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 and 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.