It’s late August in New York, and six strangers are gathered on the grounds of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Manhattanville. The West Harlem church, a landmark in the city, has stood on the same plot for 186 years. For most of the people in the room the church will soon be much more than a landmark -- it’s about to become home.

Five of those gathered represent a new class of the New York Intern Program, a service-learning initiative for recent college graduates designed to foster vocational discernment. The interns will spend the next year living in intentional community and working in local social-service organizations. The sixth person in the room, program coordinator Sarah Nazimova-Baum, is there to walk alongside the interns and help them discern their gifts and callings. This is day one.

“We start with a big paper circle, and we divide it into as many slices as there are people,” Nazimova-Baum said. “Each person takes a slice and draws on it in his or her own way. Then we come back together and reassemble the circle, talking as a group about what piece goes where and how the circle fits together best.”

Questions to consider

Questions to consider:

  • How does your institution identify and cultivate “unlikely leaders”?
  • How does life experience contribute to the development of leadership aptitude?
  • How do you encourage your colleagues to follow their passions, even if their application is not immediately obvious?

It’s the first of many activities in which Nazimova-Baum will lead the interns. It draws deeply on her gifts. After spending 20 years practicing art therapy and studying spirituality, Nazimova-Baum has found a home for her passions.

Looking back, Nazimova-Baum says her untraditional path to leadership is precisely what equips her to be successful. She did not simply move into leadership as she climbed a ladder. Rather, the experiences of her 20s and 30s -- work, motherhood, marriage, illnesses -- cultivated in her the skills to become a leader in her 40s.

“Mine is a labyrinthine journey,” she says in her trademark Brooklyn accent.

Nazimova-Baum was raised and married Jewish. Along with her husband and son, she observes a Jewish home life. But 10 years ago she was moved to embrace a new tradition: Quakerism. Then her professional life experienced a conversion of its own -- from art therapy to hospital chaplaincy to courses in spirituality and spiritual direction at New York’s General Theological Seminary. But changing interests did not mean clarity about how to tie them together.

“I called General ‘the world’s most expensive hobby,’” she said. “It had no direct relevance to my work life and wasn’t adding to my credentials.” And then a friend named Elizabeth Kooperkamp recommended that Nazimova-Baum consider a position at the New York Intern Program.

Kooperkamp, a psychologist, had met Nazimova-Baum in Brooklyn social-service organizations. Elizabeth connected Nazimova-Baum to her husband, Earl, an Episcopal priest who founded the program and needed a gifted administrator to help bring the vision to life. Nazimova-Baum took the job.

“There I was: a Quaker with a Jewish family working with an AmeriCorps program run out of an Episcopal church!” she said with a laugh. “It seemed like a detour, but this was the thing that made sense. It took all these strands in my life and worked them together.”

What works for Nazimova-Baum often benefits the interns -- though not without stretching them. Brian Merrill remembers a particular challenge Nazimova-Baum issued to him when she led the interns through times of silence modeled on her own Quaker spirituality: “Silence always used to drive me crazy,” Merrill said. “Through Sarah I learned to respect silence in a way I never did before.” He is not the only one she has influenced.

Earl Kooperkamp has witnessed her impact too. He remembers an intern who joined the program straight out of college. Within one year, the intern had experienced the death of her boyfriend and the unraveling of her parents’ marriage -- all while working to help homeless individuals get back on their feet.

“Sarah helped her make sense of it all,” he remembers. “She walked our intern through that year. She also stepped in and helped the other interns to be a supportive community. As a result, [our intern] experienced God’s presence through the community even though she was suffering tremendous tragedy.”

The threads that equip Nazimova-Baum for her work are impossible to untangle. Her training in art therapy, chaplaincy and spiritual direction inevitably play in, but her biography also plays a critical role. “What helps most for this job is that I was a wreck in my 20s,” she said. “I vividly remember what it’s like to drop the ball and have to put it back together. This job put it back together for me.”

As she describes her own path, Nazimova-Baum emphasizes the importance of learning to be comfortable in one’s own skin. Maturity and discernment go hand-in-hand. “I bring to the interns’ discernment the fact that I’m not their age. I’ve lived much longer, and I’m firmly in my adulthood.”

Often that means moving forward without having all the answers. “Don’t panic” are words that sound trite on many people’s lips. But when Nazimova-Baum says them her voice carries more than two decades spent asking questions and discerning next steps. “Don’t panic,” she tells the interns. “Maybe it will all be okay. It’s the making a go of it that we all have to learn to do.”