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