“Do you have a wishbone where a backbone ought to be?”
If so, Susan A. Marshall wants to talk – and work – with you.
As the founder of The Backbone Institute, the Partner in Pinnacle Forum in Wisconsin is determined, in the words of her organization’s mission statement, “to create a stronger, more confident future one person at a time.”
In other words, not unlike Pinnacle Forum’s goal of transformation, Susan’s focus is on helping individuals “do the difficult and exhilarating work of growth.”
She does that by helping people master five fundamental skills: critical thinking, decisiveness, clarity of communication, integrity of words and actions, and consistency.
That’s a process that works for believers and non-believers alike, but one that is deeply embedded in her own Christian faith.
“I believe that God creates each and every one of us to do important work during our time on earth,” she said in an earlier interview with Conscious Connection magazine. “I believe He equips us with unique skills that enable us to do His work. I believe He guides our lives according to His Will. Just as no two humans will ever have the same fingerprints, no two lives are ever the same in detail, circumstance or outcome.
“Defining one’s purpose is a huge issue for most of us,” she told the magazine. “Without having a deep belief that you are here at this moment in time for an important purpose that only you can achieve, it seems nearly impossible to appreciate or fully live your extraordinary life.”
That fits perfectly with Pinnacle Forum’s Four “E” Strategy that encourages and equips people to discover their God-given passion and purpose and then engage and execute on His calling in their lives.
Susan’s own journey to discover God’s call in her life was not always an easy one. Born into a Christian family, she was raised Catholic, but as an adult would become a Protestant. As a child she wrestled at times to work out her faith, but also learned something about God’s plan for her.
“During my Catholic schooling,” she recalls, “I was fortunate to have a number of teachers—including one special nun—who told me repeatedly that God had bestowed unique gifts upon me and that my responsibility was to discover them and employ them in service to His Holy will.”
That realization would eventually lead her to discover and execute on her passion – but not until she struggled through a stormy adolescence, two failed relationships and a challenging life as a working single mother of two.
Those experiences, though, eventually gave Susan a deeper insight into God’s love, mercy and grace in her life – one that upon reflection she sums up succinctly as a “life of redemption” in which God repeatedly saved her including “many times from myself.”
“I have thought deeply about this flawed past and how God worked in mysterious and extraordinarily consistent ways to sustain me,” she explains. “Guilt is corrosive; God’s love is powerfully restorative. The world mocks; God reassures. He chose me at birth; I have tried valiantly to be worthy of His adoption. How silly. I can never be worthy by my efforts. He gave His son to guarantee my salvation.”
God also gave Susan a love for reading, which led to a love for writing, which led to authoring two books, which led to starting The Backbone Institute, named after her second book, “How to Grow a Backbone.”
“What is backbone? What does it look like? How does it work in day-to-day dealings? What happens when people don’t have backbone? These and many more questions challenged my thinking and I found it both exciting and intimidating to articulate the work,” she says. “With the book complete, I created a series of workshops designed to help people build skill and confidence to lead the lives and make the contributions they dreamed about.”
As an author, speaker and leader of her organization, she has helped thousands of individuals better understand and embrace the hard but rewarding work of transformational growth.
It was at a Backbone Institute-sponsored event at Wisconsin Lutheran College in 2015 that she met Steve Godfrey, then a Pinnacle Forum group facilitator who soon would become executive director of the Wisconsin chapter. He eventually convinced Susan to join his wife, Heather, in starting a women’s Forum.
“Meeting with other Christian women to explore ways to use our gifts to transform not only our lives and the lives of those around us, but also a culture that is terribly broken, gives each of us purpose and energy,” she says.
“Pinnacle Forum’s mission and Four “E” Strategy helps people focus,” she continues. “The world is a very noisy place, full of actors parading across its stage. Having a Forum to explore and develop our gifts for a purpose greater than personal gratification is inspiring. Meeting regularly with Christians who feel compelled to seek and follow God’s will provides energy that is both urgent and accepting. There is much work to do and we take time to listen to God’s voice. We remind one another to be diligent as we balance this tension.”
Based on her own life and her own Forum experiences, Susan has some words of encouragement forPinnacle Forum people across the country.
“Be grateful for the wonderful people in your Forum,” she says. “Share openly during both good and difficult times; the encouragement we provide for one another strengthens and reassures each of us. We all struggle and we are all forgiven.”
And, she challenges her Pinnacle Forum peers to explore ways to engage their greater communities.
“We can make a difference! God has called us to be His beacons of light in a dark and confused world,” she says. “He will direct and sustain us as we share our journey with others and invite them to seek God’s purpose for their lives. Be brave. Be bold. Be joyful.”
And, if you don’t already have one, grow a backbone!