I recently had a Q&A conversation with Dr. Meredith Gould on her updated book, Deliberate Acts of Kindness: A Field Guide to Service As a Spiritual Practice. Dr. Gould is well known for her writing and work within the fields of spirituality, church communications, and social media (among other disciplines). She makes a compelling case to go beyond the proverbial random acts of kindness and to embody kindness that is intentional and authentic. It is a wonderful book that will help point readers to practical and spiritual direction for service in the church and the world.
Q1: You wrote the first edition of your book in 2002. What has changed in 15 years in our culture and spiritual lives of people that called for a second edition?
While cultural elements and spiritual principles are durable, ways and means of expression can and do change. In the past 15 years, every aspect our lives—external and internal, public and private—have changed significantly because of digital technology.
But what about kindness? Isn’t kindness a fairly durable expression of emotional and spiritual generosity? Isn’t the call to serve others an ethical imperative in all religious traditions? Yes and yes. What seems to have changed in the past 15 years is our capacity for deliberate and sustainable acts of kindness and service to others.
I first proposed Deliberate Acts of Kindness (DAK) in 1999. I wrote it in 2000. Everything changed on September 11, 2001 in the United States. Lots of kindness and compassion in the immediate aftermath. By the time DAK was published in 2002, most people had shifted back to offering occasional and random acts of kindness.
Fast forward and by 2010, church leaders were focused on dwindling attendance. By 2012, our collective numbness was frequently jolted by shock and outrage. Some lowlights included the Trayvon Martin murder and the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, and a significant increase in anti-LGBTQ violence.
In 2015, I got the rights for DAK reverted back to me from Doubleday. I didn’t get serious about writing a new edition until the presidential election debates in 2016. I cannot possibly overstate my dismay at the lack of kindness, generosity, and mercy I saw and heard. It finally dawned on me that a significant cultural shift might have already happened and that I needed to resurrect this book.
Q2: In your book, you truly write in a field-guide manner (e.g. segmented tips, ideas, pointers, etc.). I’m reminded of a field guide book I have, How to Survive in the Desert. What led you to write in this style?
I’ve written all but one book in this format. I recently—like last week—realized how the format reflects my personality, knowledge base, skills, and experience. I’ve always soaked up, stashed away, and trotted out information from a wide range of disciplines, specialties, and resources. I truly enjoy introducing people to useful concepts and new applications. Under the best of spiritual conditions, I’m generous. When I’m less spiritually fit, I can come across too directive. Working on that is the work of a lifetime—mine.
The guidebook format is also in perfect alignment with my writing style. I am absolutely not a long form writer. My doctoral dissertation was, in fact, the briefest one in department history. I was a very happy writer during my PR and ad agency days. I still tend to copy fit when I write books. I know how many words are on a printed page and then use that to calculate the word count for boxed content. Impressive or scary? Both?
I also want to accommodate how people read these days. In 2007, I shifted from writing for print, to writing website content. I had to rethink readability. My plunge into social media sensitized me to changes in reader attention span and time availability. Chunks of dense narrative no longer work as well as they once did for nonfiction. Fine by me! I could also see how the tips format makes it easier to read nonfiction on a Kindle, tablet, or smartphone.
Mostly, I like providing opportunities for readers to pause and think. I want readers to put down and then pick up my books without struggling to find the narrative thread. The guide book format makes that possible.
Q3: You draw from the backgrounds of spiritual practices from Jewish and Eastern religions. How does this help present a Christian spiritual viewpoint of service?
Jewish and Eastern traditions, specifically the karma yoga tradition, are personally meaningful. I was raised Jewish and belonged to a yoga-based community for a long time. Readers can learn more about those adventures in Desperately Seeking Spirituality: A Field Guide to Practice (2016) as well as in an earlier book, Why Is There a Menorah on the Altar? The Jewish Roots of Christian Worship (2009).
I cannot resist responding your question about how this helps present a Christian viewpoint with this one: Do Christians really not know Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew whose Gospel teachings were anchored in Torah?
In Chapter 1, “Service as a Spiritual Practice,” I describe what Western and Eastern religious traditions believe about serving others and their spiritual practices for doing so. Spoiler alert: spiritual practices are remarkably similar if not completely congruent across traditions. This sometimes comes as a shock to some Christians.
Q4: Your book covers spiritual capacity issues such as psychological needs, awareness of self, discovering of calling, and need for prayer. I really think you are on to something here. How can our churches, pastors, and leaders better prepare people for serving one another?
Church leaders are often so desperate for participation that they’ll invite or welcome well-meaning yet underqualified congregants to serve. This rarely goes well for anyone involved. I’ve only seen this work in churches that have a spiritual gifts discernment process as well as some kind of personality assessment in place. This is a wise investment of time and other church resources, as is providing ongoing support by peers and leaders.
In Chapter 2, “Discerning the Call” and Chapter 3, “Discovering Your Place” especially, I provide exercises to help readers discern if, when, and where they’re called to serve. These contemplative writing exercises can easily be adapted for small group use.
Whether the exercises are embraced by individuals or a group depends on everyone’s willingness to enter into discernment and then face whatever they encounter. This process can be painful at times. Even the most casual form of serving others can bring up a motherlode of attitudes and feelings that play out behaviorally. Who among us is thrilled to discover how ill-suited we are for what we thought was a perfect fit?
Q5: You write about the “Shadow Side of Service.” We do not often talk about the dysfunction in ourselves or organizations when serving. What is it about helping and serving that can bring the well-intentioned worst out of us and others?
Talking about the dysfunction in ourselves, our organizations, or churches is challenging on multiple levels. How equipped are we to recognize dysfunctionality? How do we talk about brokenness in a way that others can hear? How willing and able are we to consider our motives for exposing dysfunctionality? How do we react in the presence of anger, harshness, or lying? How about if we suspect we’re being patronized or dismissed? Do we know when we do any of that stuff?
Chapter 5, “The Shadow Side of Service,” was my favorite chapter to write for a couple of reasons. First, I know what it’s like to discover that all is not sweetness and light as hoped or imagined. Second, I wanted to an opportunity to use my experiences for the greater good. I’ve personally encountered every example in the box about spiritual abuse. Took some time and years of work but I did grow emotionally and spiritually as a result.
Q6: In a very surprising and helpful way, you inject a lot of therapeutic release in the form of boundary awareness. How does this help us be better at deliberate acts of kindness?
Relative to boundary awareness and becoming better at deliberate acts of kindness, I say it’s essential that we know where we begin and end. In the absence of awareness and psychological work, far too many people swiftly confuse codependency with caring. Gossiping, which is a form of boundary violation, gets confused with “sharing.” Well-meaning and poignant storytelling can undermine confidentiality and subsequent trust. These types of boundary violations can shift from being painful in an one-to-situation to positively toxic in a community or organizational service environment.
The work of boundary awareness is difficult and often painful but necessary for anyone who wants to serve others in a healthy way. This slogan from twelve step recovery always comes to mind when I fret about spiritual growth: “Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional.”
Meredith Gould, PhD (@meredithgould), is a longtime spiritual seeker, sociologist, and online community manager. She’s an award-winning author of eleven books, including Desperately Seeking Spirituality: A Field Guide to Practice and is known for her passionate advocacy of using digital tools for ministry. Her next book, Transcending Generations: A Field Guide to Collaboration in Church is due out in August 2017. Visit: www.meredithgould.com Please support independent publishers by ordering Deliberate Acts of Kindness directly from Clear Faith Publishing.