Pastor, Do You Need a Pastor?

Pastor, Do You Need a Pastor?
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“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 20 years ago now when, as a young leader, I crept into a spiritual director’s office desperate for help. A grown up pastor’s 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 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 into 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.

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RuthHaleyBarton@churchleaders.com'
Ruth Haley Barton (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, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

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