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.”
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.
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.”
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 throughout the United States—many of them offering in-person and remote spiritual direction (e.g. via Zoom). You can learn more about the Transforming Center’s teaching on spiritual direction on our website here.
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[i] Daniel Ladinsky, trans. The Gift: Poems by Hafiz (New York: Penguin Compass, 1999), p.121.
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