Spiritual Direction (Part 2): A Key Practice for Transforming Leaders

Part One of this eReflections series can be found here.


“There is a temptation to think that spiritual direction is the guidance of one’s spiritual activities, considered a small part or department of one’s life. This is completely false. Spiritual direction is concerned with the whole person not simply as an individual human being, but as a child of God, another Christ, seeking to recover the perfect likeness to God in Christ, and by the Spirit of Christ.”
Thomas Merton


When I entered into spiritual direction I had been working very hard at practicing the spiritual disciplines I had been taught in my Protestant upbringing—Bible study, wordy prayers, corporate worship and teaching, participating in a small group, serving with my gifts in the church, etc.   I was sure I could make it all work if I just tried harder. And try harder I did—to the point that I was not only exhausted from ministry but exhausted from trying to become a better person with practices that could only take me so far.

Part of my desperation was the fact that the practices and habits people had told me were supposed to work in bringing about my transformation were not working, no matter how faithful I was to their program. I was embarrassed and felt very defeated.

Fresh Practices for Leaders Who are Trying too Hard

Surprisingly, my spiritual director encouraged me to stop doing what wasn’t working (!) and to pay attention to what I was longing for.  It was the strangest and most wonderful feeling to be freed from the Bible study and prayer methods I had practiced for so long in the hopes there might be something new for me! While I continued to lead in the arenas where I had responsibility, I had a private place for letting go of what wasn’t working and trying some new things. This was all very hopeful.

Eventually my director helped me to understand that I was in a transitional place in the life of prayer and began to guide me into fresh disciplines that corresponded to my need and fostered fresh experiences with God that I was so thirsty for. Her concrete guidance along with the confidence she conveyed, marked out a new path for me.

One of the key moments in my early experience with spiritual direction was when I was able to be honest about how dry and lifeless Scripture had become for me.  Even though there had been a time when Scripture was a place of life for me, years of serious study and then the responsibility of teaching others regularly had made them a tool of my profession rather than a place of intimate encounter.  I was scared to death to admit this to anyone.

But in the safety of spiritual direction, I was able to talk about the wall I had hit with Scripture, receive encouragement to let go for a while (such freedom and relief!), and then have God return the Scriptures to me as the gift he intended—through the practice of lectio divina.  If I hadn’t had the courage to let go, I might never have received such a beautiful new gift!

When the Pastor Doesn’t Feel Like Praying

A natural pitfall of pastoral leadership, in particular, is that the boundary between one’s personal spiritual life and the demands of one’s profession can become very blurry. Pastoral leaders may come with a great sense of guilt that “I just don’t feel like praying” or “I study Scripture so much for my sermons, I am no longer able to engage Scripture without thinking about my next sermon!”

Corporate leaders might have created a false dichotomy between their spiritual life and their leadership, having no idea how to engage spiritual disciplines that will help them forge a connection between their soul and their leadership.

One of the most significant contributions a spiritual director can make in the life of a leader is to create space for reflecting on the spiritual practices that open us to true transformation.  In this space, we are helped to quiet feelings of “ought” and “should” so that we can pay attention to what’s really going on, spiritually speaking.  We can be honest in reflecting on practices that are no longer fruitful for us or may have become layered with all sorts of professional expectations.  This can open the way for letting go of what isn’t working and claiming fresh disciplines for ourselves.

The role of a spiritual director is to provide guidance for entering into spiritual disciplines that will help us forge a stronger connection between our soul and our leadership. The practice of mindfulness, paying attention to one’s breathing, building time into each work day for silence, prayer, contemplative Bible reading, staying attuned to inner dynamics of consolation and desolation, allowing such awareness to shape decision-making…. are all practices that strengthen the soul of one’s leadership.

A seasoned spiritual director will have training and experience with a wide variety of spiritual disciplines that correspond to our desire and our need.  They can open up a treasure trove of spiritual possibilities for leaders who have done all they know to do and are desperate for fresh ways of connecting with God. This offers a world of hope to leaders who have lost hope in their ability to connect with God in the context of their leadership.

Spiritual Direction as a Context for Confession

Confession is good for the soul—especially confession in the presence of someone who knows how to mediate God’s grace in such tender moments. The safety of the spiritual direction relationship makes it the ideal place (and for some of us, the only place) where we can acknowledge deeper levels of self-awareness, examine the hidden dynamics and relational patterns that are hindering us, and at times make our own confession.

While the idea of making a confession and/or receiving someone’s confession may be uncomfortable for us as Protestants, we do well to remember that this is one of the ways we are to be present to one another in the body of Christ.  In some traditions the spiritual director and the confessor are seen as two distinct roles and two distinct people.  However, most pastors and spiritual leaders (at least in the Protestant tradition) do not have anywhere else to make their confessions and there are times when this is what the soul needs most.

Because of the safety, the privacy and the longevity of the relationship with a spiritual director, this may be the only safe place we have to engage this powerful discipline.  If the Spirit is stirring us to make a confession, we need to follow this prompting, no matter how difficult and humbling it seems. When, by God’s grace, we are becoming more aware of our sins and negative patterns, spiritual direction is a place we can go with the daily awareness of how these are impacting our lives.

There may also come a time when God invites us to make a whole-life confession as part of our spiritual journey.  Perhaps we are so burdened by the accumulated awareness of our sin and the knowledge of how it has wounded our lives, the lives of others, and the life of the world that the only way for the burden to be relieved is to take a fearless inventory, to confess our sin, to receive forgiveness and make restitution as needed. This is so important to our transformational journey that everything from the twelve-step program to the Ignatian exercises includes such a practice.

Practicing Confession

The first time I made a confession to my spiritual director I had not planned to do it.  Confession to any kind of confessor was not a part of my tradition but it had been on my mind as something that could be beneficial to my spiritual journey and on this particular day, it just kind of came out.   I remember actually sliding out of my chair and onto the floor in a wave of tears that took me by surprise.  My director just quietly got down on the floor with me and put her arms around me in a gesture of love, comfort, and unconditional presence that was tremendously healing in its impact. There was no need for words.

The first time I received someone’s confession, the person let me know ahead of time that this was something they wanted to do.  Because the person was from a liturgical background, I brought my Book of Common Prayer so that I could read the prayer of absolution.  She made her confession. Tears flowed. I put my arms around her and offered the prayer of absolution along with a verse from Scripture that assured her of God’s forgiveness. A great burden was lifted.

Cultivating self-awareness through self-examination in and through spiritual direction and having the courage to practice confession there is crucial to our transformation.  As Robert Mulholland states so clearly, “The process of being conformed to the image of Christ takes place at the points of our unlikeness to Christ.” This means that the spiritual direction relationship will at times be a place where we move beyond warm, gentle, affirming interactions to conversations that challenge the false self and help us see ourselves more clearly.

Confession is always best practiced in an environment of love and safety—one sinner to another—and the willingness to do this is, in itself, part of our healing and transformation.  Certainly this is what Paul means when he says we are to confess our sins one to another that we may be healed.

Humility and Courage

It takes both humility and courage for pastors or spiritual leaders to admit that while they are guiding others in spiritual matters, they are coming up empty themselves.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that spiritual direction as a practice for leaders is a practice of submission.

Since Protestants are known by what we protest and since we are a very independent lot, we rarely submit to anything or anybody. But when we enter into spiritual direction, we admit we are looking for something we do not yet have. We are willing to say we have hit a limit. We might even be willing to admit that we are powerless to take the next step on our spiritual journey without help and that we don’t even know what the next step is!  We submit to someone else’s leadership and guidance because we have seen something in them we would like to learn.  We want to be shaped in some new way and we don’t want our over-identification with ourselves as leaders to get in the way.

A spiritual director does not take this place of authority in our lives; we willingly give it because our longing for deeper levels of transformation and our desire to bring a transforming self to our leadership is stronger than our desire to remain in control.  We present ourselves to them as honestly and as openly as we are able, submitting to their love and guidance.  And that in itself is transforming.


© Ruth Haley Barton, 2017. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

15 Comments

  1. Jane Hollinger Clark on November 15, 2017 at 6:35 am

    Wonderful! My spiritual direction is focused on working with ministers and church leaders so this is quite helpful. You remind me (gently) that I also must submit myself to God during my sessions with directees. Thank you!

  2. Gary Franklin on November 13, 2017 at 7:08 am

    Ruth, thank you for your continued spiritual leadership and direction for so many of us. Your thoughts on spiritual direction resonate with both my desire and need. They give me vision and hope. Grateful for you!

  3. Ian on November 11, 2017 at 12:29 am

    Dear Ruth, I’m loving this little series on how spiritual direction has impacted you. It’s something that’s been on my heart for a while now and I’m eager for more information.

    May I ask where is a good place to start in being understanding the role and practices of a spiritual director? Thanking you in advance, Ruth.

  4. Michael Fox on November 7, 2017 at 11:28 pm

    Wonderful. You are such a blessing to those of us who know you and have learned from you.

    • Ruth Barton on November 8, 2017 at 10:26 am

      You are so dear!

  5. Wil Hernandez on November 7, 2017 at 9:45 pm

    Ruth, I commend you for highlighting the vital role of spiritual direction especially for leaders. I especially like the way you addressed the crucial aspect of confession for the healing of our souls!

    • Ruth Barton on November 8, 2017 at 10:26 am

      Great to hear from you, Wil! I’m glad to hear that the aspect of spiritual direction that involves confession resonates with you… very confirming!

  6. Debby on November 7, 2017 at 4:02 pm

    Thank you for modeling honest humility, openness with receptivity, and courageous confession. You even modeled giving what you received. You have a beautiful gift of modeling and communicating that has always encouraged me and others. Thanks!

    • Ruth Barton on November 8, 2017 at 10:23 am

      Thank you. I am grateful for anything God does through my/our humanness.

  7. Susan Lubushkin on November 7, 2017 at 9:06 am

    What is the best way to find a spiritual director?

    • Administrator on November 7, 2017 at 9:13 am

      Susan, Thanks for asking such an important question. You might begin here. This page describes what spiritual direction is, some principles for finding a director and some recommended reading. Because we think spiritual direction is so important for leaders, we have spiritual directors available at all our Transforming Community retreats. If you have never experienced spiritual direction, joining a Transforming Community might be one way to experience direction.

  8. Timothy Nelson on November 7, 2017 at 8:04 am

    Ruth, Thank you for sharing this part of your journey with us. Your openness is always so encouraging.

    • Ruth Barton on November 7, 2017 at 9:11 am

      You are so welcome, Tim!

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