Spiritual Direction (Part 1): A Vital Practice for Discerning Leaders

“A spiritual director is one who helps another to recognize and to follow the inspirations of grace in his life, in order to arrive at the end to which God is leading him.”
Thomas Merton

It was over 20 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 30s, 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 was a level of selfishness that was being exposed in the crucible of marriage and family life that I did not know how to shift or change. There were emotions from past pains and current disappointments that I did not know how to resolve. There was a performance-oriented drivenness that I did not know how to quiet and a longing for more, but more of what?

I had tried everything that had been offered in my own Protestant tradition—more Bible study, praying harder, trying harder, better sermons, Christian self-help books—to fix what was broken and to fill what was lacking, but to no avail. In the midst of the outward busyness of my “professional” life there was an inner chaos that was far more disconcerting than anything that was going on externally. But this was not a good time to admit to any kind of spiritual emptiness or acknowledge any kind of serious questions about my faith. As an emerging leader, it was a time for being “good,” for being available when people called, for maintaining outward evidences of spiritual maturity commensurate with the responsibilities I carried and the opportunities that were coming my way. It was a time to do what was needed in order to keep climbing the ladder to professional success, and I knew it; yet my interior groanings were real and needed attention.

Help Is on the Way

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 and process were indeed valuable—to a point. 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 an invitation to deeper intimacy with God and needed to be dealt with in the context of that relationship. It was a welcome invitation and 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. In all my years in ministry and leadership, my commitment to having a spiritual director myself has remained strong because I am convinced that spiritual direction is an essential practice for all those who are in positions of spiritual leadership.

Welcoming Desperation

I am not the only leader to have come to spiritual direction by way of desperation. Many pastors and leaders come for spiritual direction because they, too, are experiencing inner emptiness in the midst of outward busyness, feelings of being “stuck” in their spiritual life or a longing for more in the midst of seeming success. Their question is 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. A vital question for spiritual directors is how can they increase their sensitivities and their capacities to be helpful to the particular needs of pastors and leaders?

Although it may sound strange, a good place to begin is to welcome, or at least normalize, the desperation or desire a leader brings. It can be very hard for a leader to seek out spiritual direction because it represents something of a role reversal. Leaders are accustomed to being, well, the leader, and to submit to someone else’s guidance or to admit the need for such guidance can be a humbling experience. Oftentimes, desire and desperation are the only dynamics powerful enough to cause them to seek guidance, and, in that sense, desperation is a good thing. Desperation opens us to possibilities that we might not otherwise be open to—like spiritual direction.

Finding Guidance and Sustenance

Oftentimes, a leader will come to the first direction session overwhelmed or embarrassed by the state they are in or the questions they are bringing. As they start to feel reassured that their experience of desperation is a wonderful starting place for new spiritual journeying, they visibly relax. They breathe a deep sigh of relief as they realize that this is a safe place to ask questions and explore issues that are lurking under the surface of their leadership persona. Leadership, by its very nature, places us in a position where our spirituality and ability to lead are constantly being scrutinized and evaluated. To have a safe place far outside one’s leadership setting in which to attend to our own souls’ needs is a great gift.

While the “normal” person has many options for seeking spiritual guidance and sustenance (community of faith; a relationship with a pastor, priest, or rabbi; a spirituality center; para-church ministry organizations that cater to specific needs), spiritual leaders are often very isolated in their leadership roles. Since everyone is looking to them for spiritual leadership, they cannot share the depth of their own doubts, questions, and growing edges without creating uncertainty among those they are leading. They labor under the burden of knowing that their job is in very real ways 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 need to 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 one directee (a parish priest) shared once, “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.”

Sacred Space

The word sacred simply means set apart or set apart for a special purpose. Leaders are deeply in need of finding a place that is set apart for the care of their own souls, a place of privacy that removes them from the public scrutiny of their work environment and the leadership persona that they must maintain.

Privacy is an ethical commitment that spiritual directors make to all their directees but privacy is of particular concern to those who are in public positions of leadership, and they may need more reassurance and concrete evidence that their privacy will be protected than most. When I first began spiritual direction, the questions and issues I brought felt so personal and had such potential to effect how others in my religiously conservative circles might view me that I was extremely skittish; however, I was also acutely aware of my need for a place where I could be completely open. I needed my spiritual director to assure me in the strongest terms that there was no possibility that she would ever betray my confidence. The fact that she was far outside my leadership settings and my social circles was very important.

Where we met was also important. When we began, we met in her office where she was a part of a busy practice of psychologists. The possibility of seeing people I knew in the waiting room in the midst of something that felt so personal was very unnerving to me. If I did see someone I knew, I felt like I had to explain something I didn’t want to explain and would have preferred to keep private. When she dropped out of the practice and we were able to meet in her home office, there was more privacy, and that was helpful.

The Need for Privacy

I am convinced that leaders need spiritual directors that are outside of their existing church systems and corporate structures so that it is truly safe for them. As a spiritual director, I have offered spiritual direction in my home and, more recently, in my office. In both settings I have taken great care to cultivate the physical environment in such a way that the space itself ushers leaders into a sense of being “apart” from the distractions, the responsibilities, and the frenetic activity that has become the norm for so many leaders. Without fail, leaders express deep gratitude for the quiet, the privacy, and the sacred quality of the space. Sometimes, when they first enter into the space and we share initial moments of quiet, they are moved to tears that they hardly know how to explain. To have a sacred space that is set aside for them and for the care of their souls rather than being in a religious environment that is associated with ministry or a coaching environment associated with getting more work out of them is a tremendous blessing.

The tears seem to be associated with the disillusionment and grief that many leaders experience as they realize that they have lost a sense of God’s presence for themselves personally in the context of their leadership. That grief is somehow comforted by finding a sacred (not necessarily religious) space that is carved out for them and for the care of their own souls. Even their ability to feel something in response to the space assures them that they are still alive in places where they thought they had become numb or had even died.

The Unique Burdens of Leadership

Those who have been in leadership for any length of time at all have experienced much scrutiny and evaluation of their spiritual life and their leadership. Many have experienced the heartache of being severely misunderstood, judged, and even betrayed to the point that they have given up on ever being safe. The loneliness that comes from being “the buck stops here” person and the natural process of projection that takes place between leaders and followers is par for the leadership course and yet it takes its toll.

By the time a leader comes to a spiritual director, they may have lost any sense of being loved beyond what they can produce; they might harbor deep feelings of disillusionment about themselves, the human condition, and institutions they serve– including (and perhaps most especially) the church. Their experiences might have left them questioning their effectiveness as a leader, whatever vision they had, and sometimes even their worth as a person.

Many leaders have repressed their grief and anger and soldiered on, leaving much that is unresolved beneath their professional exterior. Almost all leaders have something in their lives—some pain, some character issue, some spiritual question, some failure—that they have never talked to anyone about, and they desperately need a safe place to do so. They often walk into our presence carrying heavy burdens of unresolved pain; spiritual direction promises to be a place where they might be able to lay it down—at least for awhile.

When I first entered into spiritual direction, I was so beaten down by some of what I had experienced in pastoral ministry that I couldn’t believe that anyone could look into my soul and see something good. Particularly as a woman leading in church 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 believe it, I needed the healing of her unconditional “seeing” so desperately. 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. In spiritual direction I experienced what the poet Hafiz writes: How 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 frightened. [i.]

Be sure to browse our listing of spiritual directors—many of them offering in-person and remote spiritual direction (e.g. via Zoom). Learn more about spiritual direction on our website here

Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. For permission to use or reference this material, email permissions@transformingcenter.org.

[i] Daniel Ladinsky, trans. The Gift: Poems by Hafiz (New York: Penguin Compass, 1999), p.121.

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.
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Please help out an old idealist.

It seems to me that the vulnerability of a pastor (elder) is necessary, even beneficial, to the health of a church. I understand that many churches are not … spiritually mature for such things, but isn’t there a point at which we have to move away from the early 20th century model of “a pastor cannot have friends in his own church,” and move back into having a real, emotionally and spiritually healthy COMMUNITY as a church?

I know I’m being naive… but I’ve seen great damage come from pastors who thought they couldn’t be real, too.

What to do.


I so resonate with the emotions Ruth describes here. The pressure to exhibit “having it all together” for those around you is wearying and I long for a sacred space to be real. But the responsibilities don’t take a break. This encourages me to seek out a local spiritual director. Thank you Ruth!

Great! Praying you find the right person to accompany you in this way.

Thank you for articulating a leader’s deep need for privacy and the very real burden of having our spirituality inextricably linked to our paycheque. In my context, of a small Canadian congregation, I sometimes feel that my congregants desire a level of vulnerability from me that I am not prepared to give.

While I want to be honest and communicate that we are all on the journey together, it is not appropriate to share some of my deeper doubts, heartache and processes with them. Getting up on a pulpit week after week to preach is a scary, “naked” feeling thing.

I need a space away from those I serve where I can really bring all of myself, including the messy, unprofessional, fearful, and doubting parts- and not just for a juicy sermon illustration or counselling insight. I need to be vulnerable with God away from the eyes of my people so I don’t forget that what I preach to others is also true for me: that God longs for me and has good things for me.

There is so much wisdom in what you have shared here. These are all the reasons why pastors and leaders need spiritual direction!

Thank you for your incredible journey. It made my soul literally jump for joy and hope. The bravery to share and to bare your open and honest conversation really blessed me. Please continue to share your journey with others, we are listening intently.

Thank you, Ruth, for articulating this need so well and being vulnerable in illustrating it through your personal experience. It seems to be an uphill battle given the seeming “slowness” and “non-definitive answers” of this process, but I guess we just accompany those who are ready one leader at a time.

Yes, spiritual direction is such a different kind of process and relationship that people really do need to be ready. Desperation really is part of that readiness…until we become a bit desperate we will keep ourselves in processes and relationships where we feel like we are more in control. Thank you for naming this.

In 2008, I was invited to join a program called The Pastor as Spiritual Guide. Although at the time I felt just as Ruth described in her article, I thought being in the program would teach me how to be a “better” pastor. Instead, I began to learn how to attend to my deepest spiritual needs as a leader (which, I hope, has made me a “better” pastor). I have met with a spiritual director monthly for almost fourteen years. He has provided support, encouragement, a listening ear, prodding, and a safe place for me to explore my spiritual needs as a leader.
Ruth, thank you for your writings and insights.

Some years ago, Ruth came to Hershey, PA to speak to ministers in The Salvation Army. The set of talks she gave was a needed encouragement to focus upon the life of the leader. I was wondering if any TCs emerged from that time.

In different seasons of life, spiritual direction has been central for discernment, encouragement and challenge (in my case, mostly to be still). I am feeling over my head in so many things right now; I need someone to speak to from the shore.
My seas are so vast, and my boat is so small.

So struggling right now, I have lost my way. I am tired of trying to help others find Jesus when I am absolutely lost myself. Just came out of the hospital today after having a heart issue at a pastor’s prayer the other day, feel broken, shamed, and afraid of what lies ahead if I keep going in the same direction. I would love to fall in love with Jesus all over again, but I am not sure how. Have reached out to one of the Spiritual Directors you have listed on your web site and I was so encouraged today. Thank you for being able to tell the truth, and for helping us have the courage to discover our own truth. Will never forget the days you spent in Sackville NB Canada I know they were hard days for you to speak but God allowed His spirit to soak my heart so deeply.

Oh Bill, thank you for your gut-wrenching honesty. You are not the only one experiencing such pain and brokenness and your ability to cry out and reach out has already served you well. I am so grateful your connection with one of our spiritual directors left you feeling so encouraged. What a testimony to the power of spiritual direction in the lives of pastors and leaders! I’ll be honest with you now and say that your comment ministers to me deeply. It makes all the effort we have put into providing spiritual direction to leaders in various ways over the years feel so worthwhile. Thank you so much for this. God’s got you!

I love this article and having trained as a spiritual director as well as person centred counsellor and having been in church leadership with my husband and known the deep pain of an ‘unraveling’ and subsequent consequence of withdrawal from church leadership (and recent return), I have a particular heart for those who are struggling with all that the role requires of us and indeed the inner dissonance that inevitably accompanies ‘keeping the show on the road’ while remaining authentic and real. Thank you for explaining so well the value of Spiritual Direction and sacred and safe space for the church leader. I am convinced that it is the key to not just ‘survival’ but the ability to ‘thrive’ in a very challenging role.

It seems that shepherd/leaders forget that they are also sheep, or feel that they’re not permitted to be sheep. Certainly, in our culture, there is a default expectation that leaders have their stuff together and cruise at an altitude above the “regular” people, so the pressure to conform to those expectations is heavy. But it’s ultimately a lie. We’re all sheep. I think our cultural infatuation with leadership gets in our way quite a bit, and while I think having spiritual directors is an apparently necessary response (and something I participate in), I wonder if an unfortunate byproduct of the creation of yet another formalized but not scripturally explicit role (beside elder, deacon, etc.) is the perpetuation of something that replaces the organically created koinonia that the church is supposed to be. Bearing each other’s burdens, confessing our sins and weaknesses to each other, taking care of material needs, living in authentic community, loving one another as Christ loved–these are supposed to be the hallmarks of the Body. Having spiritual directors can accomplish that for leaders perhaps, but is it not the calling of ALL of us to engage at that level?

Mark, I really appreciate (and feel I understand) your questions. They are also mine.

Ruth is probably right – a Christian leader should have a spiritual director for all the reasons that she has given. My personal experience has been that a spiritual director has not been helpful in the ways that Ruth has very clearly shown to be necessary. In retrospect I have thought that it might have been better (for me) to establish a very deep mutual sharing of each other’s journey with my director; a spiritual friendship in which both I and the director helped each other. That leads me to think that there may be a systemic problem in Christian leadership. It is disturbing to think that leaders have to maintain a leadership persona which promotes something they believe is true but which they aren’t personally experiencing. Jesus told his disciples to avoid the leaven of the Sadducean leaders which was hypocrisy. What he said about leadership doesn’t stand easy against our modern understanding of professional career leader.

I am sorry your experience with having a spiritual director did not prove to be valuable to you. In our tradition, the mutual relationship you describe above would be considered spiritual friendship or spiritual companionship and in my experience leaders need both. Spiritual direction is, by definition, a relationship that is “one way”–focussed on the directee–and it has nothing to do with a persona. Rather, spiritual direction as a relationship that actually helps us make sure we are actually experiencing what we are preaching and teaching others about.

Wow. You explained the needs of people in spiritual leadership so amazingly well. Jesus, please renew your shepherds and shepherdesses. Lead us into the river of your love, peace and rest. May it be so, Amen.

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