The work of spiritual care

spiritual-direction3The work of spiritual leadership includes providing spiritual care … what people used to call “The Care of Souls.” This care involves ministering to people in the crisis times of life, but it’s much more than that. It is also about helping people grow spiritually. It’s about equipping them to go through the normal ups and downs of life. Helping them navigate through life as it unfolds.

In this regard, I think the care of souls is similar to the work of spiritual direction. Spiritual direction, though a very historic practice, seems to be coming into its own as a special discipline these days, with special schools, workshops, and certification programs. Formerly known mostly in Roman Catholic circles, it’s now being practiced in a variety of Protestant settings as well.

David Scheuneman describes spiritual direction like this:

“Generally speaking, spiritual direction refers to a relationship in which one person assists another’s spiritual development. It takes various flavors, sometimes called spiritual friendship, mentoring, guidance or counseling, depending on the context. It can be formal or informal, professional or casual.”

I’m familiar with the work of spiritual direction – having worked with spiritual directors during several periods of my life. I hope it’s not a slight to them to suggest that their work is what many pastors have done since the time of the early church … and it’s something that pastors could be doing today. I find that many pastors want to do this kind of work … in fact providing this kind of spiritual care to people is what attracts many people into ministry. But not many pastors are doing it, for reasons I’ll get to later in this article.

What’s helpful about envisioning our ministry in terms of providing soul care and support to people is that this is full-orbed ministry. In other words, we’re talking about something that is more than just crisis care, and it’s more than just helping people with the “spiritual” parts of their lives.

I’d like to quote at length from Thomas Keating on the work of spiritual directors. Notice the psychological sophistication as he describes the issues people need to address in spiritual direction. Keating is not simply telling us to encourage people to pray and read their Bibles more.

“Any sign that you are upset is an invitation to ask yourself why you are upset and not project the blame on another person or the situation. Even if they are to blame, it won’t do you any good until you solve the real problem which resides in you. The fundamental work of the spiritual director is to encourage and guide people to submit to the divine therapy which allows the unconscious emotional material of early life that led to the drive for security, esteem and affection, and power symbols in the culture to be evacuated.

“Each of us has a significant dose of the human condition. In Catholic theology we call it the consequences of Original Sin. We come into the world not knowing what true happiness is but needing it; not knowing what true affection is but needing it; not knowing what true freedom is, but needing it. We bring with us into adult life the way we as children coped with impossible situations, either through repression of feeling or by compensatory programs for happiness that could not possibly work. The stronger those needs, the more frustration when they were not fulfilled.

“Into this universal human situation Jesus comes saying, “repent” which means “change the direction in which you are looking for happiness.” Human happiness is found in the growth of unconditional love. The work of spiritual direction is to help us to become aware of the obstacles to divine love and the free circulation of that love within us. This requires the cultivation of a non-possessive attitude toward ourselves and other people. Gradually we learn that God is the true security, God truly loves us and with this love, we can make it even if no one else seems to care.”

I don’t know about you, but I love to work with people at that deep level of human experience. But I don’t really find that I do it very much as a pastor … and I know I’m not alone. Few pastors today really get into this kind of deep soul work with their parishoners. In fact, I believe that one of the reasons for the growth of “spiritual direction” in Protestant settings is that in our churches today, pastors aren’t able to offer this level of care to people in their churches.

What is that? I think there are three reasons for this — two obvious, and one not-so-obvious:

1. There’s not enough time to do it

This is the most obvious reason why pastors don’t do the work of deep spiritual care. We are too busy with other things, and our churches are too big to allow adequate time to devote to this work. It’s not scaleable … there aren’t enough hours in a week for a pastor to offer this kind of care to people in churches with hundreds, let alone thousands, of people.

It takes time to hear someone’s story, to learn enough about their life that you’re able to make sense of the complex questions and struggles they are working through. Who has time for doing that, when there are so many other church tasks that need to be done? (More on that in a minute.)

2. We’re not trained for it

Doing the work of spiritual direction well is an art and a skill, and it takes training. Many of us have been trained by seminaries that prepared us to be theologians and preachers, with a couple of pastoral care classes thrown in to help us deal with marital conflict and death. To get into the deeper issues of someone’s life would move into the category of “counseling” … something that most pastors are not trained to do.

In fact, I would suggest that not only are pastors not trained to do counseling, they are trained not to do counseling! Do you see the difference? In books, seminars, and conferences over the years, the message drummed into my head as a pastor has been: “Meet with someone once or twice about an issue or question … but don’t establish a long term counseling relationship. If they need more than that, refer them to a trained therapist. Let counselors do the counseling.”

This advice makes good sense from a strategic perspective, and seems consistent with Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4 that the role of spiritual leaders (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor / teachers) is “to equip God’s people” for works of service. In other words, we aren’t the ones who are supposed to be doing the ministry, we are equipping other people to it. We are called not to be shepherds, but to be ranchers … to help equip people in the church do the shepherding.

I don’t know. Look around at the church in America these days. I think what’s happening is that there’s not much shepherding going on by anybody. And so now we’re professionalizing it, and sending people people to spiritual directors. Is this really what we should be doing?

3. We struggle to balance providing soul care to people with the demands of “running the church organization”

I have also found that it can be a challenge for a pastor to care for people on that level, when the pastor is also charged with the responsibility of building the ministry of the church. There have been times when my task of building the church’s ministry seemed to clash with the task of caring for the souls of people who were volunteering to serve in various capacities. Sometimes what they needed was to stop serving in those positions, because they were getting burned out, or needed time to heal from another life crisis. This is to say nothing of the challenge of how to balance my time — as the church gets larger and more complex, providing leadership to it takes increasing time and attention.

So what do we do about this?

I will be the first to admit that this article is more about me venting and thinking out loud than it is about providing a clear-cut solution. Here’s some ideas:

1. Implement the Richard Baxter model of one on one visits with all members of the church as part of the lead pastor’s job. Richard Baxter, in the book “The Reformed Pastor” described his approach to this issue, which involved a plan and almost fantatical devotion to a system of annual “church visits” that he would do with members of his congregation. I remember reading the book and wondering how meaningful those kinds of visits would be today … it seemed like he was mostly spending that time preaching to them and challenging them to be more devoted. Not sure this would work for me today, but you’ve got to give him credit for creating a plan and doing it. In that book he (rightly) emphasizes that life-change is not the automatic result of listening to a bunch of sermons.

2. Keep churches small enough so the pastor is able to devote time to providing this kind of soul care to church members. I’m not sure what to do about the fact that people seem to like big churches. This would mean doing things — like more strategic church planting by hiving off members — to actually keep the size of churches down. Can churches afford to do this? Pastors and church buildings are expensive.

3. Figure out ways of providing this kind of soul care to groups of people, rather than simply doing it one on one. This is actually happening in the spiritual direction movement, where people are establishing “group spiritual direction.” I know that some people might struggle to share all the things going on in their lives in a group context … they might prefer to talk one on one about some “touchy subjects.” But strategically, doing things in groups would make this much more powerful, as the leader would be able to reach many more people within the limits of his or her time.

4. Figure out ways of better equipping and training leaders within the church to do this kind of soul care. In other words, get more people who are gifted and trained to provide spiritual direction. Make this a mainstream part of the church’s life. I have one reservation about this — I find that people have a desire to be able to connect with the person doing teaching in the church. In other words, it’s helpful if you can combine the work of teaching with this kind of care.

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