Mother Teresa, CEO: Doubt Is Not Despair If You Act

Mother Teresa, CEO: Doubt Is Not Despair If You Act July 8, 2011

[Editor’s Note: As part of our current book club on Mother Teresa, CEO, we invited a number of faith leaders to a mini-symposia on faith and leadership.  Each participant was asked to comment on one of the eight “Teresa Principles” for practical leadership raised in the book.  Our third post is from Marcus Goodyear, Senior Editor for The High Calling and Christianity Today’s]

Mother Theresa, CEO: Doubt Is Not Despair if You Act

My friends at Patheos are reflecting on the eight “Teresa Principles” highlighted in the new book, Mother Teresa, CEO: Unexpected Principles for Practical Leadership. It’s part of their book blogger roundtable conversation on faith & leadership, in which leaders of faith dive a bit deeper into some of the principles in the book.

I’ll be focusing on this “Mother Theresa principle”: Embrace the Power of Doubt.

I wasn’t assigned doubt. I chose it. Or rather it chose me. I’m not talking about little bits of self-doubt and indecision. I’m not even talking about full on, fist shaking doubt.  I’m talking about the kind of doubt that gets into the marrow, where my faith feels like a façade. My prayers just aren’t. And if I’m honest with myself, I go to church too many Sundays because I want my kids to have the kind of Dad who goes to church.

I’m not Catholic, but I’ve said my share of prayers to St. Thomas. He’s a doubter too, and I’m completely on his side. Imagine the scene. A crowd of hysterical disciples have all convinced themselves that Jesus came back from the dead. I would be right there with Thomas, shaking my head, feeling a bit self-righteous. Thomas knows Jesus died the kind of death you don’t come back from. There were spikes and spears. It was bloody.

That seems like reasonable doubt to me.

To me, doubt is reasonable. My prayer is always an act of faith, leaving a phone message for a God I haven’t touched. Thomas touched the wrists of Jesus. Thomas touched his side. I touch a translation of an old story that has been mass-produced on miraculously thin sheets of gilded paper. Some days it feels like I’ve touched nothing at all.

So I pray. I sing. I go to church with other people who pray and sing, and always the nagging, reasonable doubt persists that we are just talking to ourselves. And I find encouragement in the words of others. I love the article gentle suggestions for doubting Christians.

And I appreciated the chapter on doubt in Mother Theresa CEO. Authors Ruma Bose and Lou Faust write, “Mother Theresa’s letters to her spiritual father, written in confidence, give us a rare glimpse into her deepest thoughts. She laid bare her internal struggles as she pursued her vision to serve the poorest of the poor. These letters show her questioning her faith and feeling tremendous doubts, distance from God, and spiritual isolation.”

I can certainly relate to these feelings of doubt, and I was struck by the close relatives of doubt—feeling distance from God and feeling spiritual isolation. Yes. This is what I feel when I doubt.  A strong sense that my work and my time on this planet are full of sound and fury signifying nothing. These are dark thoughts, and they do not match my mental image of Mother Theresa.

The authors spend much of the chapter repackaging doubt. They write, “Unprocessed doubt can lead to paralyzing fear, but using doubt to question yourself can strengthen your belief and free you from that fear.” They explain that we can turn our doubt back onto ourselves and critically examine our vision. Through that process, we may even find better ways of achieving our vision.

As someone making decisions for, I can play this word game with doubt. I find it helpful to be critical of our site’s strategy in this way. I understand how to ask the hard questions of the people who report to me. I am not afraid to hold them accountable.

The authors write, “Successful leaders find courage in the face of fear so that they can lead their organizations forward. Unless the leader is willing to bear the burden of making a decision while doubt still hangs in the air, everyone will begin to fear doubt itself… Having embraced doubt, the leader must finally decide as if there were no doubt at all.”

That makes sense to me and even inspires me to take a stand behind decisions that I feel in my gut, but doubt in my mind. Healthy self-doubt keeps us humble and leads toward better processes and implementation.

The chapter does its best to spin doubt into something healthy. Mostly, it is a convincing argument. Like Mother Theresa, we can embed “the power of doubt in action, not mere words.” And I like that phrase, “the power of doubt.” According to the book, this is the power to question ourselves, listen to others, and act.

I agree with all of this. Mother Theresa CEO spends eight short pages extracting some good lessons about the power of doubt, but these lessons don’t help Thomas or Mother Theresa or me feel any better about the deep, black loneliness we sometimes feel when we pray. For all of the talk of Mother Theresa’s positive energy and good deeds, the book glosses over her feelings of doubt a little bit. They admit that she “started out with her doubts… and she even doubted her faith.” But this rhetorically suggests she grew out of her doubt.

I don’t believe it.

Mother Theresa doubted. Her spirit waivered. Some days her confidence must have been a façade. Some days she questioned herself. Some days she questioned God.

And this is the biggest encouragement of all. Even Mother Theresa had doubts. Her doubts give me more hope than any argument about the power of doubt to help us question ourselves—even as helpful as those arguments may be. Her doubt gives me hope, not that my own doubt will go away, but that feelings of doubt are not as powerful as a faithful decision to act.

I may doubt, but I still pray. I still go to church. I still worship. I may doubt, but I still come to work. I still write these articles. I still lead my team with the most confidence I can muster, shielding them from as much clutter and nonsense as I can, but hiding nothing out of fear or shame.

Doubt is a feeling, but faith chooses to act no matter our feelings.

Marcus Goodyear is Senior Editor for and Christianity Today’s Barbies at Communion, his award-winning book of poetry is available on Amazon.

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