Vulnerability, accountability, and growth

Weekly breakfasts with a fellow pastor fostered personal and professional progress.

W. Clarence Schilt is associate professor of relational studies on the faculty of religion at Loma Linda University in California. Formerly, he was an associate pastor at the Loma Linda University church.

I was in trouble, and I knew it. Nobody else but my wife realized the extent of my perplexity. I appreciated her support but I needed a pastoral peer to confide in. With my situation becoming increasingly desperate, I contacted a friend who was pastoring about an hour's drive from me.

"I'm hurting a lot," I told him. "It's affecting my work and my personal life. I need to talk." He suggested we meet at a pancake house that was half way between us to have breakfast and spend the morning together. I had no idea we were starting something that would become a permanent part of my life.

At that first meeting we just talked at a personal level about our work and private lives. I was relieved to discover he shared some of my anxieties, the common dilemmas of trying to fulfill responsibilities while maintaining some kind of balance in daily living.

We decided it would be helpful to share breakfast every week. While eating we would catch up on the stuff of our lives since we last visited, then push the dishes aside and address areas both of us had selected for growth.

Right from the start we agreed not to tell each other where we thought the other needed help. We would simply disclose our own areas of need and then discuss ideas for change. We also agreed to hold each other accountable by reporting progress.

Learning how to help

During the first months, we focused on areas of behavior. My internal anxieties had trapped me in a cycle of procrastination and guilt. We decided to remedy this by instituting small changes in my work that might get me unstuck.

At the time I was supervising two pastoral interns and felt I was not doing it well. We enjoyed our association as colleagues, but I felt guilty about shortchanging the practical education they needed to be pastors on their own. My friend suggested that I outline a curriculum that emphasized specific functions of ministry. I felt over whelmed with his suggestion and for several weeks failed to implement it.

My friend was the consummate workaholic. He confided his desire to change this and take a day off each week to be with his family. For several weeks he did little about his resolve.

Each time we met we reported to each other our lack of progress. After several weeks of this, we looked at each other and admitted: "This isn't working. What's wrong?"

It turned out we were both feeling guilty about having to admit to the other the lack of progress. We also were feeling uneasy about inquiring about each other's growth, for fear we might trigger resentment or resistance. Right then we resolved that this venture would not sabotage the bond of trust and safety we felt for each other. No matter what was happening, we would minister to each other spiritually and not fall into the success/failure trap. Because we had determined that our relationship was not based upon our attainments, the pressure to per form was off. With renewed trust we were able to be fully vulnerable to each other.

This still left us with our lack of progress to deal with. We learned two things while unpacking this issue. Either we were fooling ourselves about wanting to grow in a given area, or we were attempting too much at one time. Usually it was the latter.

For example, I certainly wanted to develop that curriculum for my interns, but every time I approached the job it seemed overwhelming and I would run. My friend suggested that before our next meeting I simply list the topics I wanted to cover. That sounded reason able enough, and I did it. At our next session I was happy to show it to him.

I'm a bit uneasy admitting that something so simple needed all that attention, encouragement, and account ability. All I can say is that all of us have our areas of brokenness; having a friend involved in the healing process is one of the most helpful and enrich ing experiences I have ever known.

With my list of topics in hand, my friend and I discussed which area to address first. We agreed that my next step was writing on it point by point. Each week I would show my work to my friend. If I got stuck at any stage, we would break the material down into even smaller pieces to keep the threat level low and successful productivity high. Eventually the job was done!

As for my friend's problem of over work, we concluded that because it was hard for him to go from no time off to a whole day off, he might begin with smaller segments. Eventually he built that up into taking off a full day each week.

Together we discovered the importance of taking on very small changes, to which we would hold each other accountable. The accountability, how ever, was something we asked of rather than imposed on each other. Our priority was trust and safety within the relationship.

Finding a new helper

Within a year job changes separated us. I determined to find a new spiritual helper, someone able to listen without passing judgment and who could also provide affirmation. I have learned that I grow best under positive feedback. I also wanted someone who would join me in focusing our lives upon Christ. During the brief year with my first spiritual helper we had worked more on professional progress than on our relationship with Christ. The growth that came was important, but I needed more emphasis on Bible study and prayer.

I turned to a man from whom I had taken a class in the seminary, one whose spirituality I trusted and admired. I approached with my request, specifically stating that I did not want an immediate answer. I asked him to pray with me and then share what guidance we were sensing from God. If we felt prompted to move ahead, I suggested a trial period of several months. A few days later he contacted me feeling positive about the spiritual partnership. It soon became obvious that we were well suited for each other; we have been meeting for more than 10 years.

In this new relationship I learned that the temperament of spiritual helper friendships varies a lot. While my first partner was task-oriented, the new one was almost the opposite unstructured and spontaneous. I had a picture of what I thought our fellowship ought to be like and it was not turning out that way! We mostly focused on our fellowship in the lordship of Jesus. Had I not liked him so much I might have pulled out before discovering all that God wanted to offer me through him.

I believe one of the risks of Christian fellowship is putting one's friend in a place where only God should be. My second spiritual partner helped avoid this by focusing on Scripture and prayer not in a mechanistic or simplistic manner, but as a formative experience. This has been so valuable in my journey with Jesus that I am hard pressed to find adequate words to ex press it. I find myself awed, humbled, grateful, and serene at levels unimaginable a few years ago.

I recommend the same experience to you.

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W. Clarence Schilt is associate professor of relational studies on the faculty of religion at Loma Linda University in California. Formerly, he was an associate pastor at the Loma Linda University church.

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