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My Journey into Spiritual Direction

September 5, 2012

Over recent weeks my blogs have been an attempt to help readers understand more about spiritual formation, particularly spiritual direction.

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.

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One Comment
  1. Morris,

    I so appreciate the perspective and encouragement you provide in this space, and it’s a gift to receive your story of struggle, disillusionment, and finding your way back. Thank you for sharing it. I’m so glad you found a soul friend who could be with you in the place you began that journey and help you navigate your way through it. I’m glad for the vitality that has returned to your life and ministry. We are recipients of the fruit of it!

I invite your perspective in the comments section below. Thanks!

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