To lead is to succeed…or is it? We live in a culture that places a very high premium on success and leadership is defined as the ability to reach predetermined objectives and goals on behalf of the organization. Churches and other Christian ministries assume the same line of reasoning – effective leadership is able to create measurable success. Leadership is driven by pragmatism. In the end, the bottom line is growth. As a result, most leaders define success by criteria that are praiseworthy and pleasing to others.
This myth, to lead is to succeed, has been elevated to new levels in our consumer culture and continues to shape the church in profound ways. Recently, a Christian journal crossed my desk promoting the myth. On the cover of Outreach I read: Top 100 Churches: Largest and Fastest Growing. The subtitle asked “Who’s on the list? What can your church learn?” Pastors who are exposed to this type of thinking become conditioned to believe that growth is the only goal worth pursuing.
This emphasis on bigger and better moved to the forefront with the birth of the church growth movement in the 1970’s and 80’s. Success was directly tied to the growth rate of the congregation. A healthy church was defined as one that was growing at 10 percent or higher per year. At the other end of the continuum were churches that had “plateaued” or were in “decline.”
As a pastor, I remember our annual district conference where the statistics were published for all to see. Plateaued and declining churches were targeted for redevelopment through training or, if necessary, a pastoral change. The message was clear – to lead is to succeed by ensuring numerical growth in your ministry.
If we come at successful leadership through the lens of numerical pragmatism, we unknowingly allow church to function under the same rules that guide capitalism. Capitalism survives by creating growth. Economic health is connected to the need for new markets and new products. In a similar way, contemporary church culture insists on growth as a definition of health. The attendance curve must be up and to the right or we are in danger of a stagnant “economy,” one where declining numbers lead to downward spiral: reduced giving, reduced staffing and reduced programs. Momentum must be maintained or the organization falters. In the end, growth overshadows all other concerns.
George Allen, a hard-working football coach said, “Most men succeed because they are determined to.” In this statement we find the false assumption that feeds the “to lead is to succeed” myth: We can secure the success we want if we are committed to attain it.
Such thinking flies in the face of much wisdom that has been taught and modeled throughout the ages. I recently read Victor E. Frankl’s best seller Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl is a Viennese psychiatrist who experienced the horror of the holocaust and wrote a book describing his experience in World War II concentration camps. To his surprise, the book sold over two million copies. In response to such success, Frankl writes the following in his introduction:
I admonish my students both in Europe and America: “Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself… you have to let it [success] happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.
For Frankl, success is the surprise that occurs by committing yourself to a higher goal and greater purpose.
Leonard Sweet highlights the surprising nature of success in his book, Summoned to Lead, “We want to know how something will work out before we get into it. But that’s not possible. We don’t know… It is the nature of life to ‘break in’ – to surprise us, startle us…” Sweet contends that we have the “wrong plot” when it comes to leadership… “Life is false to formula.”
In contrast to the advice of Frankl and Sweet, most leaders make success their singular objective and live for a predetermined outcome.
When we take a closer look at scripture it becomes obvious that we should never hook leadership to success – at least “success” as defined by cultural norms. Probably the strongest example of this would be Moses whose ministry was characterized by failure on many levels and yet exemplifies the kind of leadership God seeks. Others follow in Moses footsteps — we need only think of Jeremiah’s disappointment, Paul’s critics, and Jesus’ apparent loss of influence after three years of ministry.
However, in contrast to the biblical examples, the church today is all about producing measurable success. This has led to increased pressure on pastors and is now resulting in unprecedented burnout among clergy. The statistics are alarming. According to George Barna, the average length of a pastoral career had rapidly declined to fourteen years.
The pressure to deliver is evidenced by the fact that 23 percent of all current pastors in the United States have been fired or forced to resign in the past and 34 percent of all pastors presently serve congregations that forced their previous pastor to resign.
Ministry has become a high-risk profession because we foster the myth — to lead is to succeed.
In response to the pressure that leaders are feeling, numerous books have been written in an attempt to redefine leadership. In Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, Kent Hughes writes, “As much as I am sincerely certain that God is, indeed blessing us, I believe even more certainly that it’s a dangerous and misguided policy to measure God’s blessing by standards of visible, tangible, material ‘success.’”
Samuel Rima, another pastor writes about his experience with burnout, “Many of my attempts to ‘be successful’ left me feeling more miserable and frustrated than they did fulfilled. It wasn’t long before I began questioning the nature of true success in ministry.”
One of the key reasons why leaders fall prey to burnout is because Western culture has fostered an inordinate need to demonstrate our worth by performance. Behind this need to perform is an even deeper need — leaders are motivated by affirmation and affirmation is offered to those who can produce results.
We fall into dangerous places when, as leaders, we take our cues for success from the people we lead. Yet, so much of what drives leadership today is the need to satisfy the demands of others. Sadly, this is most evident in the world of the politician and the pastor.
We pay a high price when we buy into leadership myths. Many pastors and churches have been destroyed by an assumption that is rarely tested in our culture – to lead is to succeed. When we subject ourselves to this axiom, we find ourselves trapped in a man-centered model of leadership, one that puts the pressure on performance instead of dependence.
Choosing to question leadership myths is counter-intuitive to the ingrained values of our culture. Few leaders are willing to step outside of the box by resisting the temptation to define their leadership around pragmatic and measurable outcomes.
If we hope to steer away from leadership myths, we must explore new territory – to lead is to love.
Jesus was clear about this. Everything we do in ministry begins and ends with love. To make love the starting point for leadership will, at times, take us to places that are less than spectacular and often questioned by others. Yet, in the end, we will be surprised by the kind of “success” that follows:
I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it. — Viktor Frankl
In today’s busy world there is an increasing desire for experiential union with God. This hunger leads us to a personal discipline that St. Ignatius of Loyola believed was central to spiritual vitality. A phrase frequently associated with his life and writings is “finding God in all things” … Ignatius has been called a “contemplative in action.” He taught that union with God could be fostered at any time and under any circumstances. In his spiritual diary, written near the end of his life, Ignatius believed that, “Every time, any hour, that he wished to find God, he found him.” After almost 500 years, this truth continues to resound in devotional literature.
Elisabeth-Paule Labat, a contemporary writes, “God is in fact always pressing into the everyday and often colorless fabric of the life of each one of us.”
We live in a culture of busyness, particularly religious busyness for pastors and Christian leaders. Often, such leaders capitulate to a life of distraction resulting in a complete loss of spiritual focus amid the many responsibilities of serving others. While Ignatius encouraged periods of solitude, he was deeply concerned with how one maintains a sense of God’s presence during the challenges of the day. In this sense, he was a “mystic of action in tune with the one action of God.” Central to Ignatius’ practice was the belief that “unless we are contemplative we will miss God acting in everything around us and in ourselves.”
So often we divorce contemplation from action. We divorce them so completely that we make no attempt to establish union with God throughout the day. We slip into the belief that the time for encounter is when we stop for what is usually called “devotions” or “quiet time.” It is important for us to realize that contemplation and action are not disconnected from each other. In the life of Christ we see them joined together.
Throughout history others have emphasized the possibility of finding God in the middle of all of life’s circumstances. Brother Lawrence offered us his experience as a model for such intentionality in his book The Practice of the Presence of Christ. He wrote, “The most holy and necessary practice in our life is the presence of God.” Jean-Pierre de Caussade emphasized the “sacrament of the present moment.” His thesis was simply this: “The events of every moment are stamped with the will of God.” Thomas Kelly, in his book A Testament To Devotion, wrote about the Inner Principle – a continual awareness of God in the soul. “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul… Eternity is in our hearts, pressing upon our time-worn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home to Itself.”
Gary Moon and David Benner share a story about a group of leaders who were just beginning to discover this Ignatian concept. They write:
These were long-term, card-carrying members of evangelicalism who had spent their lifetimes in Christian study and service. But only recently, it seemed, had each enrolled in Christianity 101… Toward the end of our time together, one of the group members uttered words that seem an appropriate summary to that discussion… “Could it be that it [the process of spiritual formation] is simply becoming aware that God is everywhere and then learning how to be with him – in the presence of divine love.”
At the heart of the spiritual journey is an essential question: Where have you sensed the presence of Christ in your life? We find Christ in unexpected places. Such was the Ignatian journey toward God – one of reflective evaluation. The Ignatian commitment to awareness is central to an experiential union with Christ. Unless we take time to honor his presence in all that surrounds us, we will miss his attempts to establish union with us.
In recent years we see more and more books and articles on ministry disillusionment and burnout. The reason for this is because there truly is a high rate of “fall out” in the world of Christian leadership. If we hope to address this sad reality we have to go deeper and ask the question: Are there systemic issues that infect churches and organizations which fuel the dangerous slide toward spiritual and emotional disillusionment in the life of the leader? Unless the systemic dysfunctions are named and addressed, the leader will struggle in a structure that continually undermines sustainable and joyful service.
Allow me to walk you through a list of assumptions. If these statements are true, then the very culture Christian leaders work in is at cross-purposes with the inner wholeness they so deeply need and desire. Sadly, I suspect the statements that follow are true of most organizations. It’s a dangerous slide.
1. Our Consumer Culture: Leading a ministry in a consumer culture, where measurable results dominate the landscape, makes it very difficult to prioritize and strategize the ongoing work of spiritual formation. The slow work of transformation is preempted by numerical and programmatic success. Many leaders and organizations alike have become addicted to bigger is better and the need to achieve assumes an idolatrous hold on the soul.
2. Employment and Performance: In this culture of success, leaders are managed as employees, which places the bottom line on performance, effectiveness and accomplishment. Without realizing it, we develop and then operate under a scorecard that overlooks the leader’s need for soul-care. The spiritual maturity of the leader is assumed to be of crucial importance but nothing is put in place to nurture and secure this as a primary outcome.
3. Management Trumps Mystery: The slide continues as the primary ministry strategy is built around thinking, planning and action that is focused and organized around programmatic models and tactics. The leader comes to believe that being is doing and gives up mystery for management. As long as this approach is working, the leader is affirmed and continues to put his or her eggs in this basket. It can go on for years before the backlash occurs and the leader realizes they are on the wrong path.
4. Relational Trust is Lost: In a performance-oriented system, trust and deep relationships are unintentionally traded for results. We say we are in community but the authenticity needed for such depth is trumped by the need to succeed and look good. Leaders are no longer functioning in a place of emotional safety and transparency. They experience a disconnect from the very people they serve. True community has become fatally compromised in the life of the very person who leads the community.
5. Compulsive Ministry Patterns: When the leader becomes defined by what they do (and not who they are) they often succumb to insecurity, drivenness and faulty motivation in ministry. At this point, he or she is no longer living into their true calling and turns to patterns of pleasing and the need to succeed as a way to find the affirmation they long for. Instead of listening to the Father (as was modeled for us by Jesus), they listen to myriad other voices that feed their identity and ministry direction.
6. God Is Gone And Pressure Is On: When spiritual formation is no longer at the center, leaders lose the art of spiritual discernment. They resort to business models of decision-making. We seek to find answers to problems through data, analysis and our own wisdom rather than prayer and dependency on God. In the end, the ministry becomes a man-made system that is overly dependent on one person, the leader, to keep it going. At this point, the at-risk nature of the work begins to bear down on the leader and the outcome takes them to places they never anticipated.
* * * * *
If you work under the assumptions stated above, a time will come when ministry will no longer hold the luster in once had. The systemic issue is clear: The culture Christian leaders serve in is prone to steer them to pursue career dreams and ministry ideals for the wrong reasons. To avert the associated dangers, something needs to be in place long before this misdirection sets in. It is for this reason that I feel every leader needs the gift of wisdom offered by a seasoned spiritual director… someone who will help them process their union with Christ amid the dangers that ministry exerts on the soul. (I have written extensively on the topic of spiritual direction in my previous blogs and would encourage you to backtrack if you desire more input on this important topic.)
My focus has been on leaders, particularly those in ministry, because I have seen the risks to the emotional and spiritual health of those who serve in these roles. (I think I understand the world of ministry pretty well after serving for over 30 years.)
In this blog I want to share my personal story of how I wound up discovering the critical value of spiritual direction.
* * * * *
“I have totally and completely lost my way.” Those were the first words to come out of my mouth as I spoke to the psychiatrist in the opening moments of my first appointment. Tears streamed down my cheeks. My wife, Ruth, sat beside me, a true soul friend who had walked with me through the past four years as I slowly, but surely, slid from over twenty joy-filled years of pastoral ministry into an extended season of painful disillusionment. I walked into this office out of sheer desperation. I had already been to a counselor, but the depression and anxiety remained lodged deep in my soul. Somehow, I had to find my way back to emotional and spiritual equilibrium. I never dreamed ministry disappointment would result in needing professional help as a necessary step to recovery! I was overwhelmed by shame.
Let’s back up… Four years before this meltdown I had a different type of meeting. It was a farewell from the church I had served for 17 years. This extended season in ministry had exceeded my dreams. It was my first lead pastorate and, from start to finish, everything was mysteriously graced with joyful experiences. Together we celebrated an ongoing period of spiritual and numerical growth that few pastors ever have the privilege of knowing.
As we gathered to say goodbye to that congregation, tears streamed down my face – but these were tears of sheer gratitude and joy. As Ruth and I looked across the hundreds of people who came to send us off, I felt like my pastoral role was a perfect fit. These had been the best years of our lives and we ended them with a sense of wonder for all God had done in us and through us.
After the farewell experience came to an end my mind shifted to the future. I anticipated much more to come – it was time to write the next chapter in the ministry journey of my life. What followed was a move to a new city, a new church, a new challenge, and the pursuit of a new dream. Optimism and expectancy were bursting in my soul! The church was located in the high tech corridor of Seattle, about 20 minutes from Microsoft. From what I could see, this was a church with strong leaders, lots of money, an expanding vision, and a ton of potential. What’s not to love?
Yet, shortly after we landed I started to feel unsettled in my spirit. Within a few weeks I sensed that something was out of alignment at the heart of this community. I remember feeling unsafe at an emotional level. As the months and years went by, that uneasy feeling was never resolved. It only deepened.
I accepted the call to this church knowing there was a history of tension. Previous pastors had faced significant challenges and their ministries ended in forced departures. Yet, somehow the implications of their experiences didn’t register when I accepted the call. I arrived bursting with confidence and optimism, believing that things would be different. I was up to the task. Yet, in time I discovered things… things I didn’t know about the church when I arrived. And I discovered something else that was very unsettling. There were things I didn’t know about myself – things that God would surface through this long season of disillusionment. New levels of self-awareness were needed if God was going to shape the core of my identity around his dreams and not mine.
It took three years to hit rock bottom. My optimism gave way to suspicion, then pessimism, and finally a deep cynicism. Along the way I remember sitting in the medical doctor’s office describing my stress-related symptoms and secretly wondering if he could take out his prescription pad and write something on it – something for the church board: “Your pastor needs a leave of absence due to stress. I recommend several months.”
I should tell you that, while I was slipping into this emotional and spiritual crisis, the church was taking significant steps forward. On the surface everything was moving up and to the right. The congregation had doubled in size, staff was added, and new ministries were being developed to reach the community. Yet, while this was happening, long-standing members were leaving, and the inner circle seemed irretrievably stuck in an ongoing pattern of distrust and conflict. The closer you came to the center the more you could feel the dysfunction. To resolve these leadership issues I found myself working harder and harder as my soul was sinking deeper and deeper into hopelessness.
I kept soldiering on until that day when we landed in the psychiatrist’s office. I had nothing left to give. Anxiety and depression ruled my soul. The words, “I have totally and completely lost my way” were my final admission of defeat. It wasn’t any kind of moral indiscretion that brought me to this place. There was no hidden sin that had suddenly surfaced to shatter my integrity and ministry dreams. Rather, it was a slow, steady, and systematic erosion of my vision and self-confidence. The ministry had worn me out. I never expected it. Not me! I was always the successful student, athlete, leader and pastor. For over twenty-five years I had thrived in various ministries moving seamlessly from one challenge to the next. Yet, somehow, I derailed.
When I finally hit the wall, my spiritual and emotional recovery plan included something more than doctors and counselors. Over the years I had learned of another source of guidance and wisdom that Christian leaders pursued in their desire to sustain spiritual health. In the history of the church, this ministry was referred to as a spiritual direction. It was now clear that I needed someone who could help me make sense of the events of my life and the impact they were having on my soul. I needed a place to ask my questions, read my journal entries, shed my tears, pray, and rediscover God in the middle of the mess. I needed someone who would help me discern God’s voice in the dramatic highs and lows of life and ministry. I began the search for a spiritual director or, what many people would call, a soul friend.
It’s been over 10 years since I began my journey to the “dark side” and back. I found my way again and I’m loving life and ministry more than ever. Looking back, my decision to seek a spiritual guide was one that would forever alter the way I pursue spiritual growth and the way I engage in ministry with others. I write believing there is a critical need for Christian leaders to recover this long-lost practice. Since arriving at this conviction, I discover more and more people who see the value of this ancient spiritual discipline and they too are exploring the hidden treasure of spiritual direction… a soul friend who will join them in discerning where and how God is at work in the middle everything life and ministry throws at you.
In past blogs I have referred to Ignatius as a key person in helping us understand the nature of spiritual formation. Let’s take a closer look at another Ignatian theme: He believed that a primary pathway into the biblical texts and experiential encounter with Christ, was through the use of imagination. He discovered the value of this when he lay wounded in Loyola. While previously he had imagined exploits in service of an earthly king of queen, he now found himself using these powers in the discovery and service of Christ. This active use of his imagination became fully developed as a tool to encounter Jesus.
Ignatius taught the use of this approach by training spiritual directors to assign certain gospel stories and texts to the directee, ones that seemed suited to their spiritual life and needs at the time. During the daily reflections of the retreat, the individual spent extended time moving into the story with the intention of having face-to-face encounters with Christ. The participants were encouraged to enter into text experientially – to touch, taste, smell, see and hear the event as if they were actually there. The goal was to encounter Christ in the salvation story rather than just to know it.
The centrality of this imaginative component leads to a definition of Ignatian spirituality as kataphatic in nature. While other mystics believed that God was encountered through the letting go of conscious thought (referred to as apophatic), the kataphatic approach invites us into the active use of our mind. The directee is invited to listen to conversations, notice facial responses and enter into the feelings of each person, especially Christ. While the imagination is often seen as a place of departure from sound doctrine and practice, in Ignatian spirituality it is actually a place where Christology shines.
This is the genius of the Ignatian Exercises, an amazing balance between experiential encounter and the objective use of the scriptures as the basis for any such encounter. It was through the imagination that the individual could release all constraints and enter the biblical story. In doing so they discover Christ in a way that brings healing to the distorted views we have held in our understanding. We encounter Jesus as someone who treats us like a friend and brother.
Ignatius taught that transformational change occurred at a feeling level involving much more than a cognitive response. His goal was the use of imaginative power around the objective truth of God’s word to lead the individual into a direct encounter with Christ. Regarding the use of imagination, Tad Dunne writes, “Although most people today find it strange at first to enter into historical scenes through their imagination, the majority of those who try it find the practice surprisingly full of real assents.”
After becoming aware of the Exercises I have pursued the practice of imagination around particular gospel stories and have found this to be a profound experience. Entering into the story truly does lead to processing with Christ in personal ways, opening windows of transformation. (I recommend an online website offered by Ignatian leaders in England who often use of imagination to enter scriptural stories.)
Somehow, somewhere along the way the church became suspicious of imagination as a valuable pathway to encountering Christ. It was as if imagination was off limits – it fell into the category of Gnostic practices that might lead the person away from objective truth. However, if believers could rediscover the value of imagining the historical texts of Christ’s life, they would simply be living into the scriptures at an experiential level. Ignatius encouraged this. It was his firm belief that truth needed to touch the emotions.
Recovering the use of imagination is difficult for adults who have learned to live in a rational world where anything imaginative is categorized as unproductive… even childish. In our results-driven culture we have lost the art of imagining ourselves in the story. It will take effort to recover our child-like capacity for imagination. The starting place is simply to follow Ignatius’ directives: Choose a narrative from the life of Christ and dwell in it until you are watching, touching, eating, and breathing in all that goes on. Become part of the story. Discover the power of being there!
I have written a fair bit about the importance of spiritual direction in recent blogs. It might be helpful to highlight an important issue in this journey: How did we lose the ministry of spiritual direction in the church?
In his book, Care Of Mind/Care of Spirit, Gerald May writes, “Protestants have almost no tested and accepted methods of individual spiritual direction.”
When we study church history, it becomes clear that seeking the wisdom of an spiritual overseer is lost in the early stages of the Protestant tradition. James Houston underscores that the fear of Catholicism and the tendency toward individualism, prevents Protestants from embracing spiritual direction:
Spiritual director, soul friend and spiritual friendship – these new buzz words in Protestant circles make us suspect someone has imported another fad from our society’s “culture of novelty.” Do they signal one more encroachment on evangelical faith and practice? Some who are aware of these phrases’ origins fear that “spiritual direction” is the Trojan horse of Catholicism.
A dangerous assumption is embedded within the Protestant mindset – spirituality is individualistic in nature. One author, referencing the Protestant Reformation, called this assumption “a struggle for the irreplaceable individuality of the believer.”
The loss of spiritual direction in Protestant circles and the resulting spiritual setback among leaders, would seem to be one of the major reasons why Christian leaders are now feeling the need to forge new pathways (or find lost ones) to enhance their own spiritual formation.
Leighton Ford, long time associate of Billy Graham, is one such evangelical who has felt a deep need for the recovery of spiritual direction and now gives most of his time to nurturing a few leaders. Thankfully, this hunger appears to be on the increase and gives us hope that spiritual direction is in the early stages of rediscovery.
Jeannette Bakke, a leading author in this field, was interviewed by Christianity Today and asked, “Why is there a growing interest among Protestants and evangelicals in spiritual direction?” She answered:
People are hungry for authentic spiritual companionship. Many are concerned about the crassness of the larger culture, and the fracturedness and pace of life – they desire to slow down and notice more about who they are and how to be connected to God. They are dissatisfied with what feels like a lack of significance and are seeking something more.
Spiritual companionship… certainly most Christian leaders hunger for such friendship. There is a deep thirst for renewal, with few places to turn. What we now have is a shortage of spiritual guides when, at the same time, we are seeing more and more individuals looking for people who are trained in the art of spiritual direction. If we hope to see this ministry take hold as a widespread practice, the need for more guides who can offer this type of care to others must be addressed.
In 1978, Richard Foster wrote Celebration of Discipline and opened a new way of understanding how we grow spiritually. In this wonderful book he helped us see that ancient disciplines or rhythms were needed to secure an experiential and relational union with God. Since Foster opened that door, scores of other books have been published on the topic of spiritual disciplines with an ever-expanding number of practices that deserve attention. Yet, most of these books overlook spiritual direction. That puzzles me! We are unable to engage in one-to-one conversations that are transformational! We have lost an ancient discipline – the art of spiritual direction.
In the earliest stages of Christian thought and practice we find St. Augustine writing, “No one can walk without a guide.” Twelve hundred years later St. Ignatius presses the value of soul friendship to the highest level and provides us with a guidebook, The Spiritual Exercises and then comes the grand disconnect.
Slowly but surely, Protestant individualism creates a type of spirituality that is void of soul companions. We journey alone. What’s worse, we don’t even know how to engage in truly deep conversations where we explore the depth of our hearts. The art of spiritual direction is like a lost language. Few people know how to speak it any more. Recovery will require considerable work.
Yet, it must be recovered for it is an original language, it is the language of the soul.
The Apostle Paul offers many clues in his writings regarding the nature of spiritual direction. He knows what it means to be a soul friend to others and he models it for all of us to see.
A primary text that provides insight for those who desire to be a “soul friend” (or spiritual director) to others is found in Galatians 4:19. Paul writes, “My dear children, for who I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.”
As we take a closer look at the phrases that make up this statement, we find Paul delineating the components he felt necessary in spiritual direction.
“Dear children” – Spiritual direction is relational in nature.
In recent years the church finds itself trapped in a highly structured and even mechanistic approach to how we foster spiritual growth. Relational ministry (as exemplified by Christ and Paul) has given way to pragmatic, goal oriented strategies. Churches have reduced most things to a cause-and-effect paradigm, believing that information and programming are the key to transformation. As a result, we have allowed secondary strategies to eclipse a fundamental theological truth embedded in the word of God – the kingdom is relational. Paul knows this and his writing breathes relationship, intimacy, compassion, and concern. The guidance he offers his close companions and even those who cross his path briefly, comes from a deep passion to know and be known.
If we are to be involved in spiritual direction there must be a sense of the parental concern that Paul shows. Leaders so easily see their colleagues and other individuals as a means to an end. Without realizing it, we participate in the “commodification of people” – we concern ourselves with what they can offer the organization before we see them as image bearers of God’s nature. Spiritual direction recovers the relational nature of ministry – “my dear children.”
“The pains of childbirth” – Spiritual direction involves suffering.
Paul understood that engaging in relational ministry would also involve pain. He is simply saying that, on this side of heaven, we will agonize with others in their spiritual journey. The falleness of people greatly complicates the work of the leader – change does not come easily.
Paul is well aware of the hard work and, at times, the deep disillusionment that come with relationships in ministry. Formation is all about suffering, not only for Paul, but also for the individuals he longs to see formed. Is not part of the leader’s pain the vicarious angst he or she feels while watching others suffer through sickness, addictive behavior, broken relationships and death? As we enter the desert of shared pain we find that God is able to do his greatest work.
Birthing a child is probably the most intimate metaphor Paul could use to describe the kind of work he was in and calls us to. At times, being a soul friend feels like spiritual “birth labor.” There are times when tears have streamed down my cheeks as I listened to the journey of another person. I ached as they wrestled to find hope.
“Until Christ” – Spiritual direction is Christo-centric.
Jesus Christ is the one and only person we call people to be like when we engage in the forming process. There are no other primary models, only secondary ones. Paul says, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”
The purpose of spiritual direction is to lead others to become attached to a Person – not a philosophy, a program, or a church. Karl Rahner writes, “… a personal entering into this life of Jesus of Nazareth is a participation in the inner life of God; then the gaze into the face of Jesus of Nazareth is changed into the face-to-face vision of God…” Paul is passionate about creating a context where the individual encounters Christ in such deep and personal ways.
One of the great temptations in spiritual conversations is to drift toward secondary things. In the end, everything matters and Christ is a part of each experience – the ecstatic and the mundane. Good directors know how to stay Christo-centric. Without forcing the process, their goal is to help the directee find Christ in all that life offers.
“Formed in you” – Spiritual direction is process oriented
The word “formed” is rich with meaning in the scriptures coming from the Greek word, “morphoo,” from which we get our word “morph.” John Ortberg states, “morphoo means ‘the inward and real transformation of the essential nature of a person. It was the term used to describe the formation and growth of an embryo in a mother’s body.” At the heart of Pauline spiritual formation is the concept of “forming” – he is committed to intentional work in the lives of individuals with a view to transformation over the long haul.
Central to spiritual direction is the belief that growth is occurring; spiritual life is being formed, but only as we take the time necessary to work at it together. When Paul talks about Christ being formed in us he knows it involves relationships plus time. In our program-centric approach to ministry we have lost our grip on the necessity of time in the process of formational work. If we hope to see Christ formed in others we have to be willing to stay in it over the long haul.
This realization that spiritual “morphing” involves relationships plus time hit home for me recently. I received a long distance call from a man (now in his late 40s) who was a teenager when I led Youth for Christ. Tim was kind of an odd guy, always looking for the fun and never seeming to take things seriously. I never really saw much change in his life. But the commitment to relational ministry was a core value in Youth For Christ. So we hung in there.
Thirty years have passed since I said good-bye to Tim. He graduated and we left the city. I would never have expected to hear from him again. Apparently, he found me online and then called…
“Are you Morris Dirks – the guy who used to lead Youth for Christ?” I confirmed that he found the right person. He said, “I’m Tim – do you remember me?” I confirmed again (how could I forget… he used to throw eggs at me!) And then came these words that took me by surprise: “I am with some men and we are thinking back to the persons who had significant impact on our lives. I just want you to know that I would never have made it through high school without you.” Christ was “morphing” in Tim’s life all along. Relationships plus time lead to spiritual transformation.
Paul has offered one short verse: “My dear children, for who I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” In it we have a wealth of implications to process when it comes to the importance of soul friendships with others.