came across an interview with Parker Palmer in which he discussed the premises of his new book, Healing the Heart of Democracy. He offered honesty. He offered civility. He offered hope.

Whereas uncertainty had previously meant hopelessness, Parker’s concepts of “holding the tension” and “living in the tragic gap” spoke instead of a patient tending of the tenuous middle ground as being vital and potentially fruitful. Finally, I had found a way forward.

Once I realized that uncertainty was indeed part of democracy, I took a deep, smiling breath. It was not so bad after all. I was at last able to act, and I have been quite active ever since.

heather-cohen-2014Today, I volunteer for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby–a group founded to effect change and empower citizens–a group whose only rule is to practice appreciation for all, most notably for those who may oppose its work.

Today, I seek out those with whom I disagree so that I might learn from them and so that we might find at least a little common ground. This extends all the way to Capitol Hill, where I sit across the table from elected officials with whom I disagree and work to establish respect as a bridge to understanding.

Today, I also seek out allies–those whom I call political hybrids, those who consciously embody the tragic gap, doing so in the interest of cultivating understanding and common ground.

Here is one of my hybrid heroes: Dr. Katharine Hayhoe.

Today, the discontent of two years ago has dissipated, and the desire for certainty has been replaced by a new-found courage. What a difference a little bit of patient tending has made.

heather-cohenHeather Cohen is part of the 2014-2015 cohort of new Courage & Renewal Facilitators in Preparation. After many years of teaching at the community college level, she is now teaching at the character-focused and design-thinking charter school Village Tech. Heather volunteers with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and she brings both this organization’s work and her Courage work into her educational community and her community at large. She may be reached at

Coming Out and the Courage to Be Real


“We all have closets,” says Ash Beckham. “All a closet is, is a hard conversation, and although our topics may vary tremendously, the experience of being in and coming out of the closet is universal. It is scary, and we hate it, and it needs to be done.”

In this video, she talks about the “easiest hard conversation” she ever had. It was easy because she was real.

“I’ll give you 100 reasons why coming out of my closet was harder than coming out of yours,” Ash says, “but here’s the thing: Hard is not relative. Hard is hard.

“At some point in our lives, we all live in closets, and they may feel safe, or at least safer than what lies on the other side of that door. But I am here to tell you, no matter what your walls are made of, a closet is no place for a person to live.”

Ash offers us her three “Pancake Girl” principles.
Be authentic. Take the armor off. Be yourself.
Be direct. Just say it. Rip the Band-Aid off.
• Most important: Be unapologetic. You are speaking your truth. Never apologize for that.

“We know it’s hard but we need you out here, no matter what your walls are made of, because I guarantee you there are others peering through the keyholes of their closets looking for the next brave soul to bust a door open, so be that person and show the world that we are bigger than our closets and that a closet is no place for a person to truly live.”
As a straight, white professional male, the closets I’ve found myself in have been facing painful moments in close relationships, failures in my work or being “the other” in a group. In each case the smugness and confidence born of my privilege is suddenly gone. Sometimes I quietly close the closet door and withdraw. Sometimes I let myself be vulnerable, admit that I do not know what to do and step into the conversation — and then I find my whole self moving forward in ways I could not imagine moments before.

We believe in being real. In taking the risk to be vulnerable.

How do you find the courage to step out of your closets?

P.S. Courage & Renewal programs are places to be real and find the courage you need for conversations of all kinds. See our calendar for upcoming programs and retreats.

This blog is a mirror of our August Words of EnCOURAGEment newsletter. Subscribe to our monthly mailings here.

A Call to Teach for Equity

chip-wood_teaching_for_equitySome say education is the civil rights issue of our time. Robert Moses, of the Algebra Project, says children are the civil rights issue of this century. “In this 21st Century,” he said, “we need to include the children. They need to have a constitutional right to an education in this country.”

Teaching for Equity is a new book by The Origins Program that introduces approaches for eliminating the learning opportunity gap for children whose experiences each year in elementary school leave them further and further behind their peers. The book—written by Courage & Renewal facilitator Chip Wood and his colleague Linda Crawford—is for elementary teachers and teacher leaders, school administrators and specialists, teacher educators, school families and school advocates who work to find or create a more just and equitable elementary school education for students.

We shared a common purpose with thousands for a national education agenda that would level the educational playing field for all, and we have seen, instead, widening learning gaps that primarily impact students living in poverty and students of color. Models of instruction feature external modes of assessment, standardized practice for standardized testing, and sorting, classifying, and isolating students, teachers, and schools by performance on standardized tests. All of these practices have not worked to close the so-called “achievement gap.”

To create an equitable foundation for learning, certain school and classroom conditions and experiences are necessary to meet the basic needs of students for autonomy, competence, relationship, community, and play.

Teaching for Equity explores seven strands of practice that grow equity in education:

1. Personalized learning
2. Personalizing whole-class learning
3. Partnership
4. Attuned student-teacher relationships
5. Enhanced communication
6. Teacher integrity
7. Relational trust among adults, including student families

Provided these dynamic, interrelated social and cognitive pathways, children will grow in self-confidence; in self-regulation; in their capacity to learn for themselves, from their teacher, and from each other; and in their capacity to question. They will learn to work together productively, to care for each other, and to enjoy story, movement, music, poetry, drama, and image-making integrated with academic learning. They will learn how to listen—to be an audience, to learn the meaning of “me,” “us,” “we,” and that how we are different creates our traditions and our cultures.

These practices, founded on decades of classroom experience and on ongoing research, address children’s needs for autonomy, competence, relationship, community, and play. The book offers practical ways to link your standards, curriculum, lessons, instructional approaches, and your professional and personal growth to these equity-building practices.

Order here and view sample chapters:

Teaching for Equity by Linda Crawford and Chip Wood. The Origins Program: Education for Equity, headquartered in Minneapolis, has been working since 1979 to provide teachers and schools around the country with professional development for classroom teaching focused on arts-infusion and multicultural approaches.

Singing for Social Justice & Compassion

“Her songs are attuned to the still, small voice of the soul,” says Parker Palmer. Others have described her as a “minister of the wide-eyed gospel of hope.”

Our good friend Carrie Newcomer, singer/songwriter and social justice activist, is a shining light of love and compassion. She believes kindness can save the world and proves that one person can make a difference by singing with her true voice. Check out this video profile of Carrie at Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, a PBS program.

Food, Friends & Real Talk About Life After Loss

The Dinner Party Manifesto. Go to the website.We spent a lot of time in our early days around the question of, “Is this a grief group or isn’t it?” and trying to understand what we were and were not qualified to do. We read books and studies and talked to lots of people with letters after their names. We soon realized the answer to the grief group question was a pretty definitive, “no”. There are lots of highly trained people who are expert in handling trauma and working with the bereaved, and we’re not trying to replace them. This isn’t about fixing, or advice-giving, or even coaching. It’s not really even about grieving, at least not in the traditional sense. None of us are qualified to tell someone what they need; hell, most of us are still figuring out that out for ourselves, and struggling to pay close attention when our personal needs change. When we hear of someone wanting to “help others through the same experience I went through,” our eyebrows furrow. We’re interested in creating accessible spaces where you can “speak your truth” with peers, or more to the point, friends.

There is perhaps no greater champion of the “no-advice-giving” rule than Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. Palmer is best-known as the author of The Courage to Teach, and the person who made it okay to talk in corporate retreats and other secular settings about  “the soul” and living what he calls “a divided life”. Among the celebrated voices in the self-help world, whose soundbites litter the cover of O Magazine and call to mind Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia, he is neither a kook nor a salesman; he makes no attempt to proffer Five Easy Steps That Will Change Your Life Today.

Still, I was a bit worried when I picked up his book, A Hidden Wholeness, a couple of weeks ago. I was looking for practical tips that we could share with our hosts that wouldn’t feel cheesy or forced or generally facilitator-y: tips that steered clear of what one of our original Dinner Partiers, Jess, calls, “woo-woo”.

My now dog-eared copy is testament to the fact that I need not have worried. In the book, Palmer writes extensively about the “divided life”: the problem that happens when we compartmentalize, and are compelled to cover up a key part of ourselves. (Okay, fine, it can sound a little woo-woo.) But it strikes me as a far more apt description of life after loss than “grief” or “bereavement.” It’s a feeling we hear a lot, and know all-too-well personally: Long after our brains have resumed functioning, after we’ve passed one anniversary and another, and adjusted to a new normal, we discover our work still isn’t finished. We continue to project one image here and another there. We choose carefully whom we share our stories with and when. We never quite adjust to our phantom limbs.

Palmer lays out the theory and practice behind an approach he calls “The Circle of Trust”: a highly refined set of principles and practices for facilitating soulful conversation, creating the kind of safe spaces where you can listen to and learn to act on your own “inner teacher”. The result is both reflective and instructive, unearthing everything from the design of “clearness committees,” a practice created by early Quakers to help participants achieve clarity, to how to practice deep listening.

It’s worth reading in full. For those looking for a Cliff’s Notes version, however, here are a few choice quotes, and a few key tips for anyone looking to create spaces where it’s cool to #realtalk.

1. Honor the awesome in everyone. Looking for the perfect thing to say at the perfect moment? Forget it. Your goal isn’t to say something profound, or to produce a lot of head nods. It’s to create a space where everyone–yup, you included–can listen to their own voice, and in so doing, discover their own ah-ha’s.

“We all have an inner teacher whose guidance is more reliable than anything we can get from a doctrine, ideology, collective belief system, institution, or leader.” (25)

“‘I took comfort and strength from those few people who neither fled from me nor tried to save me but were simply present to me. Their willingness to be present revealed their faith that I had the inner resources to make this treacherous trek — quietly bolstering my faltering faith that perhaps, in fact, I did.’” (62)

“It’s not about what you say. It’s about creating a space where every person can hear and discover and listen to their own voice.” (120)

2. Do not, do not, do not attempt amateur psychotherapy. The end.

“A circle of trust is not a therapy group. It is not facilitated by a professional therapist, and its members do not have a therapeutic contract with each other. In an age when therapy is practiced without credentials, competence, or invitation, the image of two solitudes protecting, bordering, and saluting each other can keep us from falling into this common form of interpersonal violence.” (63)

3. Create intentional moments of silence: Growing up, my agnostically-inclined mom insisted on starting dinners not with a prayer, but with a moment of silence. We held hands around the table, closed our eyes, and simply sat for what usually amounted to 15 seconds or so–an eternity to my seventh-grade self. I always had a slight pang of embarrassment when friends would come over and join this little ritual of ours, and it’s only now that I’ve come to really appreciate it.

Palmer suggests creating moments of intentional silence in the beginning, so that people don’t feel compelled to immediately fill spontaneous moments of silence later on. That doesn’t mean you have to spend five minutes in a meditation (unless that’s your jam, of course). A few deep breaths and the silent setting of intentions can go a long way.

4. Ease into it. The soul is shy, Palmer is fond of saying. Asking a person to share something deeply vulnerable the instant they walk into a room is generally a sure-fire way to scare them off. The Circle of Trust employs what they call “third things”–typically a poem or a song–to help kick off a conversation. Participants are invited to share whatever it is that comes up for them in hearing that particular piece or story, and to reflect on why they respond in that particular way.

For us, the “third thing” is, in a lot of ways, the dinner itself: We find it’s generally a good idea to leave a few things unfinished as folks arrive, to give people the chance to help set the table, pour drinks, and mingle casually. Preparing dishes with a story behind them–say, a family recipe, or a favorite food of the person you lost–and introducing those stories at the beginning of the meal, serves the same purpose: a way of introducing yourself and the person you lost, and easing into the conversation.

“If soul truth is to be spoken and heard, it must be approached ‘on the slant.’” I do not mean we should be coy, speaking evasively about subjects that make us uncomfortable, which weakens us and our relationships. But soul truth is so powerful that we must allow ourselves to approach it, and it to approach us, indirectly. We must invite, not command, the soul to speak. We must allow, not force, ourselves to listen.” (92)


Lennon FlowersThis blog post originally appeared on Learn more about how Lennon Flowers and her team are transforming life after loss from an isolating experience into one marked by community support, candid conversation, and forward movement.

To Understand Within, Look Outside Yourself

As I lay amongst a stand of Gum trees, looking up into their branches, I remembered how the branches we see in the trees above are also reflected in the trees’ roots beneath us. I suddenly had this beautiful feeling of being held, Embraced By A Tree, above and below. It inspired me to create this painting and poem.

I find it paradoxical that in connecting with nature around me, I am able to also go deeper within myself to find my own root and essence. To feel fully connected within I need to feel fully connected without. At one with all.

What connects you to your root & depth? What practices could you build into your life to deepen the connections within and without?

Artwork by Leanne Nearmy

here I am
all of me
the essence
the root
the depth
of me
No more
is required.

Leanne Nearmy
Facilitator Preparation
Australasian Cohort 2014-2015

Parker Palmer’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at Community
(…with a fourteenth thrown in for free)

“The Inner Edge,” August/September 1998

[Note] The title, and only the title, was inspired by the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens (see The subtitle was inspired by late-night TV infomercials.


I. Whether we know it or not, like it or not, honor it or not, we are embedded in community. Whether we think of ourselves as biological creatures or spiritual beings or both, the truth remains: we were created in and for a complex ecology of relatedness, and without it we wither and die. This simple fact has critical implications: community is not a goal to be achieved but a gift to be received. When we treat community as a product that we must manufacture instead of a gift we have been given, it will elude us eternally. When we try to “make community happen,” driven by desire, design, and determination—places within us where the ego often lurks—we can make a good guess at the outcome: we will exhaust ourselves and alienate each other, snapping the connections we yearn for. Too many relationships have been diminished or destroyed by a drive toward “community-building” which evokes a grasping that is the opposite of what we need to do: relax into our created condition and receive the gift we have been given.

II. Of course, in our culture—a culture premised on the notion that we must manufacture whatever we want or need—learning to relax and receive a gift requires hard work! But the work of becoming receptive is quite unlike the external work of building communal structures, or gathering endlessly to “share” and “solve problems”: receptivity involves inner work. Community begins not externally but in the recesses of the human heart. Long before community can be manifest in outward relationships, it must be present in the individual as “a capacity for connectedness”—a capacity to resist the forces of disconnection with which our culture and our psyches are riddled, forces with names like narcissism, egotism, jealousy, competition, empire-building, nationalism, and related forms of madness in which psychopathology and political pathology become powerfully intertwined. Read more …

A Day That Sings

Poem by Denise Levertov

With the onset of summer, I am taking a week to be with my extended family. We take time to simply be together–to refresh, revitalize, to languish in an abundance of time and leisure. The kitchen is filled with fresh local fruits. The days are warm and long. For a brief time, busy work lives recede.

Whether summer or winter, do you notice certain days that infuse you with possibility? 

Warm regards,


Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S. Courage & Renewal programs and retreats renew your mind and spirit. Find a program to bring forth your whole self.

P.P.S. Today’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment newsletter. Subscribe here.

New Interview: Parker J. Palmer Speaks on Jean Vanier

Parker Palmer was recently interviewed by one of our facilitators, Dan Hines, about his profound respect for Jean Vanier, the writer/humanitarian/philosopher and L’Arche Community founder. As both a realist and an idealist, Vanier represents an embodied example of leading with love in the face of some of the world’s truly heart-breaking and yet also most inspiring, human contexts. As such, he is a wondrous example of a lifetime of living and leading by “standing in the tragic gaps” in the world.

Watch the video here, and read Parker’s own reflection below.

Every now and then, I share something to my friends about someone I profoundly admire because in that person we clearly see the fullness of what it means to be human. Recent examples include Maya Angelou, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rosa Parks and Thomas Merton.

Today I want to add another name to that list: Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche International, a world-wide network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. Jean may not be as well-known as the others I just named. But beyond all doubt, his name belongs with theirs.

For those who don’t know this remarkable man and his remarkable work—and for those who do—I’m linking to a brief interview with him by my friend Alicia von Stamwitz. It appeared in the UCObserver, a fine online magazine from the United Church of Canada.

Jean is the author of a number of wonderful books, including one called Tears of Silence which will be reissued this fall. You can pre-order a copy at

Parker J. PalmerAt Jean’s request, I wrote a Foreword for this new edition which you can read at

Like all of Jean’s writing, Tears of Silence helps bring visibility to the “invisible people” of our world, people who yearn to be seen and heard, to be invited into our lives. As Jean knows, and many of us have yet to learn, these “invisible people” have so much to offer us once we say, “Come in, come in!”

Dan Hines prepared this interview for his upcoming July retreat, Becoming Human: Letting Your Life Speak – A Conversation with the works of Parker J. Palmer & Jean Vanier.