Getting a Spiritual Director [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 10]

fullsizeoutput_ae1There is a saying among physicians that the doctor who is his own doctor has a fool for a doctor. It means, as I understand it, that the care of the body is a complex business and requires cool, detached judgment….If those entrusted with the care of the body cannot be entrusted to look after their own bodies, far less can those entrusted with the care of souls look after their own souls, which are even more complex than bodies and have a correspondingly greater capacity for self-deceit (165).

In this way, Eugene Peterson continues his attention on spiritual direction in chapter eight of Working the Angles. This time, he turns to why and how a pastor must find a spiritual director, not for others, but for themselves. Peterson highlights the reality that, in the past, having a spiritual director (whether called that or not) was a requirement for pastors, but that this is no longer the case. “It is rare today to find a pastor who has a spiritual director” (166). The results in contemporary pastoral ministry, and I could corroborate Peterson’s description here, is disastrous:

The wreckage accumulates: we find pastors who don’t pray, pastor who don’t grow in faith, pastors who can’t tell the difference between culture and the Christ, pastors who chase fads, pastors who are cynical and shopworn, pastors who know less about prayer after twenty years of praying than they did on the day of their ordination, pastors with arrogant, outsized egos puffed up by years of hot-air flattery from well-meaning parishioners (166).

I would be more happy to read Peterson’s clear diagnosis of pastoral ministry in our day if it were not so painfully true. My experience with friends and colleagues in ministry over the years fits this ‘wreckage’ fully. At the same time, my own personal experience has shown me how hard it is to move forward as a pastor with an “undivided heart” (Psalm 86:11) without someone speaking from the outside into my areas of slippage, shortcoming, or confusion. Why is this the case?

Peterson traces the contours of one of the most distinct challenges of pastoral ministry, which is that the role calls for the exercise of both authority and submission. “At memorable moments of life…pastors are robed in dignity and represent God’s authority….But the practice of our faith involves the exact opposite of wielding authority, namely, the exercise of obedience” (167). The pastor lives at the intersection of these two seemingly contrary realities and therein arises much of the tension for pastors. We must preach God’s word with authority, but we must also obey it, particularly in areas where it is most challenging for us. We must represent Christ at the communion table, in the waters of baptism, and in visitation within hospital rooms, but we must also receive Christ at the table of our lives for our own daily bread and hear Him call us to take up our cross of selfless obedience.

It is at the point of this tension that our need for a spiritual director finds traction. In one footnote, Peterson shares a quotation from St. Dorotheus of Gaza on this point:

There is nothing more harmful than trying to direct oneself….That’s why I never allowed myself to follow my own desires without seeking counsel (166).

Comparing this work of the pastor both to learning a musical instrument and ascending a mountain climb, Peterson calls pastors to have teachers and lead climbers who will point the way ahead of us, highlight our errors, and direct us into the most fruitful practices of ministry. A spiritual director serves toward these very ends. For pastors this means letting go of absolute authority and fierce independence in order to allow a trusted other to be present with, listen to, and speak into our life and ministry.

Peterson describes his own journey to find a spiritual director who could speak into his journey. I will not recount his words here, but will share my own journey with those who have served as spiritual directors for me over the years. During college I reached out for an older man in the faith to mentor me. He agreed to meet every other week in his office. Not knowing what to ask for, I let him set the agenda, but was shocked when he said he would like for us to simply pray for an hour every time we met. I’m not sure why I was shocked, but I’m glad that was the agenda. As I should have expected, I learned more about prayer by praying than by talking about prayer or talking about myself. It was a few years later, that a professor, who also was a pastor, became a spiritual father to me near the end of my college years and into my first years after college. I lived in the basement of his home for a summer and it was not only our formal lunches where we talked about the spiritual life that directed me in the ways of growth in ministry, but also the laughter over a Sunday night meal or the way he and his wife interacted in marriage that set me up for growth as a pastor in my own marriage and family.

Many years later, I have had mentors and spiritual directors, both formal and informal, who have spoken into my life and ministry in various ways. I am so thankful for those I’ve mentioned and others who have helped me become the disciple of Christ and pastor of His church that I am today. I would not be here without them. It has always been a challenge to discover the right person to look toward for spiritual direction, but never so challenging as in my role as Senior Pastor of a larger church over the past several years. I have been forced to seek it out and strive to find it with greater intentionality than ever. Sometimes people I have look to for spiritual guidance have moved to another geographic location, and I have had to start over. Sometimes, I have needed specific guidance for specific things, whether during a recent ministry sabbatical or as I wrestle with specific challenges in ministry. Through it all, however, I cannot agree more with Peterson on the priority of spiritual direction in the life of the pastor. Concluding the chapter, he writes about how his own growth was helped through spiritual guidance:

Quite obviously none of these experiences depends on having a spiritual director. None of them was new to me in kind but only in degree. Some people develop marvelously in these areas without ever having so much as heard of a spiritual director. Still, for most of the history of the Christian faith it was expected that a person should have a spiritual director. In some parts of the church it is expected still. It is not an exceptional practice. It is not for those who are gifted in prayer or more highly motivated than the rest. In fact, as responsibility and maturity increase in the life of faith the subtleties of temptation also increase and the urgency of having a spiritual director increases (176, emphasis mine).

Pastors, let us take Eugene Peterson’s words to heart. Join me in seeking the wisdom of another who can, like a music teacher or a lead climber, direct us toward thriving and flourishing in ministry over the long haul.

[This post continues my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began here. You can read all the posts here.]

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