Deepening your Spiritual Life
Train yourself in godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7, NRSV). Paul’s instruction is of the greatest importance to those of us who are called to lead God’s people. Pastors are expected to serve God and His people with all the gifts and graces given by God to equip us for ministry. To do so, we need to be intentional about allowing God to strengthen our spiritual lives so that we can be effective pastors.
When I look back at my own ministry, which included both pastoring a local congregation as well chaplaincy in a veterans’ medical center, one question stares me in the face: Why did I let my spiritual life slide? The answer is astonishing: I was too busy caring for the pastoral needs of my parishioners. That was my highest priority. No, it was not a conscious choice to pay less attention to my spiritual needs, but at some level it had to have been a choice. It took a long time to learn that easy answers to a diminished spiritual life (“I’ll take five or ten more minutes each day for Bible study”) are not necessarily solutions. If I expected my spiritual
well to provide life-giving water (see John 4:7–15), I needed to allow God to replenish my inner springs. That is the problem we all have to deal with. Spirituality:
Where do we begin?
So, how do we allow God to let us experience the ever-fresh springs of a faith life? We need time to be open to God. Even Jesus needed time in prayer—be it in the desert, the city, or on a mountain. Is it possible we are too busy to be alone with God? Many of us can begin by finding the courage to say “No” to a nonemergency call on our day off. Others of us need to practice the discipline of solitude on a greater scale. We need to set aside a time and place every day to listen to God. Even when we are on vacation, we need to set aside time to listen to God. I have known pastors who returned during a vacation to do a funeral of an “important member” even when they had arranged for pastoral coverage in their absence. Experience shows that my frustration builds in these circumstances, and frustration is
a barrier to hearing God’s voice.
Yet lack of time alone with God is only the most visible obstacle to our spiritual health. Being spiritually healthy involves the practice of disciplines such as prayer, reading the Bible, confession, and fasting. But, what is spirituality? Knowing what it involves will help us better recognize what obstructs it. Philip Sheldrake offers a deceptively simple but useful definition: “the word ‘spirituality’ seeks to express . . . the conscious human response to God that is both personal and ecclesial. In short, ‘life in the Spirit.’”1
Life in the Spirit results in a life lived in dialogue with God with increasing openness to God’s loving presence, and in a life lived consciously as God’s servants along journeys guided and empowered by God. This involves a lot more listening and vulnerability to God’s presence than many of us are used to experiencing.
As pastors and church leaders, we need to take the time to examine our own experience of “life in the Spirit.” We may do this on our own if we are well read in Christian spirituality. However, we stand less chance of deceiving ourselves if we have the help of a spiritual companion or peer group with whom we covenant to work together to strengthen our spiritual lives.
As part of a guided process, we ought to regularly answer the question that John Wesley expected his Methodist class members to answer every week: “How does it go with your soul?” I had no excuse for not knowing that the state of my soul was important, for when I entered pastoral ministry, the bishop who ordained me questioned me for an hour about my personal spirituality before accepting me for ordination.
Obstacles to spiritual growth
Among many obstacles to spiritual growth that pastors face, four need particular mention.
1. Preoccupation with our image. One obstacle to our spiritual growth is how we want to be regarded by the community. Many of us believe that we should be treated like other professionals because we have as many years of graduate school education as many other professionals. Why are we not more highly regarded and better paid? The issue is a shift of focus: from the primacy of our call to serve God to our self-oriented desires for success and recognition (John 13:12–17).
2. Buying in to the world’s view of success. Another obstacle to the pastor’s spiritual health arises when we accept the world’s definition of success—usually involving more people and money. In the mid-1970s, our pastor told a story of another pastor who was quite successful in ministry. How was he successful? He added, in one short period, 44 people into church membership. That act was considered a powerful witness to what the Holy Spirit was doing in that congregation. This was also a measure of “success” that some ecclesiastical leaders might like to see applied to pastors.
Some of the congregations I served liked that kind of “success.” They were not really focused on how many people came to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior. Nor did they show much interest in the spiritual state and growth of people. What was more, the matter, as one person noted, was “getting more people in the pews and more dollars in the plate.” That amounts to treating the congregation as little more than an organization whose purpose is to acquire enough income to pay the bills. A successful pastor, from this point of view, is one who brings people in the door and convinces them to give—not their lives to Christ—but their money to the budget.
Yet, many churches are shrinking in terms of members and income, and it is difficult not to focus on the numbers that signal stability or even growth. How many of us would argue with this definition of successful ministry? On the other hand, we are left to wonder where God fits into this definition of success. Is God the “Chairperson of the board”—a distant Figure to be consulted with in a crisis or perhaps when doing long-range planning? Or is He the One actively engaged in transforming and shaping daily the subjects of the kingdom of heaven?
Mother Teresa was quoted as saying that our call is to faithfulness rather than to success. How would our denominational officials respond to Mother Teresa’s view? Would they accept that being faithful was more important than being successful? Would they encourage pastors to faithfully set aside time each day to discern what God expects of them that day? Or would they honor the idea in principle and expect pastors to find the time to be faithful along with being successful—that is, as one more task?
3. Lack of understanding as to the meaning of spirituality. A third important obstacle to our growth as spiritually healthy pastors is the lack of understanding in many congregations about spirituality. How many churches care enough about the spiritual health of the pastor and congregation to discuss this on a regular basis?
Some time ago I was interviewed by one church that stated quite clearly that they were interested in growing spiritually. When I was appointed their pastor, I was beginning my doctor of ministry program. I had already decided to focus on spirituality for my thesis, and this seemed like an ideal opportunity for the church and me. However, my attempts to deepen our understanding of spiritual growth and the obstacles to that growth failed miserably. I managed to gather six of us in a group (including my wife) to begin to learn about spirituality. It was soon evident that personal spiritual growth was not very interesting to most of them. It was easier to use our energies in struggling with issues of control rather than discerning and submitting to God’s will.
How do we encourage each other to talk about the importance of the spiritual journey of both pastors and members? We seem able to find people who will go to the front of the congregation to tell the story of why they commit their time, talents, and money to support the church. Why do we not ask members of the congregation to share how spiritual growth has been important to them in the past year? If no one talks about spiritual growth, the message sent is that it is either not important or too “private” to discuss. Neither message is healthy.
Of course, the task requires a commitment to spiritual growth on the part of the congregation and pastor. It requires a degree of mutual openness and vulnerability that is difficult to attain. When we really seek God’s guidance about everything we do, we may discover that we do not really want the guidance.
Yet, pastors need guidance. At minimum, we need help examining what impedes our interest in spiritual growth. Clinical pastoral education can help us examine our feelings and at least consider what choices we have about how we deal with our own spiritual needs and those of our congregations. Counseling can help us to be aware of why we feel as we do. Spiritual direction or the prayerful support of a peer group can assist us in discerning God’s will. We will not find it easy to deal with our feelings that interfere with our spiritual health—feelings such as anger, resentment, guilt, and fear, among others—for these have been hidden in our unconscious minds.
4. Holding on to anger. Lastly, holding on to anger can hamper spiritual growth. A small church did not like the previous pastor. Nor did they have much good will toward the Annual Conference (a group of churches led by a United Methodist bishop). Many members blamed both the previous pastor and the Annual Conference leadership for the recent split in the congregation over the question of whether to build a new church. I suspect that they found it easier to be angry than to be open to God’s call to forgive and let go of their anger. Remaining angry protects us from being vulnerable to the change that results from accepting that we are loved by God and other people. We may actually fear what such love may ask of us.
Holding on to our anger can also become so destructive that some of us leave the church. One of the sayings that I learned as a pastor is that “people vote with their feet and wallets.” The resulting feelings of loss and anxiety may be directed at the pastor regardless of how or why the loss occurred. The spiritual issue is not only alienation from God and the church but also the anxiety about the survival of the local church. Both pastor and people may be so angry and anxious that we do not have room for God to refill our inner spiritual wells. Nor do we even imagine the healing that we would experience if we would just drink of God’s “living water.”
My earliest pastoral experience with the effects of anger and anxiety was, predictably, in my student parish. I had foolishly tried to explain our denomination’s stand on an issue that was emotionally charged. Rather than lead a study group on the topic, I tried to use the few minutes I had for a “teaching moment.”
The results were dramatic. Nearly half of the church members failed to appear for worship for the next several weeks. I was concerned, of course, but was also busy coping with my other responsibilities. I was so distracted that if I prayed about the problem at all, it was only briefly. Nor did I really listen to what God was saying. However, God found a way to get my attention. Not long after my botched attempt at the teaching moment, my wife met a woman who was part of a matriarchal clan in the area. She said to my wife, “Granny [the matriarch] is upset with Larry. He better go see her.” So, I did. I listened at length as she told me about her beliefs.
I chose not to argue. I decided to accept her worldview as what she had to work with, but this acceptance was not a solution. In reality, I chose to avoid further
conflict. However, I, if not the matriarch, held on to unresolved feelings of anxiety and/or anger for some time. I was not as focused on being faithful as on being successful, which, in this instance, meant avoiding further conflict as a student pastor. What I did seemed to be what I needed to do because success, as elusive as it may be, was held up as the goal of ministry.
The outcome of that local conflict may very well have been the same no matter how I handled the issue. However, I did not show good judgment in my approach to what I knew was an emotionally charged topic. I say this because not every problem in the local church is a matter of spiritual principle nor necessarily the fault of the congregation or one of its members. Some problems arise because the solutions proposed by the pastor are not well thought out by the pastor and not the direction that God chose.
Paying attention to God
In Vision and Character, Craig R. Dykstra calls us back to what is essential to finding the direction that God chooses for the congregation as well as its individual members and pastor(s). He writes, “If this idea that prayer consists of attention to God seems strange to us, perhaps it is because we have given up the discipline and no longer really know how to pray. In most of our praying, our attention is neither focused nor on God. What we attend to is largely our own selves, and this in a rather generalized and ambiguous way.”2
At the beginning of this article, we noted that spiritual health should be built on more than prayer and the use of other spiritual disciplines. However, as Craig Dykstra reminds us, we often do not discuss in our churches a serious dimension of prayer—either in worship or in study groups. We are called to be more aware of God’s presence than of our lengthy lists of what we need God to do. We are called to allow God to shape us into becoming what He needs us to be as pastors and people. This means being vulnerable to grace, which requires being open to change to become the people that God means for us to be. But then, how else are we going to become pastors whose spiritual health is built on a loving relationship with God?
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1 Philip Sheldrake, “What Is Spirituality?” in Kenneth J. Collins, ed., Exploring Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 25.
2 Craig R. Dykstra, Vision and Character, quoted in Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2006), 301.