Peele details how ‘spiritual formation’ informs transformational leadership

Christian Peele, organizational strategist and head of strategic planning for ImpactAssets, speaks Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy as part of the Week Five Interfaith Lecture Series theme “Religious and Ethical Infrastructure.” Jess Kszos/The Chautauquan Daily

Kaitlyn Finchler
Staff writer

Those who have been formed on the “inside” and “outside” are leaders and followers, respectively, according to the Rev. Christian Peele.

While to some it may be a lecture, Peele described her experience Tuesday as a “family affair.” It was her first time at Chautauqua, but “won’t be my last.”

Peele delivered her lecture at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy for Week Five of the Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “Religious and Ethical Infrastructure.”

“Walking these paths is inspiring,” she said. “In the 24 hours that I’ve been here, I’m just delighted. … It’s actually fitting that this, for me, is a family affair.”

At one of the “most complex, high-paced (and) high-impact organizations in the world,” Peele serves as chief of staff of ImpactAssets, an investment firm that moves capital to values-based causes.

“One of the key lessons I’ve learned over time, that informs how I lead, is that how we show up on the outside has a whole lot to do with how we’ve been shaped on the inside,” Peele said. 

Long before she saw this in her work in President Barack Obama’s administration — as the first African American deputy director for White House operations — she was born in Goldsboro, North Carolina to a Baptist preacher father.

“Some of my earliest memories are being inside the little white church with a steeple where my dad helped lead worship every Sunday,” she said. “My family and other families from the same poor Black community would gather in the church sanctuary week after week.”

Reminiscing about the smell of kerosene heaters, sounds of crickets in the summer and views of stained glass windows, Peele recalled a painting of a brown-skinned Jesus kneeling in the Jordan River.

“Our small faith community prayed, worshiped, stomped, clapped, danced and sang together,” she said. “Did you know that music was the bloodline of the Black church? Songs, hymns and spiritual songs have enlivened the Black community’s experience of being with each other and being with God.”

Peele said they sang “hopeful cries,” despite the seasons of “great oppression and great pain.” The songs narrated their “unyielding belief” that although they suffered in poverty and through life, God was mindful of them.

“Time has passed and I have changed,” she said. “But the vibrations of these songs we sang way back then still ring within me and create the framework of my faith even today.”

Her spiritual life was formed by her faith communities, rhythms, meaning of songs, liturgy and rituals. These “planted seeds,” she said, shape how she thinks about God, the world and her role in the world.

“These truths have risen me up in some of the darkest moments of my life, including when my infant daughter passed away,” Peele said. “I felt like I had nothing else to hold on to.”

Peele said she can look back now and see how important the “patterns of spiritual formation” were in shaping her work in places like the White House or with fund managers on Wall Street.

The role of a congregational church in daily life is dwindling, she said. As the world becomes more digital, global and contextualized, the days of “young people streaming in to fill pews,” may be long gone.

“The church’s practice of forming hearts in wisdom, ritual and season remains a very special offering,” Peele said. “We, as people of faith, can think creatively about a kind of formation that’s broader and more inclusive than just religious formation.”

Peele said leaders who are simply “inspired” toward values of courage, vision and hope are in every marketplace. The White House “is really different” from the little white church where she grew up. 

She worked in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, leading the operational strategy for President Joe Biden, managing money and people in nonprofits and churches. She asked Chautauquans to guess which was “more political,” the White House or the church. 

“It wasn’t the White House,” Peele said. “In all the spaces I’ve worked, our mission has been to tackle big, hard, complicated problems. … How might we strengthen the world if churches focus less on filling pews, and more on forming people for leadership?”

Over the course of her career, Peele said her observation is that people who are drawn to taking on the hardest challenges are those who’ve been formed on the inside. 

“Often those (people) have been formed on the inside in a way that leads them to be courageous, emboldened, hopeful and willing on the outside,” she said. “Something rings inside of them and creates a unique inner framework for how they see the world in their role in our faith.”

The tradition of formation teaches shaping people toward good, even without religious affiliation. In layman’s terms, Peele said it’s a way of saying, “people have something to learn from you and me.” 

Leadership scholars have coined this approach, “transformational leadership,” where a leader’s primary goal is to inspire their team’s moral awareness. 

“Studies show that those who work with transformational leaders experience increases in their own sense of self-efficacy and sense of competence,” Peele said. “Engaging this kind of leader also reduces one’s tendency toward self-interest.”

Peele said her friends and people of faith are well positioned to be the transformational leaders “our world needs.”

“All we have to do is think a bit differently about why we’ve been spiritually formed,” she said. “Not just for Sunday or after Sunday, but for the good of the world.”

Her offering to Chautauquans is that “strengthening our ethical and religious infrastructure can begin with me and you.” It begins with people of faith seeing themselves as people with something to offer the world.

“If I really believe that the world as it is can be different, that I’m not intimidated by impossible problems, I’m drawn to them,” Peele said. “I’m drawn to participating in the hard work of trying to heal those problems at-scale.”

Peele said when she leads teams in organizational contexts, she sees herself as a storyteller. She wants to “paint an inspiring vision” for a world free from hunger, police brutality and to ensure community-led policies for clean drinking water.

As an example of inspiring people, Peele spoke about a grassroots-collected effort during the COVID-19 pandemic to increase national production of ventilators and masks. 

During this time she worked with a plethora of people, ranging from private sector CEOs, local pastors, social workers, nonprofit leaders, foundation heads, big donor investors, physicians and researchers.

“I was hard-pressed to think of another instance where such an eclectic group would come together toward a singular cause,” Peele said.

For many, she said, religion is a set of “clean-cut answers,” where questions are few and they can pretend doubt is nonexistent. But for Peele, her theological formation positions her to see God as holding many questions.

“I try to lead with that same spirit of creativity, with a willingness to take risks, to fail (and) to sacrifice,” she said, “all for the sake of pursuing something good in any space.”

Peele encouraged Chautauquans to “go back to the basics” of what it means to be in a relationship with God and to each other.

“If spiritually informed people like me and you lived our lives as examples outside the church,” she said, “that could help form other leaders who are ready to say, ‘Yes.’ ”


The author Kaitlyn Finchler

Kaitlyn Finchler is a journalism and public relations graduate from Kent State University as of May. This will be her second summer at Chautauqua where she will cover literary arts, serving previously as the Interfaith Lecture Series preview reporter. In her free time, you can find her reading, cooking or flipping between “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Gossip Girl.” She’s most excited to see how many times she can slip the word “plethora” into her stories before Sara makes her stop again.