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Leaders who are controllers

When it comes to understanding people, I learned a lesson a long time ago: whenever you discover a personality strength in an individual, you can usually find a weakness on the other side. Strengths and weaknesses usually run together.

I’ll use myself as an example. I’m a leader. I love to take charge, cast the vision and lead the troops. But the weakness that comes on the flip side of this strength is the tendency to be a controller. The God-given desire to steer the ship can tempt us to use our influence to get our own way all the time. Leaders turn into controllers when they start to think that everyone would be happier if they did it our way.

For most of my life I was blind to this “controlling instinct.” But several years ago, God began to show me how to counter-productive it is to attempt to manage the outcome of every situation. I am learning to listen more, to be a flexible planner and to discover the joy of saying, “Why don’t we do it your way!”

Are you a controller? Let’s find out by taking my Controller Quiz:

  • I am afraid to entrust important tasks and decisions to others.
  • I am perceived by others as a highly-opinionated person.
  • I find it hard to admit to mistakes or failure.
  • I am quick to provide solutions to other people’s problems.
  • I am usually able to convince others to do what I would prefer.
  • I am a competitive person…winning is very important.
  • I get frustrated with people who make mistakes.
  • I often think I could do a better job than someone else.

If you answered “yes” to a number of these statements you are probably a controller. There is no need to be discouraged or ashamed about this. Chances are, you demonstrate the strength that runs as a counterpart to this weakness-leadership. But people with strong personalities (i.e. people who can influence the outcome in relationships with others) must guard against controlling them. To be Christlike is to know how to listen and to know when to defer to others. Take your direction from Jesus. He is a wonderful leader, but is not a controller!

When the desire to pray is gone

Sometimes the desire to pray is gone. When we feel this way, it’s easy to let this spiritual disciple slip until the motivation returns once again. However, you’ve probably discovered that the longer you hold out, the deeper the apathy becomes lodged.

Here are some important words from Edward Ferrell’s book Prayer is a Hunger,

“Prayer tomorrow begins today or there will be no prayer tomorrow. The penalty of not praying is the loss of one’s capacity to pray! The promise of tomorrow is the hunger of today.”

How true! We will never dig our way out of a period of spiritual dryness by hoping our motivation will return. We must put our will into action and start talking with God openly and honestly, even when our feelings won’t join in. In so doing, we will be priming the pump…and, in time, we will find that the river of life begins to bubble forth once again.

Farrell is right, “The penalty of not praying is the loss of one’s capacity to pray.” In other words, we are working against ourselves when we wait for our spiritual climate to improve. Waiting must give way to seeking.

It is imperative to remember that the spiritual life is not natural to us. It must be cultivated or it will die. Too many believers want to enter the Christian experience without any sacrifice. They refuse to pursue the disciplines that are necessary to insure personal encounters with the living Lord. Their spirit remains out of touch with God.

Has prayerlessness conquered your life? It’s time to turn back. Start simply and sincerely. Take a few minutes each day to honestly confess your condition. Worship God sincerely in spite of the coldness of heart you may feel. In time, the pump will become primed and the water of life will run freely once more. Start your journey towards prayer by remembering the advice given by Abbot Chapman who said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” So, the goal is to pray, no matter how feeble your prayers may be.

The importance of aloneness with God

The American lifestyle is a busy one. And even though we complain about being busy, most of us wouldn’t slow down if we could. As soon as we have to sit for a few hours, with nothing to do, we feel bored. So we make plans: call a friend, go out to eat, head for the mall, drum up another project, go to a movie, or turn on the T.V. There are many ways to keep yourself busy. Rather than be alone with our thoughts, most of us turn to some kind of entertainment…we don’t know how to slow down.

When we keep up this kind of distracted pace, we lose touch with out inner selves, our soul, that part of us that longs for deeper meaning, destiny and a sense of eternal significance. The word soul means appetite, desire, crave.

It is that part of our person-hood that calls for spiritual attention. David says, “My soul thirsts for God like a parched land,” (Psalm 143:3).

Yielding to a busy pace of life, without time for solitude (aloneness with God), causes a person to feel hollow, disillusioned, empty and even depressed. We get off of the treadmill of work only to find the world of entertainment, leisure, or vacation something less than what we had hoped for. With the Psalmist we need to cry out, “My soul thirsts for God like a parched land.”

The answer to this deep hunger is aloneness with God. And at first it will seem like boredom, because we are accustomed to all the stimuli around us. It’s hard to be alone with our thoughts, and our God. We don’t know how to hit the pause button long enough to see the value of solitude, prayer, reflection and worship.

My prayer is that we might all experience what John Baillie wrote about in A Diary of Private Prayer:

“Almighty God, in this quiet hour I seek communion with Thee. From the fret and fever of the day’s business, from the world’s vain imaginations of my own heart, I would now turn aside and seek the quietness of Thy presence. All day long have I toiled and striven; but now in the stillness of heart and the clear light of Thine eternity, I would ponder the pattern my life is weaving.”

If we never take time to “ponder the pattern our lives are weaving,” we will certainly become hollow souls. We will never encounter the joy that comes from union with God. Jesus longs for us to hit the pause button long enough to rediscover the things that matter most. He will lead us beyond the initial boredom of quietness to the beauty of His presence if we are willing to let Him.

Christian Leadership: Checking your motivation (Part IV)

This is the fourth and final blog in a four-part series dealing with motivations in ministry.  With the help of Ignatius of Loyola (a 16th century leader), we will track down what he referred to as “inordinate attachments.”  In our contemporary world of ministry there are dangerous driving forces that often remain hidden and unchecked in the life of the leader.  Let’s take a closer look…

Inordinate Attachment #3: The Need for Perfection – Working to Make Things Right

Leaders who are given to perfection as their primary motivation find themselves living in a world that is always in need of correction. Their compulsive energy is continually seeing areas that need attention and they are always devising ways to improve. The focus might be on reforming themselves, another person, an organization, a community, or something in the world.

They are driven to reform people and things until the “project” reaches a level of perfection allowing their soul to rest.  However, that place of rest never comes.

The motivational force of this leader is fixated on getting things right. Their heart easily tends to judgmental thoughts because they evaluate everyone based on internal standards of correctness. We know that legalism is the great enemy that seeks to capture the church wherever an entry point can be found. Often, that entry point is the perfectionistic leader. It may be religious legalism with a focus on moralism.

Alternately, it may revolve around performance, making excellence the singular goal.  Perfectionism has many faces and ways to assume it’s control in the life of a person and an organization. Obviously, the church is a place where leaders with a driving motivation to fix things are often able to live out their addiction unchecked. After all, shouldn’t the church seek the ideal?

Anger usually sits unresolved in the heart of a perfectionistic leader. They repress their frustration after using all of their manipulative energy to get something corrected according to their standards. As we bring this motivation into the spotlight, we find the deep-rooted inordinate attachment. A spiritual director is able to lovingly touch the pent up anger and gently expose the  disordered affection through questions and a listening ear. Change becomes possible as light shines into a dark place.

In my work as a spiritual director I often meet leaders with the perfectionist motivation. I asked permission for one of my friends to share his story. It’s a good way to wrap up this series of blogs on what Ignatius of Loyola called  inordinate attachments which often show up as faulty leadership motivation:

I am the pastor of a church of 150 people in Anchorage, Alaska.  It was six years ago that I had reached a place of despair.  I was carrying out ministry responsibilities out of willful duty, knowing that the things that I said and did were true, but enjoying none of the personal experience of God that I spoke of so often.  After months of pleading, my wife, now in tears, was begging me to call our denominational office.  My pride finally succumbed to her tears and I made the call, and through district leadership was connected with an individual who would function as a spiritual director in my life.  This has begun a six-year relationship that has been a steadily refining journey.
Frequently our dialogues were questions of core motivations, of what really drove me in life and in ministry.  It became apparent that wrestling with my inner life was going to be necessary and this would lead to discovering my area of greatest struggle.  The process allowed God to “help” me understand the condition of my own heart, but I was determined to keep final authority in both who I was, and what I was going to do about it.  When asked by my director if I believed in step one of the Twelve Steps:  That, “my life was unmanageable, and was I powerless to change it?” I was immediate in my response. “No, I can do this!”  I was a helpless perfectionist.
Early on in life, after a series of continuing losses, I concluded that no one was ultimately trustworthy with the condition of my heart.  Even after my conversion as a teenager, while I was immensely grateful for God’s forgiveness, I lived every day as if my salvation depended on me.  Life, especially ministry, became an exhausting journey of doing what everyone on the outside thought was best, but all the while sinking deeper into the abyss.  And now I was finally crashing, arriving at the place where God might reach me.
I began to take time to listen, to journal, to open my heart and mind to what He wanted to say to me.  As I processed things with my director, he would offer open-ended questions revealing God’s heart for me, not the pastor, but the one whom Christ loved.
A circumstantially difficult nine-month season of ministry through 2011 brought me to a place of soul weariness.  I reentered deep discouragement, even as my director continued to gently nudge me into places of solitude, asking me to readdress truths God had spoken to me about where my identity truly lay.
During a walk at a retreat center, I cried out to heaven, “I can’t do this anymore.”  What descended upon me in that moment was the deepest awareness of my sin that I had ever known.  I was sinful to the core, and there was nothing I could do to change that.  All this in a manner of seconds, and yet immediately, the overwhelming flood of His grace washed over me, and I reflected, “So this is what the peace that passes all understanding feels like.” Years of spiritual direction, gentle questions, fierce challenges, and loving support had led me to the place where I could receive the truth.

Christian Leadership: Checking your motivation (Part III)

This is the third blog in a four-part series dealing with motivations in ministry. With the help of Ignatius of Loyola (a 16th century leader), we will track down what he referred to as “inordinate attachments.” In our contemporary world of ministry there are dangerous driving forces that often remain hidden and unchecked in the life of the leader. Let’s take a closer look…

Inordinate Attachment #2:
The Need to Succeed – Working To Win Other’s Approval

Unlike the first type of leader in my previous blog – the pleaser, this leader is more concerned about the outcome than they are about people. Task, not relationships, takes over as the obsessing focus. The primary goal is accomplishment. Of course, behind this drive is a deep need for approval, but the approval is directly linked to succeeding. Leaders controlled by the need to succeed have one primary fear – failure.

At the heart of this motivational style is the assumption where the leader stakes everything on positive outcome – “I must succeed to be valuable or worthwhile.” Somewhere along the way this type of leader came to believe that who you are (your identity) is tied to what you do, and how well you do it. As a result, career performance became the singular place where they gained a sense of worth. When David McQueen, a success driven pastor, woke up to his inordinate attachment he wrote:
“And then one day it hit me. God was neither in my goals nor my means. Deep down, the reason I was leading a church and the reason I wanted to grow it was for me – for me to feel successful, for me to feel significant, for me to receive glory. Through several events, I felt God teaching me a foundational lesson: this isn’t about you, and you can’t do this thing called church without me.”

In the ministry world, a leader’s inordinate attachment to success can run wild since the church is an organization that aspires to grow. As a result, programs, events, buildings, budgets, staff and all other types of measurable outcomes become the focus. As Dallas Williard has said, “The greatest threat to devotion to Christ is service for Christ.” Successful ministry becomes the idolatrous master of this leader. Sadly, such workaholism is often rewarded by the church or organization since it is regarded as the sincere sacrifice of a leader who truly desires God’s kingdom to advance. In our culture of consumer Christianity, people will take any success you offer as another place to enjoy the good life.

A leader whose identity is not secure in Christ is easy prey for the false motivations that are linked to success as the primary motivation. It’s tragic when a leader uses the church or organization he or she leads as the place to secure their sense of value and significance. Everyone under his or her influence is actually being played out as a means to the award that has become an obsession. To put it bluntly, the leader is simply commodifying people and their resources as the pathway to success and the praise that follows.

Often, the successful leader will need to hit the wall before they are able to wake up to the inordinate attachment that obsesses them. Their greatest fear, failure, might actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the leader over-performs in an attempt to reach their dream. Ignatius would call us to the freedom that is possible only when this type of leader finally discovers their ulterior motive and is able to serve God having been freed from a self-made agenda. When this happens, the leader is able to listen to God as they step back from the addictive passions that sabotaged their true calling.

In recent decades the church growth movement set the stage for what became the attractional church model, an approach to church leadership that magnified the obsession with success. In fact, the fixation with growth and measurable outcomes fostered the idolatrous nature of this inordinate attachment. Without realizing it, the pursuit of successful ministries became more important than relational union with God and transformed lives.

More and more leaders are stepping off of this treadmill. It simply is not sustainable!

Christian Leadership: Checking your motivation (Part II)

This is the second blog in a four-part series dealing with motivations in ministry. With the help of Ignatius of Loyola (a 16th century leader), we will track down what he referred to as “inordinate attachments.” In our contemporary world of ministry there are dangerous driving forces that often remain hidden and unchecked in the life of the leader. Let’s take a closer look…

Inordinate Attachment #1: The Need to Be Liked – Working To Keep Others Happy

“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 opening 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.

After 13 years in a lead pastorate that was filled with joy and optimism – everything was up and to the right – I had transitioned into new pastorate thinking everything would continue to head in that direction. It took three years to hit rock bottom. My optimism gave way to suspicion, then pessimism, and finally a deep cynicism. 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.

In the months and years to follow I have come to discover my motivations for ministry needed a deep overhaul. I was a co-dependent leader and never realized it.
At the core of their being, people with this type of motivation have a deep need to be needed. They spend a significant amount of emotional energy wondering about what others are thinking and what they need to do to please and inspire them. This is classic co-dependent behavior – “what do I have to do to make you happy so that I can be happy?” In the ministry we have a perfect setup for people who are given to pleasing others. There is no end to the opportunities we can find when it comes to doing things to make other people’s lives happier or more fulfilling. However, the motivation for caring and leading others this way is easily tainted; it is self-focused. Behind the pleaser’s style is a well-disguised “hook”, a strategy to get something in return. The return is affirmation, affection, praise and encouragement.

Type #1 people are extremely tuned in to the emotions of others. It is as if they have special antennae to detect the moods, responses, and feelings of those who matter in their world. At this point, they adapt their behavior to suit the feelings of the other person and begin to function in ways that bring the desired outcome – love and affirmation. This style of motivation involves a loss of identity. The leader’s poor boundaries, and a lack of self-differentiation, result in an obsession – pleasing of people as the way to maintain influence. However, in the end, this leads motivation is guaranteed to lead to emotional exhaustion.

Ignatian direction would seek to help this individual address their inordinate attachment to please and be praised. The transformational goal is for God to expose the fears that drive the co-dependent’s leadership style. Sooner or later, this individual needs to come to a place where they are able to listen to God before listening to others. They must come to understand who they are in Christ over and above who they are in the eyes of others. When this happens, they are free of the inordinate attachment that has sabotaged their soul. No longer do they live chained to an obsessive and manipulative strategy to be loved by others as the driving focus for their sense of worth.

On the day I entered the psychiatrist’s office all I knew was that anxiety and depression were overwhelming me. I wanted out – give me the right pill so I can be happy again! But long term healing came in a different package. I had to find my way to the inordinate attachment… the obsessive and compulsive energy that was undermining my emotional well-being and my ability to know God’s unconditional love.

Christian Leadership: Checking your motivation (Part I)

This is the first blog in a four-part series dealing with motivations in Christian ministry.  With the help of Ignatius of Loyola (a 16th century leader), we will track down what he referred to as “inordinate attachments.”  In our contemporary world of ministry there are dangerous driving forces that often remain hidden and unchecked in the life of the leader.  Let’s take a closer look…   

I just got back from spending four days with nine pastors who live at the center of intense ministry demands on a day-to day-basis.  This group has gathered for these renewal retreats annually for six years.  Each time we meet one or more of these leaders reveal that they are overwhelmed to the point of emotional exhaustion.  And so, we often find ourselves processing the issue of sustainability in ministry.  Over and over I hear them saying, “I love what I am doing but I can’t keep doing it this way.”

Ministry has a way of wearing you out.  I speak from experience and I will share my meltdown in the second blog of this series… a meltdown that landed me in a psychiatrist’s office and led to me to resign from the church I was leading.  The good news is I recovered… but it was a long and slow journey!  Along the way I discovered something.  Ministry leadership is demanding; however, sometimes the problem that derails us stems from dysfunction that lies within.

If we want to be healthy both emotionally and spiritually, we must process our motivations in ministry.  When awareness increases we often find that the false self, our shadow, is the culprit that needs attention.

In recent blogs we have been drawing insights from Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), someone who understood the necessity of spiritual formation amid the demands of leadership.  After all, he recruited 1000 missionaries in his lifetime and he helped them become “contemplatives in action.”  In other words, he trained leaders how to sustain the challenges of ministry by caring for their soul (the being side), as they lived in a world of doing (the ministry side).  Ignatius stands out as someone who knew how to assist leaders in dealing with the false self seeking ensure that their ministry motivation would come from the right place – relational union with Christ.

As a spiritual reformer Ignatius believed spiritual freedom was only possible as one was able to address what he called “inordinate attachments,” or “disordered affections,” that war against the well-being of one’s soul.  This focus is all about self awareness – unless the leader is able to see how the false self is undermining their spiritual and emotional health, they will always remain at risk.

Ignatius wrote The Spiritual Exercises with a primary purpose in mind:  Help the leader, “to conquer himself, and to regulate his life so that he will not be influenced in his decisions by any inordinate attachment.”  Ignatius desired to call forth committed disciples who aspired to an experiential union with Christ, one in which inordinate attachments or disordered affections were carefully tracked and processed.  This is the fundamental assumption of Ignatius — everything is to be surrendered to a higher purpose, and, in so doing, the individual moves onto a pathway of spiritual and emotional health.

In recent years I have come to believe that all kinds of inordinate attachments are seeded into the soil of ministry, many of them are presented as honorable attributes – modeled by many spiritually heroic leaders.  Yet, lurking behind these glittering accomplishments is the dangerous tendency to fill a hole that only Christ is sufficient for.

In the upcoming blogs I would like to take the Ignatian concept of inordinate attachments and process three motivations for ministry that derail the leader.  These motivational attachments often drive leaders into dangerous places, yet the go unnoticed and are often praised.  They are the hidden saboteurs of the spiritual and emotional health that God intended for his leaders.

Somewhere, early on in life we developed what is called an adaptive self.  Because our world is fallen, we seek a strategy that will work to protect us from the brokenness we see and feel.  This way of being is our survival project and it is not centered on God’s unconditional love.  Instead, we take control and our strategies become self-focused.  We become the managers of our own lives.

Later in life, these adaptive strategies follow us into ministry.  At first, they seem to work for the leader but, in the end, they backfire.  Sooner or later, we find ourselves hitting the wall, yet our management strategy runs so deep we are unable to locate the reason for our pain and disillusionment.  We press ahead as our inordinate attachments remain unchecked.  If we hope to gain freedom, we will have to do some inner work.  Ignatius leads us there.  He invites us to process the shadow that distort our motivations at a fundamental level.

Stay tuned as we consider:

  • The need to be needed
  • The need to succeed
  • The need to be perfect

A Strategy for Sustainable Ministry

 

Sustainable… it’s a buzzword these days.  Everywhere we look our society is challenging practices that, once acceptable, are now seen as counterproductive.  It’s also true in the world of the church.  More and more Christian leaders run out of gas before they see the finish line.  The way we do ministry is often not sustainable – spiritually, emotionally and even physically!  I recently heard of a major health insurer who dropped coverage for a well-known denomination because clergy and their families were such a poor health risk.

Our first step toward better practices occurs when we arrive at a core assumption – self-care is not selfish.  Each leader must build avenues of renewal to sustain the spiritual, emotional and physical health needed to make it over the long haul.  Over a period of 20 years I have served in two lead pastorates and each one taught me a new and necessary pathway in the journey of self-care — solitude and spiritual direction.

Solitude: Taking The Road Less Traveled
Leadership is highly addictive in nature and often generates a life of compulsive busyness. We are easily swept away by the excitement, potential and forward movement of the organization. Endless opportunities and responsibilities lead us to believe, falsely, that every contribution we can make is necessary for the success of the organization. We begin to feel indispensable in ways God never intended.

My own journey into solitude occurred as a result of a significant transition.  After leading a high school group of a hundred for several years, I was suddenly asked to oversee a congregation of a thousand. I intuitively knew I would need to develop deeper patterns of renewal if I hoped to survive the new demands. I had read about the importance of solitude but rarely practiced this discipline. And so I decided to set aside Mondays and regularly headed for a nearby Benedictine monastery where I spent the day reading, reflecting, walking, praying, journaling and from time to time, sleeping.  This resolution to pursue times of extended solitude was the single most important decision I have made in ministry. Looking back, I am certain that sustainability in ministry is directly linked to significant blocks of time spent nurturing the inner world.

Ruth Haley Barton offers a critical reminder for those of us who live on the treadmill too long: One of the primary functions of solitude is to settle into ourselves in God’s presence.  This is not easy and it takes time.  But it is the answer to the heart cry that erupts when we have been distracted for too long by surface concerns.  “I have lost myself!” we cry. Solitude is the only way to find ourselves again.”

For most of us, solitude is learned behavior. It does not come naturally.  When we leave our busy worlds we often experience “withdrawal symptoms,” similar to an addict.  We want to rush back to the action.  But, instead of reengaging, we need to stay long enough until a proper perspective is regained, until we can function from our calling and not our compulsions.

Spiritual Direction: A Neglected Path To God 
It was thirteen years later when I accepted a call to my second lead pastorate that I learned the value of spiritual direction. In this new setting my anxiety level kept rising amid the many tentacles of congregational tension and dysfunction. Before long, all my idealism was shattered and I slid into depression. Out of sheer necessity I began looking for a counselor and spiritual director. Henri Nouwen defines spiritual direction as a “relationship initiated by a spiritual seeker who finds a mature person of faith willing to pray and respond with wisdom and understanding to his or her questions about how to live spiritually in a world of ambiguity and distraction.” That’s what I needed.

I discovered spiritual direction is not a ministry trend that’s surfaced in recent years.  St. Augustine emphasized that “no one can walk without a guide.” The desert fathers and mothers continued to develop this ministry of care and discernment for others. Later in church history St. Ignatius, Martin Luther, St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila all gave themselves to the ministry of direction. Somewhere along the way, we gave up this ancient practice, particularly in the Protestant tradition.

Surveys now indicate that between 50 and 70 percent of pastors do not have a close friend. The fallout of living isolated lives in ministry has reached epidemic proportions.

The time has come to face the realities of ministry with an honest assessment and a strategy for wellness. Spiritual direction is a proven pathway to health and we are in need of leaders who understand the urgency of this ministry and will seek to reverse the course of events.

David Benner offers some excellent words to all of us: “My great hope is that those of us who long for a deeper experience of God would accept no substitute until this hunger is fulfilled.  For us, spiritual direction holds great promise.  It offers us a relationship of accountability within which we can walk the Christian path with another Christian.  It offers us a place within which we can know ourselves as we are truly known.  It offers us a place to meet God.”

Holy Indifference And Decision-Making

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Last night my wife and I spent three hours with a younger couple who was facing a significant decision.  They were being asked to apply for an international ministry position. The issue on the table was this “Is now the time to follow the sense of calling we have had for years – to serve cross-culturally?”

Leaving would be incredibly difficult.  They have a young son and a daughter on the way.  Family members live close by and love them dearly. They currently serve in pastoral roles and have established significant influence as leaders.

At one point in the evening I suggested the value of the Ignatian principle referred to as “holy indifference.”  Ignatius believed this is the pathway to freedom and to the true discovery of being centered in God’s will.

Holy indifference means that we come to a place where our interior attitude is one of complete openness.  We are willing to do whatever God wills.  There are no boxes marked “private,” instead we have released any agendas and our inclinations to manipulate the outcome to suit our hopes.  In our interior being the first priority is to know that we are where God wants us to be. Karl Rahner contends, “This distance from things is a goal that must always be re-won again and again.”

As soon as I mentioned “holy indifference” I could see a connection on the face of the woman who sat across the table.  It was as if everything became easier.  The burden of having to make a decision, the right decision, was lifted.  What mattered was attitude, not outcome.

The concept of holy indifference involves “naming and laying aside anything that will deter the person or group from focusing on God’s will as the ultimate value.” When we reach this state of interior freedom we care about the outcome in a way that leaves everything wide open for God to act.  There is a confidence that settles in because you have a deep sense that his sovereignty is being honored in a way that insures the outcome.

Holy indifference is always a journey.  It is central to our spiritual formation when we find ourselves in the decision-making process.  As we move through the season of discernment we will bump up against hopes and assumptions that must be released to move back to the place of freedom.  Often, we will find ourselves saying “yes, but…” as we try to fully release that which holds us hostage.  The process of decision-making is often God’s way of exposing the assumptions we hold… ones that are not in line with his purposes.  We discover that, even though we sincerely want God’s will, we have exceptions that remain hidden in our soul.

Ignatius believed that following God meant rigorously tracking down those assumptions and returning to the place of freedom.  The only way to get there is to set your sights on holy indifference and the choice to release any and all objections.

I often meet people who carry significant stress related to decisions.  It seems perfectly acceptable, yet it’s not.  Something is overriding their ability to come to a place of internal peace, even before the decision is made.  Usually that something is the deep desire to maintain control insuring the best outcome.  Often, a type of perfectionism rules as the individual continues to fear that they might not make the right choice.

Once a sincere follower is able to understand and experience the freedom that comes with holy indifference they are capable of sensing when their inner being is off balance.  Life is filled with decisions.  To learn the joy of releasing is a difficult journey that grows easier as we begin to disengage from attachments and agendas that simply can’t coexist with the discovery of God’s will. Ignatius invites us to find the freedom God intended by choosing holy indifference as the way forward.

Experiential Union With Christ

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If you were to pick a “patron saint” – someone from church history that you really admire – who would it be?

I’m going with Ignatius of Loyola. Here’s why. The driving heartbeat, which remains central to everything Ignatius desired, is to foster was experiential union with Christ.

For too long the church has strategy and practice of spiritual formation that leans heavy to cognitive side of spiritual formation.  This informational approach as the paradigm under which we seek to shape the believer’s journey has run dry and one of the key reasons why many pastors are struggling.

We live in a day when the desire for spiritual experience is emphasized in almost every corner of church life. People are looking for more. The relevance of Ignatian spirituality in today’s world is unusually pertinent because he offers such a theologically sound foundation for experiential union with God.

It’s not uncommon to hear Christian leaders asking the question, “Would you like to have a personal relationship with God?”  However, one wonders if, for the most part, Christian leaders would have to admit that personal is simply not an accurate word to describe their encounters with God.

All too often we hold out the possibility of something amazingly wonderful even though we have little or no knowledge of this in our own lives.  For Ignatius, this personal relationship was his deepest quest.

Since God is a self-revealing God, we can look for his hand in all of life’s experiences.  His Spirit lives in our spirit as the guide, or the interpreter, of God’s intentions.  Through discernment, we can join the Spirit and come to the realization that God is making himself known.  As we have learned, Ignatius believed that God’s Spirit is always moving within the heart of the individual and awareness of these movements opened the door to a moment-by-moment encounter with God.

As we turn to the scriptures, we find an obvious confirmation of this experiential emphasis.  The work of God in the Bible is personal, individual, internal and emotional.  Moses, David, Isaiah, John and Paul are living into a personal encounter in their walk with God.  They move beyond cognitive knowledge and into a union that is transformational.

It is certainly evident that today’s churches are filled with people who long for this type of union with God.  Gary Moon, psychologist and spiritual director writes:

The point is this; it seems that many in the Christian world have recently reawakened to the truth that wearing the label, “Christian,” is not synonymous with experiencing the intimate, moment by moment relationship with God that souls were designed to enjoy, and have begun to place hope in the practice of spiritual direction as a methodology for finding the way to a more abundant life. Across denominational barriers, there seems to be a tidal wave of interest in learning how to experience intimate friendship with God…

Throughout the history of the church, we are admonished by the great spiritual masters to avoid settling for less than first hand knowledge of God.

A. W. Tozer, someone whose writings appeal to personal encounter, joins Ignatius by stating: “We have almost forgotten that God is a person and, as such, can be cultivated as any person can.” In his book, The Pursuit of God, he invites the seeker toward an existential union with God.  “In making himself known to us He (God) stays by the familiar pattern of personality… The continuous and unembarrassed interchange of love and thought between God and the soul of the redeemed man is the throbbing heart of New Testament religion.”

This aspect of Ignatian spirituality is critical if Christian leaders hope to sustain passion in ministry.  As leaders we find ourselves involved in all kinds of sacred and holy activities while, at the same time, we may lack a sense of intimacy with God ourselves.  This contradiction will wreck the soul.  If we hope to avoid disillusionment and burnout in ministry it is critical that we find places where our experience, or lack thereof, is placed on the table and we are able to talk about it freely.  The time has come for Christian leader to model what it means process spiritual experience in relationship.