Spiritual Direction (Part 2): A Space for Rigorous Honesty
Click here to read “Spiritual Direction (Part 1): A Vital Practice for Discerning Leaders.”
“The whole purpose of spiritual direction is to penetrate beneath the surface of a [person’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.”
The safety of the spiritual direction relationship makes it the ideal place (and for some, the only place) where a leader can experience deeper levels of self-awareness, examine the hidden dynamics and relational patterns that are hindering them, and at times make confession. The idea of receiving someone’s confession may be uncomfortable for some directors because we do not think of ourselves as priests and we feel quite unprepared for such a thing. 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.
The Power of Confession
Confession is good for the soul—especially confession in the presence of someone who knows how to mediate God’s grace in the moment. Because of the safety, the privacy, and the longevity of the relationship with a spiritual director, this may be the only place a leader has to engage this powerful discipline. If the Spirit is moving them to make a confession, we need to be ready to receive it. There are many ways to receive someone’s confession; the important thing is to be available to the Spirit for what the moment requires.
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. Confession was so difficult for me, that I slid 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 else’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. The tears flowed. I put my arms around her and read the prayer of absolution along with a verse from Scripture that assured her of God’s forgiveness.
A good spiritual director will find ways of being with us in such moments that are true to who they are and responsive to what we most need. Making a confession and receiving someone’s confession is a sacred trust, and it is good for leaders to give some thought to confession as a significant spiritual practice that may be part of the direction relationship as we cultivate the rigorous honesty Merton refers to.
Fresh Disciplines for Worn Out Leaders
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. I was sure I could make it all work if I just tried harder. But part of my desperation was the fact that the practices and habits that people had told me were supposed to work in bringing about my transformation were no longer working, no matter how faithful I was to their program. I was embarrassed and felt very defeated.
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 that I had practiced for so long in the hopes that 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, fostering 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 natural pitfalls 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, that I am no longer able to engage Scripture without thinking about my next sermon.” Business 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 our lives as leaders is to create space for reflecting honestly about their spiritual practices. In this space, we can quiet feelings of “ought” and “should” in order to acknowledge practices that are no longer fruitful 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. A significant role of the spiritual director is to provide guidance for entering into spiritual disciplines that will forge a stronger connection between our soul and our leadership. Practices of mindfulness, paying attention to one’s breathing, building time into each work day for silence and prayer, staying attuned to inner dynamics of consolation and desolation, and allowing such awareness to shape decision-making… all of these practices strengthen the soul of our leadership, but we may need guidance and support for entering in.[i]
It takes humility and courage for a spiritual leader to admit that though they are guiding others in spiritual matters they are coming up empty themselves. But as Thomas Merton so insightfully states, “The whole purpose of spiritual direction is to penetrate beneath the surface of a [person’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.”[ii]
The more experience and practice our spiritual director has with a wide variety of spiritual disciplines the more they are able to 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 those who have lost hope in their ability to connect with God in the context of their leadership.
Reclaiming Identity and Calling
Our calling is rooted in our identity. Whenever we are out of touch with our identity or calling, we are vulnerable to a life lived at the mercy of other people’s expectations and our own inner compulsions. When a leader has lived this way for too long, it is hard to even tell the difference between being called and being driven.
A key role of the spiritual director is to help leaders stay in touch with their identity as given to them by God and their calling as spoken to them by God. The experience of calling is a place of great intimacy with God if we know how to cultivate it; it can also be a place where we might be experiencing a heartbreaking sense of being cut off from God and from our true self if we have let the demands of leadership consume us for too long.
I know one spiritual director who is always asking his directees, “Are you staying true to your calling?” It is a question that immediately brings clarity and, if not clarity, the need to find clarity.
Before calling has anything to do with doing, it has everything to do with being that essence of yourself that God called into being and that God alone truly knows. It is the call to be who we are and at the same time to become more than we can yet envision. Our calling is woven into the very fabric of our being as we have been created by God, and it encompasses everything that makes us who we are—even those things that have caused pain and confusion. This would include our genetics, our innate orientations and capacities, our personality, our heredity and life-shaping experiences, and the time and place into which we were born. As Parker Palmer points out, “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”[iii]
Doing That Emerges from Being
The spiritual director has the extraordinary privilege of helping us listen to the voice “in here” so we don’t spend our whole lives being driven by other people’s expectations and our own inner compulsions. One of the ways spiritual directors help leaders return to a true sense of calling or recognize a new calling is to notice that a spiritual calling often takes us out to the edge of our capacities and sometimes to a place of great risk. With courage and restraint, a spiritual director can help leaders continue to listen to the voice deep within and to answer with a courageous yes when that voice speaks.
When I first began to sense God’s call to spiritual direction, I was in seminary preparing for a traditional pastorate while serving on staff at a local church. At the same time, several people were asking me to serve as a spiritual director for them and I began to discover that something about it fit better for me than a lot of what I had been doing. However, my own experience in spiritual direction had been so profoundly shaping that I could not imagine really playing that role in someone else’s life. The thought scared me to death. When I finally got up enough nerve to say something about it to my spiritual director, she quietly said, “I’ve seen that in you for years.” It was a moment that was electric with truth.
How glad I was that she hadn’t said anything sooner because I wouldn’t have been ready. I wept and trembled with fear and with hope—fear about what this change might require of me and whether or not I could really do it and hope that God knew me well enough to call me to something that fit so well.
What was most helpful to me at this point was that my director had waited until God said it to my heart and then affirmed it in a way that helped me to believe in what I was hearing. Our interactions about calling changed the course of my life vocationally and took me in all sorts of risky directions that have brought me to where I am today. Being with a director around questions of calling is, indeed, holy ground.
A Singular Focus
Jesus indicates that it is possible to gain the whole world but lose your own soul. If he were speaking to us as spiritual leaders today, he might point out that it is possible to gain the whole world of success in leadership and lose your own soul in the process. And when leaders lose their souls, so do the churches and organizations they lead.
Spiritual direction is essential for us as leaders because it allows us to stay in touch with our spiritual longings and to find support in crafting a way of life that opens us to what our souls most want. While those we lead often seem to be more concerned about what they can get out of us in terms of productivity and success, the spiritual director is in unique position to ask the question “How is it with your soul?” and to keep asking it whenever it seems like we are losing ourselves amid the demands of life in leadership.
Since the relationship with a director is “pure”—meaning that there is a singular focus on the well-being of the directee rather than competing agendas—spiritual directors are free to encourage and challenge us to be rigorously honest about how we are living our lives and whether our way of life is sustainable for the long haul. Many congregations and organizations actually encourage and applaud—albeit in very subtle ways—destructive patterns like compulsive overworking, performance-oriented driven-ness, or lack of boundaries in the leader. The spiritual director has no such hidden agenda. He or she is free to be completely focused on the well-being of the leader sitting before them.
There are few relationships in a leader’s life that are unencumbered with multiple agendas. This makes the spiritual direction relationship uniquely valuable to leaders for they can be vigilant about challenging us to find a way of life that honors the whole reality of who we are—body, mind, and spirit. The best thing any of us bring to leadership is our own transforming self. The spiritual director is uniquely prepared and positioned to provide intimate guidance in this process.
Spiritual direction has been a part of the Transforming Center’s ministry from the beginning. As a part of the Transforming Community experience, we strongly recommend that leaders seek out a spiritual director.
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.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2019. A version of this article first appeared in Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, June 2010.
[i] See Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008)
[ii] Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1960), p. 16.
[iii] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000) p. 25.his process.
Join thousands of pastors and spiritual leaders
Receive Beyond Words®, reflections on the soul of leadership. Written by Ruth Haley Barton, each reflection provides spiritual guidance and encouragement for those seeking to be in God for the world.