Who is your “spiritual teacher”? Do you even need one?

“The missing element in many spiritual quests is the spiritual guide. … When a person finds out that all his efforts at self-improvement are movements around a circle, that the ego does not really intend to give itself up in surrender to the Spirit and therefore only pretends to do so, he realizes that left to himself he cannot succeed in really changing his inner center of gravity. Help is needed from some outside source if he is to free himself from such a hopeless position.”
– Paul Brunton

We use different terms for it in our various circles, but do you have a spiritual teacher, or guide? Is there someone who is helping you grow in your spiritual life by modeling that kind of life (even if imperfectly), by teaching you about it, helping answer questions, and showing you things about yourself that you might not have seen otherwise? Who is the person who helps you make sense of the deeper questions about meaning and purpose in life, who helps you sort out the problems and questions that you run into?

Some circles use the language of “discipling,” others spiritual direction, still others “shepherding” or pastoring, and others spiritual teacher or master. In Jesus’ time, serious spiritual students had “rabbis” or “teachers.”

Ever since coming back into church ministry in 2011, after going through a time of spiritual disillusionment and then renewal, I’ve been reflecting a lot about the role of the pastor in churches and in people’s spiritual lives. I’ve come to believe that, all too often, what churches look for from their pastors, does not really encompass this role (of “spiritual teacher”).

Churches look for pastors to do three things: (a) provide teaching from the Bible in the form of sermons (b) provide leadership for the church organization, and (c) be available and compassionate in crisis situations, like hospitalizations or deaths. Depending on the congregation, (a) and (b) are sometimes switched in order of priority, and (c) is usually a distant third.

The role of spiritual teacher (or “discipler” to use the language some use in Christian circles) doesn’t really fit here. The “teaching” part of being a spiritual teacher — at least as I’m thinking of the term — is more than just preaching. It’s not about simply presenting concepts (like a preacher does from the pulpit) … it’s about helping people apply those concepts to their lives. If the church numbers in the hundreds or thousands, there’s no way the pastor can have enough interaction with people in the church to know what’s going on in their lives and help them with their questions and challenges.

Here’s my concern: If the pastor is not fulfilling this role, who is? Most pastors I know will say, “I’m not able to provide that kind of personal attention and care to each person in my church … that’s why we have small groups. People get that kind of care in their small groups.”

But do they really?

Let’s assume a church is divided into active small group Bible studies, or support groups. Can the small group leaders — who have other jobs, and often get very little training or preparation for their role as small group leaders — really fill this role of being spiritual teachers for people in their groups?

I’m sure that sometimes they do … but usually not. Usually the leader’s role is more that of facilitator or host. Plus, small groups shift around so much, and fizzle out so often, that the percentage of church attendees with a long term relationship in a small group — let alone one with a small group leader who functions as a spiritual teacher for them — is rare indeed.

I’m not sure what to think about this … and I really do want to know what others think. Do you think this is a problem? Do people even want to have someone who functions as a spiritual teacher in their lives? Or is it enough to have a pastor who is more of a figure-head and example at a distance? I’d love to know if it’s just me who thinks this role is really needed.

 

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