Finding Yourself in Chaos: Self-Discovery for Religious Leaders in a Time of Transition

By James R. Newby and Mark Minear. Rowman & Littlefield, 2022. 168 pages. $65/hardcover; $22/paperback; $20/eBook.

When T. Canby Jones, the late, beloved religious studies professor at Wilmington College in Ohio, was introduced to chaos theory in the 1990s, he was very excited about the insight the relatively new branch of scientific study offered into the story of creation in the Book of Genesis. Finding order out of chaos, the theme of Genesis, was illustrated in new and refreshing ways by the theory. In their own way, James Newby and Mark Minear offer in this book ways to create a more ordered life out of the chaos of loss of purpose and passion, addictions, the pain of being marginalized, and burnout.

Newby, a public Friend, author, and current pastoral minister at Cincinnati (Ohio) Meeting, and Minear, a recorded Friends minister now serving in Iowa as a licensed psychologist in full-time psychotherapy work, draw on their personal experience and theological and professional training to address the chaos of lives broken by the world, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway as the authors have done. For many years, the two have been co-leaders of a seminar titled “Sacred Chaos: A Seminar for Religious Leaders in Transition.” While the main purpose of the seminar is to assist in the spiritual and emotional renewal of religious leaders, the illustrations and advice in the book drawn from that seminar are applicable to all, whether a “leader” or not. They describe the seminar as a form of clearness committee for participants. Finding Yourself in Chaos serves a similar purpose for the reader.

Ten chapters of the book are organized into two parts: “Journey Inward” and “Journey Outward,” reminiscent of Rufus Jones’s classic The Double Search. Confronting woundedness, recovering passion, maintaining a healthy balance in life, and coming to an understanding of one’s authentic Self are explored as disciplines necessary for effective public ministry, recovering public virtues, transforming culture and institutions, and engaging in authentic religious leadership.

Especially relevant in the book are the authors’ observations on the chaos of current religious, social, and political realities. Careful analysis is offered of our dysfunctional society, the “nones” and “dones” of institutional religious life, the “great resignation,” racism, gender and sexuality issues, political divisions, and the loss of civility. Along the way, Newby and Minear draw on their own spiritual autobiographies as well as the lives of seminar participants to offer an experiential basis for their observations.

Sprinkled throughout the book are references to Friends with whom Quaker readers will be familiar: Thomas Kelly, John Woolman, George Fox, Robert Barclay, Stephen Grellet, Parker Palmer, and D. Elton Trueblood (James Newby’s longtime mentor), though not as many women as would be liked. Even more non-Friends are cited for their helpful insights: Henri Nouwen, Marcus Borg, Mary Oliver, Anne Lamott, Walter Brueggemann, Frederick Buechner, and a whole bevy of other writers, teachers, theologians, and ministers.

Particularly poignant are experiences shared by Newby about his own struggles and examples from the life of his Friends minister father, Richard Newby. Divorce, depression, committed activism for peace and racial justice, and human foibles are transparently shared. 

Finding Yourself in Chaos may have as its central focus the chaos and difficulty of contemporary life, but it is not devoid of humor. Finding opportunity to reference the Quaker childhood of Hoosier-born actor James Dean, Newby quotes Dean’s biographer as describing Quakers as people “who can take the pomp out of any circumstance!” Stories of Newby’s own staunchly abstemious Quaker grandmother and her rationalization for Richard Nixon’s apparent toast with alcohol in a meeting with Chinese leaders is worth the price of the book.

Newby and Minear offer much excellent advice for finding our way out of spiritual chaos. It could be the genesis of renewal for those sincerely seeking ways forward. In the end, though, the authors comment that one cannot do much better than returning to the spiritual path of loving God and one another. Easier said than done, but Newby and Minear provide helpful signposts along the way.

Max L. Carter retired from Guilford College as the director of Quaker Studies following a 45-year career in Quaker education. A recorded Friends minister, he is a member of New Garden Meeting in Greensboro, N.C. (North Carolina Fellowship of Friends) and lives in Greensboro with his wife, Jane. Together they lead regular service/learning trips to Palestine and Israel.

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