Spiritual Direction (Part 1): A Key Practice for Healthy Leaders

Part Two of this eReflections series can be found here.

“The whole purpose of spiritual direction is to penetrate beneath the surface of a man’s life, to get behind the façade of conventional gestures and attitudes which he presents to the world, and to bring out his inner spiritual freedom, his inmost truth, which is what we call the likeness of Christ in his soul.”
Thomas Merton   

It was over twenty years ago now when, as a young leader, I crept into a spiritual director’s office desperate for help.  A grown up pastors’ kid in my early thirties, on staff at a church I loved, busy with a growing family, and just beginning to embark on a public life of writing and speaking…I was aware of things in my life that needed fixing and longings that were painfully unmet.

There were emotions from past pains and current disappointments that I did not know how to resolve.  There was a level of selfishness being exposed in the crucible of marriage and family life that I did not know how to shift or change.  There was a performance-oriented driven-ness that I did not know how to quiet. There was a longing for more, but more of what?

I had tried everything that had been offered in my own Protestant evangelical upbringing to fix what was broken and fill what was lacking—more Bible study, more prayer, more relevant sermons, trying harder, Christian self-help books—but to no avail. In the midst of the outward busyness of my “professional” pastoral life there was an inner chaos that was far more disconcerting than anything that was going on externally.

Help is on the Way

As a young leader, I was also aware that this was not a good time to admit to any kind of spiritual emptiness or acknowledge serious questions about my faith.  I understood intuitively that this was a time for being “good,” for being available when people called, for maintaining outward evidence of spiritual maturity commensurate with the responsibilities I carried. It was a time to do what was needed in order to keep ascending the ladder of professional success and I knew it; yet my interior groanings were real and needed attention.

For me, help came through a spiritual director, although I didn’t even know what one was at the time.  Our paths crossed because she was a psychologist.  I sought her out for therapy because I assumed that my problems were psychological in nature and could be fixed at that level.

Psychological insight was indeed valuable; eventually, however, she observed that what I needed was spiritual direction and suggested that we shift the focus of our times together to my relationship with God.  She told me that the questions I was raising were actually invitations to deeper intimacy with God and they needed to be dealt with in that context. It was a welcome invitation and I trusted her, so we made the shift.

As I stayed faithful to my own spiritual journey under the tutelage of this wise guide, spiritual direction became one of the most important disciplines in my life as a leader. It remains so to this day.  As I look back on all that has emerged since then, I realize that the journey would have been a very different one were it not for the presence of a spiritual guide who could help me pay attention to the risky invitations of God in my life and who could support me in saying a courageous yes.

Welcoming Desperation

I am not the only leader to have come to spiritual direction by way of desperation. Many pastors and leaders today are acknowledging an inner emptiness—a desire for the More—in the midst of outward busyness and even outward success.  They experience the same feelings of spiritual “stuck-ness” as I did, and may even be entertaining thoughts of leaving ministry due to the lack of ability to craft a way of life that works and helps them find God in the midst of it all. The heart cry sounds something like this:  “In the midst of all I am doing for God and for others, is there anything in this for me?

So where does a leader go to articulate questions that seem so dangerous and doubts that seem so unsettling?  Who pastors the pastor?  Who provides spiritual leadership for the leader? Oftentimes it is a spiritual director.

It can be very hard for us as pastors and leaders to seek out spiritual direction because it represents something of a role reversal.  Since we are accustomed to being the leader, submitting to someone else’s guidance or admitting the need for such guidance can be a humbling experience.  For many of us stubborn folks, desire and/or desperation may be the only dynamics powerful enough to cause us to humble ourselves and seek the guidance we need. The good news is that desperation opens us to possibilities we might not otherwise be open to—like spiritual direction!

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good

When I first entered in to spiritual direction, I remember being overwhelmed and embarrassed by the state I was in and the questions I was bringing. I needed reassurance that the needs, the desires, and the desperate feelings I was experiencing were normal.  How grateful I was for a director who helped me see these inner dynamics as a wonderful starting place for new spiritual journeying!   Her confidence that this was so, normalized my experience, helping  me relax into the whole thing.

As I gained confidence that this relationship really was a safe place for asking questions and exploring issues that were lurking under the surface of my leadership, simply knowing I had such a place began to release pressure that had been building up for a long time. Leadership, by its very nature, is something of a pressure cooker because we are constantly being scrutinized and evaluated while being expected to perform at fairly high levels. Having a safe place far outside our leadership context in which to attend to our own souls is a great gift.

If you think about it, the “normal” person has many options for seeking spiritual guidance and sustenance (churches, synagogues, a relationship with a pastor, priest or rabbi, spirituality centers, para-church ministry organizations that cater to specific groups); pastors and spiritual leaders however, often find themselves feeling very isolated at the soul level since everyone is looking to them for soul care. Like it or not, it is not always appropriate to share the depth of our doubts, the full weight of our questions or the shocking details of our growing edges with those we are leading because it could create uncertainty among them. This is a fine line we all walk.

Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves

Pastors, in particular, labor under the burden of knowing their job is dependent on their perceived spirituality and doctrinal clarity—however that is evaluated in their particular circles.  They know that even if they have questions, they must continue to teach and preach with confidence. They must be wise about what they reveal in the presence of those who have the power to hire, fire or significantly influence their career path.

The conundrum, of course, is that without a safe place to attend to his/her own journey, a leader’s growth will be stunted and their spiritual life will atrophy.  As a parish priest shared recently, “My job is to help people attend to their own inner world and to cultivate hope and expectation that God is actively present in their lives but I have lost that hope and expectation in my own life. I need someone to help me do what I am trying to help others do.”

Spiritual Direction as Sacred Space

In my experience of receiving and offering spiritual direction over the years, I have become convinced that the spiritual direction relationship is a sacred space created by purpose and intent, by prayer and practice, and by the ethical commitments that protect it.

The word sacred simply means set apart for a special purpose. All of us as leaders are deeply in need of finding a place that is set apart for the care of our own souls, a place of privacy that removes us from public scrutiny and the leadership presence we must maintain. Part of what makes the spiritual direction relationship safe is the strong ethical commitments that govern it.

Confidentiality and privacy are commitments spiritual directors make to all their directees but these are of particular importance for pastors and leaders. When I first began spiritual direction, the questions and issues I brought felt so personal and had such potential to effect how others might view me that I was extremely skittish at first; and yet I was desperate for a place where I could be completely open. I asked for and received the strongest assurance that there was no possibility my director would betray my confidence.  And the fact that she was far outside my leadership settings and my social circles was very important to me.

I have long been a proponent of paying attention to physical surroundings as well, creating environments designed to usher us into a sense of being quiet and “apart” from the distractions, responsibilities and frenetic activity that have become the norm for so many leaders.  In addition to the assurance of privacy, a sense of the sacred can be created by art and spiritual symbols that may be—but do not necessarily have to be—overtly religious. A simple candle, a piece of driftwood, a plaque with a word like “beloved” etched in it, a sculpture of open hands, a bowl or basin made out of pottery, a kneeler or a prayer cushion are all symbols I have used in my spiritual direction space. Of course I use crosses and icons as well, but I have found that sometimes more neutral symbols can evoke calm, peace, and provide spiritual symbolism God can use without relying so heavily on religious symbols that may or may not be helpful.

To enter into a sacred space that has been thoughtfully arranged and set aside for us and for the care of our souls—rather than a religious environment that is too strongly associated with the work of ministry or a coaching environment associated with getting more work out of us—can be a tremendous blessing.

Surprised by Tears

Don’t be surprised if one of the first things that happens in spiritual direction is that tears come unexpectedly.  Just being in a safe space after feeling unsafe for so long can cause the tears to flow. Tears might also be associated with the disillusionment and grief many of us experience as we realize we have lost a sense of God’s presence for ourselves personally in the context of ministry.  There might also be unresolved sadness from past pains that comes to the surface when space for this has been created.

If possible, don’t resist the tears.  I know this is easier said than done but the ability to feel something—even if you don’t know what it all means yet—can assure us that we are still alive rather than numb or even spiritually dead!  Those who have been in leadership for any length of time at all may have experienced so much scrutiny and evaluation of their spiritual life and their leadership that they haven’t been in touch with their own true feelings for a long time.  Many have experienced the heartache of being severely misunderstood, judged and even betrayed to the point that they have given up on ever feeling safe again. So they don’t let themselves feel anything.

And do not underestimate the loneliness that comes from being “the buck stops here” person along with the natural process of projection that takes place between leaders and followers. This is par for the leadership course and yet it takes its toll. By the time we come to spiritual direction, we may have lost any sense of being valuable beyond what we can produce.  We might be harboring deep feelings of disillusionment about ourselves, the human condition, and the institutions we serve—including (and perhaps most especially) the church. These experiences might have left us questioning our effectiveness as leader, whatever vision we’ve had and sometimes even our worth as a person.

The Encouragement of Light

When I embarked in spiritual direction, I was so beaten down by some of what I had experienced in pastoral ministry that I had a hard time believing anyone could look into my soul and see something good.  I had experienced roadblocks that were deeply disillusioning to the extent that they had caused me to question my faith. When my spiritual director affirmed the brightness of my spirit or the goodness she saw in my heart I was surprised to find that I had a hard time taking it in. I didn’t realize how far I had gotten from any kind of realistic sense of myself.

Even though it took time for me to get used to it and trust it, what I needed most in the beginning was the healing of my spiritual director’s nonjudgmental “seeing.” Her consistent affirmation of my journey as a person with the call of God on my life and leadership was a significant element of what brought me back to a place of health and strength in my spiritual life. As the poet Hafiz describes it so beautifully:

did the rose
ever open its heart
and give to the world all its Beauty?
It felt the encouragement of light against its being,
otherwise we all remain too

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

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (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, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest (Oct 2022).
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[…] Center has been writing about it too in a couple of wonderful blog posts, in two parts.  In the first part she writes, “As I stayed faithful to my own spiritual journey under the tutelage of this wise […]

Well stated and desperately needed in the pandemic of false theology and burn among Christians around leadership. Your vulnerableness and self-awareness continues to be a wonderful example so needed. Thank you.

I am in Australia. I have the privilege of working with many leaders in churches as I help them navigate conflict. I find that I move into a quasi role of spiritual director as we look at the chaos they are feeling in the midst of conflict. Would you recommend a particular spiritual direction course so that I can be better equipped to serve those I have the privilege to come alongside?

Do you have a spiritual director yourself? That would be the first step….

Thanks Ruth, Of course! That is so obvious but I missed it. I’m looking into that now. Thank you for your response.

Thanks Dr. Barton.

You are welcome to call me Ruth. 🙂

Thank you, Ruth! As always, I am so encouraged and challenged to deeper intimacy with Jesus after reading one of your articles. I am thankful that you introduced us to SD in TC 7. It is a gift that I continue to receive each time my SD and I connect every month. What a blessing! I cannot imagine this journey without it. God bless you. Kendon

I am so glad to hear this, Kendon! Spiritual direction is definitely the gift that keeps on giving.

Ruth it was a wonderful article. I’m in the process to be certified. I have pictured ministering to young men at my Church Your article gives me a vision of what a gift Spiritual Direction can be to the Church leaders & staff members at my Church. Thank you for your vulnerability. It’s quite refreshing.

What a beautiful and vulnerable article. So well said, Ruth. Your honesty in sharing about your experiences in my TC 5 class is what helped me to connect with my desire to be a Spiritual Director. It’s what I do now, and it is the most holy and sacred of vocations.

Your personal insights to church ministry and leadership cause me to reflect on my own journey of desperation, internal conflict, and loneliness while on church staff. Where do we go for our soul care, where is safe, who is safe? I felt I was drowning in church pain, and the accompanying confusion was how could there be so much pain coming from God’s church? The result of that time in my life was an invitation from God (unbeknown to me at the time) to take a look at my inner life and to meet Him there. He had me stumble onto a Spiritual Formation Certificate course at Moody Bible Institute which would transform my life. It was through this course that I was introduced to spiritual direction and what true community looked like. All of what you describe from the importance of environment and the confidence of safety to the assurance of confidentiality, I found at our cohort retreats. They were life giving. I have a greater peace at work (church staff) and a passion to offer to others a safe place to meet God intimately. Its sad to see our church leaders/staff so caught up in the daily activities of programming and planning and the needs of church attenders that they rarely, if ever, talk about their own experiences with God and how their lives are being transformed. We are just busy, busy, busy, doing God’s work for others and at times neglecting ourselves. I’m enjoying very much your reflections and just received Sacred Rhythms. I’m hoping to use it in one of our small groups in January.

My journey began with desperation just over 20 years ago as well. I could not find a spiritual director, but found direction from books I read that grounded me. I recognized God was drawing me to Himself, through the journeys of others and His Word. I was shattered by the circumstances of my life,and tears, in fact, became a daily ritual. I even did a study on tears as I felt they were an important part of my personal experience. I even felt tears had dried up for me.
Last year when I read a book of yours for the first time, I started weeping again. I felt someone else has been on my journey. Much of my prior reading was of authors from hundreds of years ago.
I still have not found my spiritual leader in th flesh but I am thankful that He sends along others that drop in and out of my life whom I recognize as ‘God sent’ and I find myself standing on holy ground.
Thank you for sharing your journey. It continues to be affirming and healing to us.

Over the past ten years I’ve met regularly with a spiritual director and have seen God tear down the props that made me seem competent in ministry: exacting standards for myself and others, feeling like I had to always have the answers, and an ongoing list of “shoulds” that was too long to enumerate. Through my spiritual director, I sense God’s invitation to intimacy and freedom in him. I find that now I am more likely to turn to God with open hands, saying, “I don’t know. I don’t have to know. You know, and that is enough.”


That was just beautiful. I loved the references, also! My friend, Beth Bennett, is going after this certificate, and I know that she will be all of these things…Thank you for this article!

How does one find a spiritual director?

Hi Mary Ann! You can go to graftedlife.org and find spiritual directors by region, specialty, etc. This site is for Christian spiritual directors.

Mary Ann,
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.

Thank you, Ruth, for sharing your authentic journey and being faithful to your life calling. Your words are always a huge encouragement to my soul. It is people like you that God has brought into my life, since I was a 20 year old baby Christ-follower, creating safe places for me to be raw and real to cry, discover my inner freedom in Christ and at the same time feel deeply loved and accepted. They were vessels to draw me closer to my Abba’s heart and arms and role models of how to treat others. May God continue to richly bless you as you lead so many around you….many who you’ll never meet until Heaven.

Wonderful Ruth! Thank you – your reflecion and the practice of spiritual direction so beautifully captures what is necessary and what is the solid part of the re-formation taking place within many of our religious traditions today. Bless you!

Your way of capturing the beauty and value of spiritual direction is incredible. My return to spiritual direction after a period of three years is contributing to my health as a leader by clarifying the feeling of chaos I couldn’t even verbalize before my time sitting with my spiritual director. God’s desire to speak into my life was again made real as my SD and I sat in the sacred space. I am grateful for the prompting to return to this practice. I forgot how much I needed it!

To be heard…to have someone be present to my soul’s journey and affirm the Spirit’s leading and nudgings is like balm once a month. Seeing a spiritual director has grounded me in a way that is quietly, yet profoundly impactful for my leadership. I don’t know how I stayed faithful to my ministry call prior to learning of this beautiful practice. Thank you, Ruth, for articulating so much of what it is for me too.

What is a good process for finding a spiritual director?

Howard, thanks for asking. 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 is a great way to experience spiritual direction.

Excellent! How can you provide help and comfort when you need it yourself? This is the conundrum that many people, especially spiritual leaders, experience.

Thank you for these wonder-filled words ….. so affirming, so deeply encouraging ….
the words I hear so often are “I come to you because I know you are safe” ….I pray that will always be the case ….so vitally important for us all to find safe ears, a safe heart that is oftentimes forged in the crucible of betrayal ….

Thank you, Dr. Barton. Love that you ended with Hafiz. Thank God for the spiritual direction of poetry. Lucille Clifton, Mary Oliver, Denice Levertov, Hafiz, Rumi, and so many others are here for the necessary deep listening and freeing.

“The spiritual direction of poetry…” What a lovely phrase and so true! So great to hear from you!

Beautiful, Ruth. Thank you.

You’re welcome, Matt!

Thank you, Ruth, for writing about this so eloquently. It brings back memories of my first encounter with my Spiritual Director. Some of what you shared here is why I often tell people how much I respect their decision to risk giving Spiritual Direction a try. It’s both vulnerable and brave to take that step.

Yes, it is. Thank you!

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