Manage energy rather than time. Just as we need to know each other’s strengths, we need an awareness of preferred rhythms. For example, we can honor the workflow of morning people vs. afternoon people.
As a part of my series about leaders who integrate mindfulness and spiritual practices into their work culture, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks. Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks, senior minister of Unity Atlanta. She is responsible for the ministry’s spiritual direction, ensuring opportunities for congregants of all ages to learn and grow in their faith formation. Unity Atlanta Church began in 1924 and continues to thrive as an inclusive, open, warm, compassionate, loving spiritual community that offers prayer support, congregational care, divine connections, sacred conversations and loving encouragement. Rev. Sacks is passionate about emotionally healthy spirituality, reminding people that they can’t grow in their spiritual maturity, relationship with God, themselves, and others if they don’t tend to their physical, emotional and mental well-being also.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you please share your “backstory” with us?
I heard a call to ministry as a young girl, but between than time and when I was accepted to seminary in 2007, I lived and worked in many places. I was a student of theatre and social history at the University of London, Birkbeck College and worked as an advocacy journalist and public relations executive in Washington, D.C. I earned a Master’s in Literature from American University while working full-time for a trade association. Later, I returned to New Jersey, where the ministerial call grew louder.
The key moment occurred on September 11, 2001, at McNair Academic High School, an honors magnet school in Jersey City, where I served on faculty as an English teacher. As students, staff and administrators lived through the collapse of the World Trade Center and the destruction of part of New York City, we bonded as a Beloved Community, a veritable United Nations of belief systems and nationalities. In those moments, I knew that’s what true spiritual communities are meant to be: places of connection, compassion and comfort, as well as enlightenment, in a world which can be full of affliction and chaos.
What role did mindfulness or spiritual practice play in your life growing up? Do you have a funny or touching story about that?
As a little girl walking along the New Jersey shore, I remember imagining conversations with seagulls and thinking deeply about the sunsets. Even at 5 years old, I knew I was contemplative but didn’t know what that meant. I just knew that I had a connection with nature and the beach and with other people, and I felt a divine presence in all of that.
Once, I was swimming in the ocean with my friends and lost track of time. Suddenly I couldn’t see my friends, and larger and larger waves knocked into me. As I drifted further from the shore, I felt terrified. Instinctively, I sank into the next giant wave. I tumbled around, and my senses heightened. I saw green, grey swirls and heard the surf roaring in my ears. When I surfaced again, I was nearer to the shoreline than if I’d attempted to swim there myself. I rode two more waves and walked out of the ocean.
Rolling with those waves rather than fighting them was an incredible lesson for me. I’ve found that when we choose to let life roll for a while, we rediscover our true selves and what we value most. We also find that life is calmer, not necessarily because the situation has changed, but because we have.
How do your mindfulness or spiritual practices affect your business and personal life today?
When I’m beginning to feel overloaded or unclear, I can now see it coming and have the awareness to stop and focus on grounding myself. This awareness is key. I know I need time to sit, to be still and to breathe, so I build it into my schedule even if that means starting my prayer and meditation time at 4 a.m. At Unity Atlanta, I’m responsible for setting an example for our congregation of 300, as well as working alongside our board members, staff and ministry teams to create a Beloved Community and a positive path for spiritual living. To do that, I have to start my day with self-care so I can show up as my best self for all of those people.
Do you find that you are more successful or less successful because of your integration of spiritual and mindful practices? Can you share an example or story about that with us?
As a senior minister, I can confidently say that spiritual and mindful practices are absolutely essential to my success! I sometimes travel to speak with groups, and my speaking topics often relate to themes of mindfulness and spirituality. Once, while driving to a speaking engagement, I got lost. I could feel myself shaking, tension mounting in my body. Rather than freaking out, I made myself breathe deeply until I could pull over and reset the GPS. While it was loading…loading…loading…I realized I had no choice but to remain calm if I wanted to deliver this speech. Once the GPS finally connected, it turned out that I was much closer than I thought, and in fact, I arrived on time. I was able to go in and deliver a good program because I had stayed mindful rather than spinning out of control.
What would you say is the foundational principle for one to “lead a good life”? Can you share a story that illustrates that?
Trust our intuition; that still, small voice inside of us. All of us have that wonderful gut reaction radar, and we lead good, fulfilling lives when we’re aware of how that supports and guides us. We may be tempted to live someone else’s dream because it sounds or looks good, but our bodies usually tell us it’s not a good fit. Being true to ourselves means being clear about our choices and how we use our energy and time. I’ve learned there is great power in saying yes to what’s really ours and saying no to what someone else can do much better.
When I was being interviewed for seminary, I was asked what I would do if I wasn’t accepted. I said I’d move from teaching English to being a guidance counselor and finish my master’s degree in Education. As I reflected on that, I felt clear that I could do something else, but I trusted that ministry was my true calling. Knowing ourselves, our spirit-led strengths and our limitations help us shine best in whatever work we choose to do.
Can you share a story about one of the most impactful moments in your spiritual/mindful life?
While I was still teaching English, I had a student named Josh who I tutored privately. He was an only child, and I had built a close connection with him and his mother during the times I visited their home for tutoring. Josh was 17 and suddenly died in a car accident. I wasn’t at all prepared for the loss, and after his funeral, I returned to school that day to teach, not even registering my own grief. I had always encouraged my students to call me out on mistakes I made during my lessons, and that day there were several. When I explained where I had been, one of my students replied, “Then you’re allowed to make all the mistakes you want today.” That grace was the warmest embrace I received that week. It continues to remind me that loss and grief are part of our lives and feelings that we often bring with us to work and personal situations. We must be gentle and compassionate with ourselves and with others because we never know when someone is hurting.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Early in my PR career, I had a soul connection with a senior supervisor named Nancy. We were working in high-pressure situations, but she had a knack for seeing and knowing the spirit in the people around her and bringing out the best in them. Because Nancy recognized my contemplative qualities, she was able to offer me a lot of support and encouragement. She was a gift.
Can you share 3 or 4 pieces of advice about how leaders can create a very “healthy and uplifting” work culture?
When I speak to business leaders or when I’m working with my own team at Unity Atlanta, I typically focus on these four ideas:
- Play to strength. It’s so important to be aware of the personal strengths we bring to the table, as well as the individual strengths of our co-workers. Teams have a unique advantage when each member is focused on contributing their own unique gifts and talents.
- Manage energy rather than time. Just as we need to know each other’s strengths, we need an awareness of preferred rhythms. For example, we can honor the workflow of morning people vs. afternoon people.
- Set aside time for prayer or stillness as a team. This can play out in a multitude of ways, though the key is to always to gather together as a team and set a tone for harmony and unity in what needs to be accomplished.
- Be flexible. Sometimes “quick” tasks take twice as long as we imagine, and multitasking is usually overrated.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love for each one of us to focus like a laser beam on how we truly want to live and serve the world. Ancient spiritual masters such as Jesus, Moses, Buddha and Mohammad share a connection to a higher power, to be sure, but they were also grounded in their connection to humanity. They were divine beings living human existences, and so are we. The examples these masters set can inspire us to recognize the divinity in ourselves and all others, too. Imagine how much good we could do if we knew and lived that every day.
How can people follow you and find out more about you?
Thank you for all of these great insights!