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This is the second in a two-part series. In the previous article, I made the point that the normal and expected pattern of our lives was to move away from not only emotional childishness, but also spiritual childishness. The goal of our lives is to grow towards wholeness or completeness, which includes becoming spiritually “mature” or “complete.”
I then made the point that, too often that growth is hindered by the fear — often stoked by misguided spiritual teachers — of entertaining or exploring our questions and doubts. The assumption is that doing so will cause our faith in God, and our spiritual union (or relationship with God) to be diminished, if not lost altogether.
My contention is that often, the exact opposite is true. What we need to do, in order to move towards a deeper, more authentic, fully integrated faith is to explore the new information and experiences, and find ways of integrating them into our spiritual lives. As I said in the previous article, this might mean letting go of some of our assumptions and beliefs (“putting away childish things” as Paul says in I Corinthians 13:11).
In my work with people as a spiritual teacher and counselor, I’ve come to see that periodically, people will reach points of serious questions about what they’ve been taught to believe about God, the Bible, and life. Sometimes this happens because of new information gleaned from studies in science, philosophy, or comparative religion. Other times questions arise, because of experiences people have, where it seems that the actual unfolding of their lives — and observations about their neighbors — seems very different than the things they were taught.
The Map and the Ground
In his book, “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart,” Gordon Livingston offers a collection of life lessons. The opening chapter is devoted to the first lesson, which he titles: “If the map doesn’t agree with the ground, the map is wrong.” Here’s how he tells the story of how he learned this:
Once, a long time ago, I was a young lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne Division, trying to orient myself on a field problem at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. As I stood studying a map, my platoon Sergeant, a veteran of many junior officers, approached. “You figure out where we are, lieutenant?” he asked. “Well, the map says there should be a hill over there, but I don’t see it,” I replied. “Sir,” he said, “if the map don’t agree with the ground, then the map is wrong.” Even at the time, I knew I had just heard a profound truth.
That is the experience — and struggle — of many people I have known and worked with over the years. The actual territory of their lives — their experiences and what they see going on around them — do not match the “map” they have (in this case, the Bible teaching they’ve been exposed to).
When our spiritual map doesn’t agree with the ground in our lives, it creates a crisis. We are taught, when this happens, that we need to trust the spiritual map, and assume that we are in error, that we just don’t really understand what we’re seeing in our lives. Sometimes this is good advice, and interpreting our experience through the lens of scripture is helpful.
But sometimes it’s not helpful at all. Sometimes the things we learn reshape our understanding of the map. One extreme example would be how Christians resisted the insights of science about the earth revolving around the sun, because of Bible passages the used the phrase “the sun stood still.”
When people reach these crisis points in life, and start to question the things they’ve been taught, they interpret this crisis as a sort of spiritual breakdown. But instead, this crisis could lean to a profound breakthrough.
Those questions and doubts need to be looked at. People need to come to terms with what they’ve learned and what they’re experiencing. If new information or experiences call into to question the things they’ve been taught, maybe they need to re-look at what they’ve been taught.
It’s not all-or-nothing
What is unique about the Bible — and the whole of Christian teaching — is it’s confounding diversity. Many — if not most — people who grow up in church contexts do not understand or appreciate this. They tend to assume that whatever slant of Christian teaching they’ve been exposed to is the only form of Christianity there is. They tend to assume that whatever method or approach to Bible interpretation they were exposed to is the the only way to understand the Bible. So if they encounter things that contradict what they’ve heard and believed, they assume that Christianity itself must not be true, and that God must not exist.
This is the damaging error of the New Atheism. It creates a simplistic all-or-nothing mentality. They poke holes in Fundamentalist beliefs about God and interpretations of the Bible, and jump to the immediate conclusion that it all must be rejected.
Maybe the Bible isn’t “untrue” … maybe we’ve been interpreting it wrongly. Maybe the Bible isn’t “untrue” … maybe we’ve been reading into it and expecting it to teach us more than it intends to teach. Put another way: Maybe the map isn’t wrong … maybe we’ve been reading it wrong.
When we come to these points of question and concern … there is indeed a spiritual crisis. But that crisis may actually lead us to a deeper understanding and experience of God and the Bible, and the spiritual life. Maybe this is the crisis that will lead us to a new stage of faith.
Stages of Faith
In 1981, James Fowler wrote the groundbreaking book “Stages of Faith,” which developed the idea that the spiritual life of people wasn’t simply linear, but advanced through various stages. This was not a new concept by any means, and Fowler was building on Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, and Carl Jung’s stages of human development.
Fowler’s work has been widely quoted, and used by many to gain deeper understanding of how spiritual growth happens. He suggests that, just as human beings move through distinct stages in the biological aging process, in intellectual and moral development, so too do we move through stages in our spiritual development.
Fowler puts it this way:
“A stage then, we may say, is an integrated set of operational structures that constitute the thought processes of a person at a given time. Development involves the transformation of such “structures of the whole” in the direction of greater internal differentiation, complexity, flexibility and stability. A stage represents a kind of balanced relationship between a knowing subject and his or her environment. In this balanced position the person assimilates what is to be “known” in the environment into her or his existing structures of thought.
“When a novelty or challenge emerges that cannot be assimilated into the present structures of knowing then, if possible, the person accommodates; that is , generates new structures of knowing. A stage transition has occurred when enough accommodation has been undertaken to require (and make possible) a transformation in the operational pattern of the structural whole of intellectual operations.”
As I said, Fowler was not the first to suggest this, and he was not the last. Carl Jung before him, and psychologist and author M Scott Peck, and philosophers Ken Wilber and Jim Marion have also put together their own understanding of stages of faith. It’s important to note that they describe the stages in different ways … they don’t agree on all points, by any means. But they do agree on this one thing: spiritual growth involves moving through stages.
An Analogy From Nature
Another way of thinking about how it works for us to “put away childish things” is analogies from nature. Like an animal shedding its skin or shell, our development often comes in crisis turning point experiences.
The late educator and columnist Eddie LeShan tells this story about how she came to think of how people go through transformations. (She’s not specifically talking about spiritual transformation here, but the principle applies, nevertheless.)
“There was a time in my life when I was thinking about writing a book about middle age. I was at a social event, and I was introduced to an oceanographer who started a conversation with me, asking if I knew that lobsters have to de-shell. He told me that they get crowded inside their three-pound shells and they’re uncomfortable, and it’s not possible for them to go on living if they stay in the shells. So what they do is go out to the seas unprotected. They might get eaten by another lobster or some large fish, but they must de-shell. The whole, hard shell comes off, and the pink membrane that’s inside grows and eventually becomes a harder shell and a bigger one.
“At first, the story didn’t hit me, but soon I became preoccupied thinking about lobsters. I even was dreaming about them. I told my therapist about my dreams. She said, ‘That’s exactly what you’re writing your book on middle age about…going to the reef and taking off your familiar shell even if it’s dangerous.’ That has become my philosophy of life. You know, if you stay where you are, you’re dead before you’re dead.
“I’ve learned that the thing you need most as you age is the courage of the lobster. You’re going to go through things where you have to become much more flexible. You have to be willing to change, and courage is the most essential part of it. I believe courage implies a lack of denial, that you really are willing to face the issues, whatever they are, and the you grown from there.”
As I hope is becoming clear in all this, the experience of facing our struggles, questions, and doubts is often the crisis point that marks a transition from one stage of faith to a deeper stage of faith … assuming that we keep working on it. Assuming that don’t simply abandon the spiritual pursuit altogether. We let go of the shell we once carried that gave shape and protection, but no longer fits. This doesn’t mean an abandonment of our faith, or a disruption to our union (relationship) with God, it means a deepening and strengthening of it … unless we choose to give up the process.
This is Threatening … Especially for Certain People
Of course, not everybody understands or appreciates this. Your questions and struggles might be threatening to other people. Going through the process will involve some discernment on your part, as you evaluate who in your life are the safe people to talk to about these things.
It’s doubly challenging for people to go through this if they are in a public position of leadership. If their experience causes them to question some of the assumptions and beliefs of their particular group, they are thrust into an uncomfortable position. John Pavlovitz writes about this in his book “A Bigger Table,”
“Spiritual growth is often misdiagnosed as simple vacillation, or worse, ‘backsliding.’ When Christians, especially pastors, begin to evolve in their understanding of the Bible, their view of God, or even their core theological principles, those around them tend to hit the panic button. Often there is an overreaction around these leaders, an implication that they are somehow less faithful or less committed, when in reality the opposite is almost always true.
“In their desire to know God more deeply, to follow Jesus more closely, or to understand the Scriptures more completely, many pastors and church leaders find they are at odds with the status quo, which ironically they often helped establish. They can find themselves in the uncomfortable position of publicly arguing with their former selves. But there is plenty of precedent. In fact, we see in the apostle Paul just how the Spirit of God moves us from the trajectory we were once on, even if that trajectory was formed in pursuit of God.”
Let’s be honest: most people in spiritual leadership positions have a hard enough time doing the work they are called to do, without “going there” into unexplored spiritual territory that might disrupt the beliefs they are paid to teach. I’m reminded of the famous quote by Upton Sinclair:
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something,
when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Sinclair was talking about politics, but you can see how the principle applies to spiritual teachers who are teaching in environments where there is strict adherence to the “party line” about many theological issues. We might paraphrase Sinclair by putting it this way: “It is difficult to get a person to question something, when their salary depends on their not questioning it.”
Please understand that I’m not suggesting that people deliberately and relentlessly seek out teaching that contradicts what they believe. Our world is awash in a sea of information, much of which turns in on and contradicts itself. I don’t think anyone needs to seek out information or experiences that will challenge or contradict their faith. Those things will come naturally.
All I’m asking is that we don’t shrink away from those things. I’m asking that we keep pursuing our faith, and that we seek to continually integrate all our knowledge and experiences into our spiritual life, and vice versa. I’m asking that we recognize that true spiritual growth often happens on the other side of The Door of our certainties.
A Personal Invitation
Does anything I’m writing here resonate with you? Are you struggling with unexplored questions and doubts that you don’t feel safe talking about? Trust me, you are not alone. Let me know if there’s any way I can be helpful to you.
“Thinking is a sacred activity. The heart cannot embrace what the mind rejects.” – Anonymous
As best I can understand it, the job of spiritual leaders and teachers, from a Christian perspective, is twofold: (a) to equip people to do the work they were put on earth to do — ie. to live out their life purpose — and (b) to help people grow to spiritual maturity — ie. to become fully developed, or “complete.” This I get from the teaching of Bible passages like Ephesians 4:11-13.
We’re helping people grow, with the goal the they be:
- equipped for important works of service in the world
- nurtured to be a fully developed spiritual human being (someone who is mature, complete, perfect, whole)
Much has been made of Jesus’ famous and poetic words in Matthew 18: that people who want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven must become “like little children.” Jesus’ words in that passage have caused some people to highlight the value of having a “childlike faith.”
Fair enough, but Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 must be understood in the context of other teaching in the Bible that emphasizes the need for growth to maturity. It’s true that we must enter into the spiritual life like children — with open and humble and receptive hearts — as opposed to being proud and closed-minded. But the goal is never to STAY like little children — as other other passages (like Ephesians 4:11-13) make clear.
In fact, in two separate instances (I Corinthians 3:1-2, and Hebrews 5:11-14), New Testament writers express exasperation with their readers, because these readers are still in a childhood stage of growth, when they should be more like adults. They require teaching that is “spiritual baby food,” when they should be ready for solid food. This is not acceptable!
There’s a difference between having a childLIKE faith, and a childISH faith. We can maintain a childlike sense of openness and humility all throughout our lives … but we need to grow up. We need to develop.
Arrested Spiritual Development
I believe that many spiritual leaders and teachers in our world are suffering from arrested spiritual development, and are inhibiting the spiritual growth of the people they teach and lead. They are stuck in an immature phase of spiritual development, and they are passing on this same kind of arrested spiritual development to the people around them.
This happens for two reasons: Continue reading Arrested Spiritual Development in Christian Circles (part 1 of 2)
Turns out it’s not so easy. Many influences in our lives, both within and without, keep us stuck in passivity. In fact, there are so many roadblocks and distractions, it’s a wonder people do as much as they do! Here’s a partial list of the things that get in the way:
Barrier 1: Fear
We’re afraid of all kinds of things, and that fear keeps us stuck.
- We’re afraid of failure…
- We’re afraid of what other people might think…
- We’re afraid of change…
- We’re afraid that we won’t have enough time to do the work we want to do…
- We’re afraid we won’t have enough money…
The list is endless.
You might think that having more information would help dispel your fears, but that’s not how it works. Especially today. Much of the “information” we’re exposed to is in the form of sensationalist media, which preys on our fears in order to capture our attention. The more attention we give to this kind of information, the more frightening and dangerous the world appears.
It can be helpful to have vast amounts of knowledge available to us, but it can also be debilitating. For most of recorded history, people were only aware of the circumstances of a small tribe or nation of people — the people in their own immediate area. But now we have access to information about people and nations all around the world.
At any given time, somewhere around the world, somebody is going through unimaginable tragedy and suffering. And because the “news” is mostly fixated on problems, tragedies, and violence, if there are bad things going on somewhere, we’ll find out about it.
The more media we are exposed to, the more bad news we take in. The more bad news we take in, the bigger and more unsolvable the problems seem to be, and the more there is to worry about.
The result of all this? We sit behind our screens and smartphones, overwhelmed by fears of problems and tragedies that might happen to us. We stay in our own sheltered, safe environment, watching more bad news, shaking our heads about how bad things are “out there,” and repeat the process. Our fears keep us stuck. (More on this point later.)
Barrier 2: Distractions
There are so many things that pull us away from our goals: movies to watch, television shows to keep up on, social media to interact with, video games to play, web sites to surf. We want to leave our mark in the world, but then we realize there are new episodes of our favorite show, so we watch them instead of taking the next step toward our dreams.
Instead of pursuing our own dreams and changing the world for the better, we sit passively, watching other people live out their dreams in movies, reality shows, sporting events, YouTube videos, and social media posts.
ARE YOU REALLY HAPPY
OR JUST REALLY COMFORTABLE?
In ancient Rome, the ruling class came up with the idea of holding gladiator contests as a way to keep the populace busy and distracted. These games took up people’s time and energy, reducing the likelihood of political unrest by distracting the citizens from creating problems for those in power.
Regardless of how intentional the Romans were, you have to recognize what an ingenious and cynical strategy this is. Keep people busy and distracted watching the games, and they’re less likely to realize how empty their own lives are, and/or do anything about it. In other words, keep them so busy and distracted with entertainment that they don’t feel the need to change the world.
It’s virtually impossible for any social movement to take off today:
there’s too much good stuff on TV, too many sporting events
to watch, and too much social media to keep up on.
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see how this could apply in our culture today. This could be happening, even without a mysterious, uber-powerful group orchestrating events from their secret lodge. Instead, think of our society as a system — a system that’s too complex for any small group to control, but a system nonetheless. In our system today, one key factor keeps the status quo in place: Everybody is busy and distracted by the entertainment that’s available to them. It’s virtually impossible for any social movement to take off today: there’s too much good stuff on TV, too many sporting events to watch, too many movies to go to.
Barrier 3: Demands
It’s not simply a matter of being distracted by entertainment. We’re busy trying to make ends meet. This is where many of us get caught in the trap of overwhelm: Our lives are so full doing the things we think need to be done that there is no time or energy left for anything else. Our lives are so full of work for our career, errands, healthcare, and home management, at the end of the day we have no time or energy left.
It feels like a vicious cycle: We’re killing ourselves and getting stressed out with tasks during the week, so that on the weekend (which seems to be getting shorter and shorter), we’re too tired and depleted to do the creative and challenging work of serving others. And on those weekends where we’re not too depleted? We fill those with travel to visit extended family, sporting events for the kids, and various homeowner tasks that need to be done.
“Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work
and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for —
in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes
and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day
so you can afford to live in it.”
– Ellen Goodman
Stay tuned: this is part one of a two part series! Next time I’ll share four more factors that get in the way of us making our mark in the world.
By the way … this is an excerpt from my forthcoming book,
“Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Soul.”
Look for it later this year.
People today have profoundly mixed — and dysfunctional — views about leaders.Especially spiritual leaders. On the one hand, we idealize them. We project onto them qualities of wisdom, spiritual zeal, and impeccable morality. We really want them be close to God, to exemplify the virtues that we struggle to live out. We want them to be uber competent in their role, but we also want them to exemplify all the virtues and character qualities that we deem to be important. We want them to be larger than life! To think about them struggling with the shameful things we struggle with robs us of the hope that we can “get over” our problems.
There is a word for this: childishness.
This is what kids do. They adore the adults around them, assign them magical qualities, and feel the need for the adults around them to be all-knowing, and completely virtuous. Part of the process of growing up involves becoming disillusioned about our parents and teachers … discovering (often to our great dismay) that they are human and flawed, just like we are. After recognizing this, we learn to come to terms with it, and begin to relate to them in a more mature way.
But there’s another side to our view of spiritual leaders, which, by the way, is the inevitable consequence of idealization and projection: we are quick to judge and condemn them when we see their flaws. There is a secret part of us that loves to read about the downfall of people in high positions. We naturally resent hypocrisy, so when people in positions of moral or spiritual leadership are found to be lacking in the very qualities they espouse, we have no mercy.
We want our leaders to be air-brushed models of morality and spirituality. We react strongly when we see their flaws. More than once I’ve heard the truism stated: “If you want a spiritual leader you can admire with no reservations … make sure that person is dead.” That way, you don’t have to worry that you’ll find out things about them that let you down.
But wait! That’s not even a safe strategy: I’ve found out things about Gandhi, John Wesley, and Martin Luther King, Jr. that I sort of wish I hadn’t known.
Maybe we should amend the saying: If you want someone you can admire with no reservations, make sure that person is dead … and then don’t study their life too closely. Learn too much about them and you might just discover that they were human after all.
I have a better idea: how about we adopt the perspective that the writers of the Bible seem to have adopted — stop making human beings the heroes of our stories, and let them be flawed characters. Let Jesus be the hero and model, and be okay with flawed human leaders like the confused disciples, pricklish Paul, wavering Abraham, prideful David, and so on.
How about we give our spiritual leaders — and ourselves — an important gift: the gift of humanity. We still hold them to standards of teaching and living; but we let them be human, with strengths and weaknesses, with admirable qualities and limitations.
Several years ago I was invited to consult with a church whose pastor had been accused of misconduct. The pastor went through a process of repentance and restoration (which unfortunately was cut short, but that’s another story). In the course of this work, I preached a message to help people come to terms with his leadership and teaching, in light of the knowledge of his struggles and sins. You can see the video above.
I hope this sermon can help you — and others, if you share it — develop a more spiritually-mature, discerning view of spiritual leaders.
Before watching, note this important qualifier: By giving a message like this, I’m NOT intending to give leaders a “pass” on the need to exemplify what they teach.Far from it. One of the foundational principles in the Thriving Leader Blueprint program I run is that the power of our influence comes from our being — our very lives — not our words. You can read more about this in my article: “Spiritual Leadership: What it is and Why We Need It.”
The message above is for the rest of us, for those on the receiving end of spiritual leadership and influence, who are trying to come to terms with the humanity of those leaders, when they (inevitably) fail to live up to this.
We are in desperate need for spiritual leadership. We need religious leaders to be spiritual leaders. We need parents to be spiritual leaders. We need teachers, coaches, therapists, managers to be spiritual leaders.
The term “spiritual” and “spiritual leadership” mean different things to different people: let’s not get hung up on various definitions. Here’s what I mean when I use the term: “Spiritual leadership” is leadership that emerges from the heart and soul of a person who has done the hard work of inner transformation through spiritual connection. It is based on that person’s attunement with the Spirit of God, and therefore it flows naturally from who they are.
Spiritual leadership carries a certain authority, but that authority emerges organically. It flows from the respect we engender when people see our integrity and feel our love. It is not about how we project our strong personality to others, how we charm, flatter, or impress them. These are all stratagems of the ego — projecting the strength of our personality, our confidence, enthusiasm, intelligence, persuasiveness, or appealing to the ego of the other person through charm and flattery. It’s not about crafting a certain kind of persona that is calculated to get people to like us, or want to be on our side, because they only see our strength and cleverness.
Spiritual leadership emerges when we drop our pretense, and dial back the tendency of our ego to dominate. The focus is instead on the Spirit, on the True Self that is touched on through our soul. Some might call this “leading through soul.”
It’s hard to define this, but you know it when you see it.
Spiritual leaders have authority, but that authority coincides with a certain tenderness and vulnerability. They have enough humility to not need to be the center of attention, and not to project certainty when there is not certainty.
Spiritual leadership involves a blending of qualities that might seem opposed to one another. For example, spiritual leaders are often characterized by humility and openness to others and other ideas … while also exhibiting a steely resolve. There can be a sense of urgency, but without the accompanying anxiety that often dominates high-energy organizational cultures.
“He who has found authentic peace within himself is in a position to assist others who are still seekers, but he who has not yet transcended mere theories and erudite studies about peace can only give them some more thoughts to add to the burden that they already carry. … He who is unhappy in himself, or whose home is discordant and unhappy, can show the way to happiness only out of the intellect, not out of experience.” – Paul Brunton
The influence of spiritual leaders flows from who they are … not what they say, and not from a few selected behaviors designed to “make a statement.” This is the heart of what Gandhi was offering to the world when he said, “My life is my message.” This is the heart of what Martin Luther King was offering to the world when his speeches calling for civil rights were clearly emerging from his own pursuit of civil rights, and his own sacrifices and willingness to face risks and dangers. This was what gave Nelson Mandela the authority to speak and influence people … because he had lived what he talked about.
None of these leaders were perfect. They all had their flaws, as does every human being. The point is that their power emanated from something within them that was deeper than skill or personality. They were able to motivate and encourage others on a path because it was a path that they themselves were taking. In that sense, they were offering moral leadership … leading by example as well as by words.
But spiritual leadership encompasses that, and goes even deeper. It involves having strong character, and leading by example, but there is something more. That “more” is the leader’s understanding of of spiritual realities, experience of personal transformation as these realities are lived, and the ability to articulate them to others. People around the leader, who themselves are seeking to live in attunement with the Spirit, as opposed to the ego (what the apostle Paul called “walking by the Spirit” or “keeping in step with the Spirit”), will recognize and resonate with the leader whose own life manifests that attunement.
“If we merely repeat the words of our teachers, we become like parrots and our own teaching will be empty, without direct experience.” – Frans Stiene
People in our time are desperate for these kinds of leaders. This has been true since the beginning of time, but it seems especially important now. I don’t have the interest or ability to diagnose what’s happening to churches in our culture, or with followers of other religions, or the “spiritual but not religious” crowd.
But I fervently believe that all people have a spiritual core, and when political, community, or religious leaders fail to recognize and develop this core within themselves, they will fail to nurture it in others, and the culture will be impoverished. The religious organizations will diminish in power, and eventually in size as well.
We need more solitude in our lives — not just for our own well-being, but for others. Talking about this is tricky today, because many people struggle with loneliness and isolation, and the pursuit of solitude could make things worse for them.
Our lives revolve around two poles: community and solitude. A healthy life includes both. Let’s be clear about that as we begin. Rabbi Eliezer Shore describes this balance:
“Most true spiritual seekers, at some time in their journey, must struggle with the dilemma posed by these two opposites [community and solitude]. While personalities differ, tending some towards solitude, others to community, most of us waver uneasily between the two, constantly searching for the proper balance in which we might best serve God. … An emphasis on community in no way denies the validity of solitude, rather it seeks to engage the contemplative in an even higher purpose, namely, that of bringing the entire community into an enlightened relationship with God.”
Some people tend toward isolation, and their need is to nurture more healthy relationships. Several years ago I wrote an article in Leadership Journal about this need for spiritual leaders. What’s true for spiritual leaders is true for many others as well: we struggle to develop healthy relationships, which creates challenges in our pursuit of healthy solitude.
Then Why is Solitude so Important?
For many reasons, but here I am going to focus on just one: we need solitude in order to know ourselves, to come to clarity about what we think and believe; so that, as we move out to relate with others, we can bring our thoughts and perspectives into the relationship, and not simply be absorbed into the thinking, relating, and value patterns of those around us. This allows us to be interdependent without being codependent. Continue reading Why WE Need YOU to Have More Solitude and Quiet
I don’t normally respond to people who comment on my writing. I used to be diligent about this, but now I don’t have enough time. However, I’m making an exception here, because the following comment from a reader of my email newsletter raises a helpful and important distinction. The reader’s comment was about a quote from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. First, here’s the quote:
“It is very important that you only do what you love to do. You may be poor, you may go hungry, you may lose your car, you may have to move into a shabby place to live, but you will totally live. And at the end of your days you will bless your life because you have done what you came here to do.
“Otherwise, you will live your life as a prostitute, you will do things only for a reason, to please other people, and you will never have lived. and you will not have a pleasant death.”
— Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
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.
If you are seeking to do important work in the world, but feel overwhelmed by it, this is for you. If you are challenged by anxiety and stress, and struggle to balance your service with the rest of your life, this is for you. If you want to lower your stress level without lowering your performance level, this is for you.
What: Free Teleseminar / Webinar (you can access audio only by phone, or also see video)
When: Wednesday, June 7
Time: 7:00pm – 8:30pm (central time)