The P/E/O exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, part II: Why it’s dangerous to get stuck at P

We’ve begun considering Tim Muldoon’s book on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and what insight the exercises might be able to shed on the P/E/O process that is at the heart of Transformational Giving.

In our last post, we noted that imitation is the engine of champion coaching.

Ignatius, recovering from a devastating leg injury, found himself enthralled by the biographies of great Christians–so much so, in fact, that he visualized himself doing even greater deeds than they had done.

Continues Muldoon:

In his autobiography , [Ignatius] writes of this period with a certain self-criticism, for he understood later in his life that this early period was a romanticized kind of spirituality. Many people fall into a similar pattern, thinking of spirituality in grand terms but missing it in the most basic, everyday ways. I’ve seen it among college students, who very often are willing to go and work in soup kitchens, travel to Appalachia or South America and do service work, or devote hours to participating in retreats, but don’t apply this same kindness and generosity in their sexual lives, for example. One writer has described the spiritual life as involving first a movement of self-knowledge, then a movement away from self-centeredness. Many of us get stuck, though, in a very self-centered spirituality.

Call this “the danger of getting stuck at P”, or Participation level, of champion development.

Now, make no mistake about it: P is vital to champion development. Without structured, formal, short-term, high-touch, high-impact activities that are understandable in and of themselves, it’s hard to get champions involved in causes with which they are generally unfamiliar or uncomfortable.

The problem comes when we let them stay there, or even work to keep them there–which is exactly what most of us nonprofits do.

Instead of coaching champions to extend beyond programmatic involvement in a cause into a level of maturity where they are practicing the cause intentionally and informally in their everyday lives, we nonprofits have a tendency to feel very uncomfortable helping our champions to experience and impact the cause directly outside of our programs.

The result? Champions drown in a sea of self-centered spirituality.

In other words, champions refuse to engage with the cause except for on their own terms. Their own timing. Their own programmatic preferences. Their own starting and ending point.

I can recall this with a volunteer at our learning center when I was at the Los Angeles Mission.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more dedicated champion. Came every Tuesday. Taught for several hours. Even gave sizeable gifts on top of that. Most nonprofits would assume she was an “O” (Owner) because she was so involved.

But P, E, and O don’t differ by degree, like lukewarm, medium, and hot. They differ by kind. And the move from P to E happens when an individual’s commitment to the cause “breaks through” the programmatic (and necessarily romanticized) training wheels and into the vagaries of the champion’s everyday life.

That never happened for this particular volunteer. The training wheels never came off. Years in, the volunteer was no more comfortable or competent running into homeless people at the gas station or highway offramp or parking lot than anyone in the general public would be.

P had become, in other words, a prison. Or, alternatively, a set of blinders that made it possible for the person to not have to see or engage with the cause in real life. The volunteer only had to deal with homeless people in the learning center of the Los Angeles Mission on Tuesdays. Other than that, homeless people didn’t really exist as subjects with which to engage.

We’re all familiar with the dangers of not moving from P to E in the form of our difficulty in transitioning from dieting (which is a P-level activity) to a lifetime of healthy eating practices (which is an E-level activity). Many folks bounce from diet to diet to diet hoping to find one that will lead to permanent weight loss. But diets don’t lead to permanent weight loss. To be effective, diets must “break out”  into a lifetime of healthy eating practices. This is why some diets are better than others. The grapefruit diet is deficient in this regard, since it does not break out into a lifetime of healthy eating practices. Sure, you can lose weight on it. But you’ll gain it right back once you complete the “P” activity of grapefruit dieting.

That’s the danger of getting stuck at P.

Most nonprofits have a difficult time coaching champions from P to E because the P to E move means giving up our illusion that the cause we’re engaged in is simple, neat, clean, and soluble. As Muldoon wrote:

In short, [Ignatius] formulated his spiritual exercises as a way that people could get rid of their illusions and focus on what is important in life.

So P activities can either help us get rid of our illusions–by leading us to informal, intentional Engagement with the cause in our everyday lives–or they can become new illusions for us, making us feel confident and comfortable in a program-based life of self-centered spirituality egged on by nonprofits and missionaries who can unfortunately become much more interested in our money than in our growth.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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3 Responses to The P/E/O exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, part II: Why it’s dangerous to get stuck at P

  1. Matt Bates says:

    Ministry is hard, discipleship is hard, self-denial is hard, taking up your cross and following him is hard, so should Participation activities be easy? If they are to foreshadow in a minor way what’s to come, shouldn’t they be difficult for the participant?

    There’s nothing in “structured, formal, short-term, high-touch, high-impact activities that are understandable in and of themselves” that suggests they should be easy, but I think we default to this position. It may be, as you suggest, because we don’t want champions to wander off outside the safe confines of the participation project, or it may be that we are very uncomfortable inviting people to do something that we know will be difficult for them to do.

    Certainly, ttf practices are all about ease and comfort, but our churches don’t help us here either, because the last 20 years has seen a proliferation of easy churches. It’s no longer uncommon for new American churches to be built with coffee bars inside. Meanwhile, my mom just got back from India, where the church sits on the floor, spilling out the doors and into the street, where the latecomers are literally in danger of being hit by passing traffic.

  2. EFoley says:

    Right, Bates–“easy” should never be a characteristic of a Participation project. I see such an emphasis these days on “easy” ways to give–via text message on the phone, for instance–with the implication that what stands between us and a flood of new donations is the technical process of donating. That’s true in some cases, and yet I want to classify that as “trivially true” in development overall. Giving among those classified as major donors, for example, is clearly not down as a result of it being difficult for them to find ways to get solicited and then respond…

  3. Pingback: Alternatives to Shane Claiborne’s Holiday Mischief, Part I: Why Holiday Mischief is not P/E/O | Transformational Giving

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