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When Prayer and Corporate Worship Aren’t Working

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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—Bible study, wordy prayers, corporate worship and teaching, participating in a small group, serving with my gifts in the church, etc. I was sure I could make it all work if I just tried harder. And try harder I did—to the point that I was not only exhausted from ministry but exhausted from trying to become a better person with practices that could only take me so far.

“There is a temptation to think that spiritual direction is the guidance of one’s spiritual activities, considered a small part or department of one’s life. This is completely false. Spiritual direction is concerned with the whole person not simply as an individual human being, but as a child of God, another Christ, seeking to recover the perfect likeness to God in Christ, and by the Spirit of Christ.”
—Thomas Merton

Part of my desperation was the fact that the practices and habits people had told me were supposed to work in bringing about my transformation were not working, no matter how faithful I was to their program. I was embarrassed and felt very defeated.

Fresh Practices for Leaders Who Are Trying Too Hard

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 corporate worship and prayer methods I had practiced for so long in the hopes 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 and fostered 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 key moments in my early experience with spiritual direction was when I was able to be honest about how dry and lifeless Scripture had become for me. Even though there had been a time when Scripture was a place of life for me, years of serious study and then the responsibility of teaching others regularly had made them a tool of my profession rather than a place of intimate encounter. I was scared to death to admit this to anyone.

But in the safety of spiritual direction, I was able to talk about the wall I had hit with Scripture, receive encouragement to let go for a while (such freedom and relief!), and then have God return the Scriptures to me as the gift he intended—through the practice of lectio divina. If I hadn’t had the courage to let go, I might never have received such a beautiful new gift!

When the Leader Doesn’t Feel Like Praying

A natural pitfall of 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, I am no longer able to engage corporate worship!”

Corporate 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 the life of a leader is to create space for reflecting on the spiritual practices that open us to true transformation. In this space, we are helped to quiet feelings of “ought” and “should” so that we can pay attention to what’s really going on, spiritually speaking. We can be honest in reflecting on practices that are no longer fruitful for us 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.

The role of a spiritual director is to provide guidance for entering into spiritual disciplines that will help us forge a stronger connection between our soul and our leadership. The practice of mindfulness, paying attention to one’s breathing, building time into each work day for silence, prayer, contemplative Bible reading, staying attuned to inner dynamics of consolation and desolation, allowing such awareness to shape decision-making are all practices that strengthen the soul of one’s leadership.

A seasoned spiritual director will have training and experience with a wide variety of spiritual disciplines that correspond to our desire and our need. They can 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 leaders who have lost hope in their ability to connect with God in the context of their leadership.