Pastor and author Eugene Peterson writes, “It is not merely nice for pastors to have a spiritual director; it is indispensable.” Spiritual direction is a beneficial practice for all Christians. For pastors, spiritual direction provides particular essential gifts.
In my denomination, our pastors gather once each year for business meetings. Within that time each year is a service of remembrance for those in our clergy family who have died in the past year. It’s beautiful service that draws us into awe and gratitude for our co-laborers in the Kingdom of God.
It’s a tangible finish line to imagine. Years from now, when my name gets read there, what will the reaction be in the room? Will it be “I am so glad that person was a part of our family”? Or will it be “Who was that”? While spiritual direction is no silver bullet from all the pitfalls and temptations that arise in pastoral ministry, it does offer tremendous benefits for the endurance race that a calling to ministry entails.
Here are some ways spiritual direction particularly helps pastors:
1. Integrity in leadership.
One pastor told me, “When you are asked to sit with those who are searching for God, you should be sitting with someone who helps YOU in searching for God. I’ve learned so much about how to guide those entrusted to my care through having a spiritual director.”
We can’t lead people deeper and further into the things of God than we’ve gone ourselves. It’s not fair to ask parishioners to cultivate a love for God and neighbor that we’re not willing to do ourselves. Spiritual direction provides one means of leading by example a passionate pursuit of God for pastors.
2. A partner in spiritual reflection.
We often need a safe, objective space to say out loud the things we can’t say anywhere else. “I have a spiritual guide to talk with and ask deep questions,” another pastor reflected to me. “Having an unbiased guide has been pretty liberating to pray with and reflect with about where the Spirit is leading.”
The pastoral vocation can often be a lonely space. A spiritual director provides the gift of presence to you. Spiritual direction can be space for turning your attention to yourself, tending the needs and hungers of your own inner life.
3. Self care.
Several months ago I attended a conference for ministry leaders. At one point, the speaker on the stage invited those who were tired to come forward for prayer. I watched as more than two-thirds of the crowd responded. In all its many rewards, ministry is still a wearisome vocation. Burnout is a very real outcome at times. Even the symptoms of it, while teeter on the brink, negatively effect those around us. We are human beings, and we have limitations.
“I really don’t think I could’ve stayed in ministry this long without a spiritual director and some close friends,” one pastor tells me. “Having a spiritual director has been essential in helping me keep my calling fresh, my spirit tended, my heart strong.” You are first and foremost a human being made in God’s image. A spiritual director can remind you that this identity comes before your ministry work.
4. Self awareness.
Ruth Haley Barton has said, “A really horrifying moment in ministry is when you realize that you were probably hired for your false self.” Each of us as human beings are a complex bundle of tremendous gifts and debilitating blindspots. Discerning between our gifts and blindspots is long, hard work.
Another pastor friend told me, “Spiritual direction helps me see myself in an honest, but redemptive way. My spiritual director has helped me more than any other understand my personality, motivation, and the unique way God has made me. It often gives me epiphanies about false ways I’ve been viewing myself and helps correct my view.”
The Enneagram is one tool at pastors’ disposal for excavating through the muck of their false self, leading us to the beauty of our authentic self in Christ. “An introduction to the Enneagram has been a great tool to know and figure out who I am in a different way,” said one pastor.
5. A partner in prayer.
As pastors, we pray for so many people. Who prays for you? Who holds you before God as you walk through hospital wings, prepare sermons, run staff meetings, and vision for the future? A spiritual director is a committed ally in prayer to pastors. A director remembers you before God not only during sessions but between them, as well.
“Every pastor needs someone who prays for them… really prays for them,” I was told. “Every pastor needs someone, who in praying for them, is truly seeking God’s will and will speak truth to them.”
6. Safe place of vulnerability.
One pastor related to me that the most meaningful part of spiritual direction for them was discovering “a safe space to feel the pain and burden of ministry. Knowing I have a companion on this journey has made all the difference.”
As pastors, we feel the burden of responsibility of having it all together all the time. Spiritual direction creates a space in your routine where it’s okay to not be okay. A spiritual director can carry your doubts, your questions, your burdens, your disappointments, and your failures.
7. Someone who tells the truth.
The role of pastor brings with it certain levels of privilege and power. If we’re not careful, this cultivates our pride. Our congregation can craft an image of ourselves that we start to believe is true. This is a dangerous space to live in.
King David had the prophet Nathan. Hezekiah had Isaiah. A spiritual director can be a prophetic voice of correction and challenge to pastors. A director tells us not what we want to hear but what we need to hear, all in a context of grace, love, and healing. It may hurt in the moment, but it can often keep us from a deeper, more damaging hurt further down the road.
8. A place to practice humility.
Meeting with a spiritual director is an intentional act of humility, submitting to the wisdom of another. “There aren’t enough words to express how valuable the gift of having a spiritual director has been to me in ministry,” I was told by a pastor. “I’ve said often, ‘Every pastor needs to be in spiritual direction.’ I think if one is not, it is dangerous. It leaves one open to the seductions of power and influence with no protective factor.”
We invite a director to see us as we are. A director invites pastors to the words of Paul when he writes, “You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.”
9. Others are counting on you.
Each Sunday, a congregation looks to you for spiritual leadership. You may have a staff depending on your for their livelihoods and callings. Your community may depend on your church for various services. You have colleagues in ministry that look to you for encouragement and support. Most importantly, you have a family that needs you to be your very best self. You are not an island. When a pastor flames out because of stubborn pride, a lack of integrity, or deep emotional unhealth, the impact is far-reaching.
“Spiritual direction makes me a stronger, more courageous leader and pastor,” I was told by one pastor. The inverse is also true. The impact of emotionally and spiritual healthy pastors is also far-reaching.
Again, Peterson writes about pastors and spiritual directors:
“In the best of all possible worlds, no pastor would ‘get’ a spiritual director. We would already have one—not by our choice or inclination, but by assignment. For the very act of choosing a spiritual director for ourselves can defeat the very thing we are after. If we avoid anyone who we sense will not be tenderly sympathetic to the ‘dearest idols we have known’ and opt for conversational coziness, we have only doubled our jeopardy. But we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds, in which someone looks after us in these matters, and the vocational/spiritual peril in which the pastor lives is so acute that, dangerous or not (but very mindful of the danger), pastors must get spiritual directors. Our spiritual sanity requires it.”
In Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, Eugene Peterson outlines three particular callings for pastors—prayer, opening Scripture, and spiritual direction. In the last section of the book, he outlines what it looks like for pastors to offer direction, and just as crucial to a faithful life, receiving spiritual direction.
If you’re a pastor and interested in what receiving spiritual direction, you can fill out this contact form.
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