Staring Contest That Is Spiritual Direction

by Vanessa BumbeersI located this post in my blog drafts. It’s worth my reading it as I prepare for the coming days. Even though it’s six years old, it feels relevant!

“If you fall asleep while you’re praying, you are either too busy or you are running from something.”  That’s something my spiritual director told me in one of our earlier sessions almost two years ago.  She was quoting Ignatius.  I thought about that quote for weeks.  I still remember it when I’m struggling to pray, when I’m avoiding prayer, and when I’m tired.

I mentioned in a few posts that I was completing the process of ordination.  Some time after I started pursuing ordination with the C0venant, I started seeing a spiritual director.

Spiritual direction is an ancient practice or discipline where a person seeking direction meets with a director.  It is an old practice, direction.  When I started, it was at the encouragement of our denomination’s Board of Ordered Ministry’s Executive Minister.  I was taking a class on vocation a couple years ago, and I decided I wanted to “enter spiritual direction.”

I had heard about it in seminary.  I read about some of the comparisons between direction and counseling.  I had been in counseling before by then but not in direction.  I sensed that direction would be helpful to me as I sought to fundamentally be a director to others though as a pastor. I’m influenced by Eugene Peterson’s perspective on spiritual direction (prayer and worship leadership) as the pastor’s primary tasks.

Pastoral ministry very much includes this kind of work.  In many instances, I provide spiritual direction to people in my congregation.  There are folks I counsel, but there are certainly folks who I am directing, even if they don’t know the nuances between the two.  Counseling, in a church context, tends to be directive and short-term.  Direction is broader and wider.

Rather than having a problem to fix, the problem is God. The context is not my relationship with my wife or my church leaders. The context is my relationship with God. So that direction becomes an experience in listening for the movement between me and God. It’s an  unending source of moving, dancing, singing, struggling, and silence–my relationship with God–and direction helps me face the movement.

It opens me up to being broader and wider. It opens me.

Ready

Thanks to Jazmin Quaynor

Thanks to Jazmin Quaynor

I participated in a readiness consultation Friday before last, which in a sentence is a meeting with my clinical supervisor and a small circle who’ve read more than a hundred pages about me and my ministry for the purpose giving me feedback on my ministry as a pastoral educator, particularly as I start supervisory education. It was a consultation that was as much for my supervisor as it was for me. We attended and participated together.

I’ve been a pastor for nearly fifteen years, serving my current church for just over nine and my first church for five. I’ve taught in two seminaries, including my own seminary for the last seven years. I’ve led small groups and taught others to lead them. I’ve been in peer group consultations as a CPE student. I’ve been in individual therapy and couples counseling. Of course, I’ve been around the table with people who know me. I’ve developed and practiced clearness committees in my own life. And I have not had an experience like a readiness consultation.

I’ve gotten feedback before. I’ve been in spiritual direction and been supervised during clinical pastoral education, which are the closest experiences to a readiness consultation. But the purposes of those moments are distinct.

Spiritual direction is a monthly time where my director listens to me, hears me, and helps me hear me as we listen for the “grace that I need.” I’ve gone to direction for seven years and it’s a jewel in my spiritual life. I wouldn’t be in pastoral ministry if I wasn’t in direction.

In my experience, clinical supervision is based upon the agenda that I bring and for the purpose of my growth, learning, and strength as a minister to people. I have supervision weekly, and it’s based upon my needs for my work. It’s a gift because the feedback, the Q&A is directly applicable for what I’m doing, thinking, and processing.

My readiness consultation was a compressed combination of both those types of experiences. Readiness was this huge collection and assembling of myself in order to present myself to chaplain and supervisors in order for them to help me prepare for what’s next.

Since every consultation is unique, my sense is that their questions for me were their questions for me. These meetings are tailored to what materials are sent and to the questions the presenter raised when thinking through the materials. So it was an individualized time of conversation. I led it based upon where I needed things to go.

Even though we only got through 4-5 questions in the hour and a half time, the words spoken went deep. It wouldn’t help for me to post them because you didn’t read my materials or the presenter’s report. Still, they were well-written, reflective comments and questions which had me thinking about me, about others, and about the ministry of supervision.

I will be reflecting on that consultation for a couple weeks. Really. But here are a few immediate takeaways that I expand to you even if you’re not in CPE:

  1. Having assembled myself in written form, I’m only clearer about my work as a pastoral leader in multiple contexts. I serve the church and I serve the hospital, and I have a greater sense of why.
  2. Writing is an indispensable leadership act. Leaders should be asked to, and able to, articulate critical things about themselves such as a brief history of her life, a theology of ministry, and a statement about his motivations.
  3. No matter how much you prepare, being aware of (and being able to tell) your stories will always connect you to another person. Stories are human tools, and the more we share them, the more human we become.
  4. Experiencing something like a readiness consultation is important for pastoral leaders, be it in a clergy group, a therapy support group, a circle of trust, a gathering of church elders or trusted friends. We need people–whenever we serve–to raise quality questions about us, about our plans, about our readiness.
  5. Driving to a meeting a few hours away provides needed space to prepare beforehand and to reflect after upon words graciously spoken. Most of my time in the car is productive or destination-based and doesn’t leave room to think, and traveling to Wisconsin was contemplative space.
  6. Process is more important than content. Attending to what’s happening in us is more interesting than the obvious stuff.
  7. Talking to people is a gift. Being heard and being seen are gifts too, and I’m more thankful for spiritual direction, for quality supervision, and for slow, considered words when they’re spoken.

The Sheltering Canopy

I’ve thought a lot about the tragic deaths of my friends, spiritual relatives, and faith heroes who were killed last Wednesday, and though I’ve written a liturgy, waded through psalm 77, and listened to the cries of our local church in worship this previous Sunday; though I’ve read carefully through the powerful reminders friends have written to keep me on a sane path; though I’ve taken comfort in the words of trusted brother who told me the best thing he could the day after that soul-bruising scene and the arms of many others since that night; I still can’t write.

I still can’t quite put feelings to words. My own words. So these days, I’m trying my best to pray. And I’m soliciting the prayers of better people when I cannot. As it is, prayer has gotten harder over the last few years, something my spiritual director has not tired of inhearing me rehearse. She keeps telling me to name the grace I need as best I can, to celebrate the moments when prayer comes easier, to try to accept that darkness is as much as part of the contemplative life as light. She’s praying me through too.

In many ways, these words and phrases and gestures are entirely prayer and of a particular nature, an intercessory nature: prayers on my behalf which keep me positioned in Divine sight, even when I cannot glimpse in that direction myself.

This prayer was the end of Rabbi David Wolkenfeld’s sermon last week. He discussed sanctity and holiness, drawing upon two primary views within Jewish thought, essentially whether God’s people are already holy–holiness as an adjective describing God’s people–or whether God’s people are becoming holy–holiness as an aspiration for God’s own.

His sermon was encouraging and thought provoking to read on a few levels, and I’m grateful for my colleague, Rabbi Paul Saiger, who sent it to me. You can access the full message here.

God full of mercy, grant rest under the sheltering canopy of your Presence to the souls of the nine martyred men and women who were murdered this week in Charleston as they engaged in the study of scripture and in prayer and sought knowledge of You. May they bask in your Presence and study wisdom and insights of your Torah in the beit midrash shel ma’aleh – the heavenly academy. Bind up the nation’s wounds and grant us the ability to experience a true Sabbath of Peace. Amen.

 

 

Advent Post #6

“Do not be afraid…you have found favor.” (Luke 1:30)

At some point I started fearing the rain. I never consciously feared it, but my body (like most people’s) would begin to crouch and clinch when waters started falling from the sky. My shoulders would turn in and down. I’d almost tighten at the back as if there was something wrong with the water. “Like I’d melt,” it used to go when I was a child.

I noticed this years ago when my pastor remarked about my mother taking a walk in the rain. She’d met us at his home after having walked. He was joking and he said something like, “Your mother walks in the rain. Both of you all are strange!” I can’t tell you all the context that makes that comment fun and acceptable. If most people called my mother strange, I’d find several ways to hurt them, but when Bishop Trotter said it years ago, it opened up something to me. It showed me 1) that someone else noticed how much my mother could enjoy a walk and 2) that I didn’t enjoy walking in the rain for some reason.

After that, I began to question myself in little bits about my scrunched shoulders and tight neck. I took deep breathes when it started to rain and tried to relax my back. I started being aware of my body’s fearful response. And then I, too, started to enjoy walking in the rain.

So what of this angel’s message? “Do not be afraid…you have found favor.” We live between Gabriel’s words, between the stern encouragement (Is it a command from this divine being?) and the description of what we’ve been given from God.

We live responding to old wounds which have turned us against ourselves and against others. We respond to those crises in our yesterdays, and they leave us cowering in the face of God’s future. We need the angel’s first words: Do not be afraid.

We need them because, despite our best efforts, we fear. Maybe not the rain but something. Sadly, it is as natural a response to life as any, even if it’s unnoticed. But, thankfully, it’s not the only response available to us.

“You have found favor” is the other statement from Gabriel. There is a negative command, and there is a positive affirmation. You have found favor. You have achieved, insofar as grace can be achieved in any literal sense, favor. Consider that: favor.

I think of favor as what I most need from God, what I most search for even when I’m not consciously searching. Favor is what my spirit wants and craves when I’m doing nothing at all. Another word in the neighborhood of favor is grace.

My spiritual director asks me regularly, “Michael, what’s the grace that you need?” What is the favor you’re craving? What do you most need? For all those questions, we have found answers in this season. They’re around us, waiting for us to notice and choose them and live through them. May we do so.

Why Pastors Should Take CPE (2 of 2)

There are several reasons to take CPE units. I started reflecting on some reasons in the previous post, addressing preliminary but powerful gains in the early process of CPE, in the application components, and in the readying work which comes with the structure of the program itself. Here I want to comment on a few of the guts of the program to answer why CPE as an education is vital:

Thinking takes time. It takes time to consider people and things and influences and connections. The education needs that time, requires that time of you, but it does so in a pervasive way. You don’t feel like you’re doing CPE work one minute and cutting it off the next. So the work pervades your other life areas–in a good way. You slow down, giving the education permission to alter the other parts of your life. The time you’re learning extends, and, hopefully, you are able to apply your lessons to the rest of your life.

Your sphere of ministry grows. I don’t know that ministers look for more responsibility, but my sense of things is that chaplaincy brings an entire zone of ministry that we were, before the experience, outside of. You begin to see yourself as a minister to a larger congregation, if that language helps. You see yourself and your ministry as a chaplain and, therefore, as bigger than the parochial zone of the congregation.

Praying for people changes you. You become more empathic when you pray for others. Pastors are used to this, but we aren’t used to really thinking through those prayers, thinking through those people, and CPE pushes you to consider your approach, your words, and how you pray. In CPE we think about the people and the prayers. We’re thinking about whether to pray or not to when it comes to a particular person. It reshapes what prayer is and isn’t, what it can be. You consider the God to whom you direct your words and the people in the room listening.

You’re pressed to write. You don’t write for publication in CPE, but you write weekly, at least, once a week in process notes. You write verbatims where you recount a portion of a conversation and includes non-verbals, impressions, thoughts, interior questions and impulses when you can. You’re writing but you’re doing a big kind of writing, writing where you mine an event for the sociological implications, the psychological considerations, the theological connections and so forth. You write and it touches how you start seeing. So you interact with these views, these sections, until they become how you are in the world. It’s just starting to happen to me where this shaping is taking place.

Peer groups empower you. One of my friends in the previous group said something to me that I’ll never forget. In fact, everyone in my previous group has said at least one thing I’ll never forget. How many times can a pastor say that truthfully, that someone said something you won’t forget? It doesn’t happen because we live in a world where we talk so much that we don’t hear ourselves much less take the time to truly hear another. We probably never feel truly heard, particularly because most pastors are afraid of therapy and unfamiliar with spiritual direction. Being listened to might scare us! The peer group opens you up to the possibility of holiness encountered through the care-filled presence of others. And it makes you think you’re capable of doing the same.

Recognizing your junk becomes easier. This can be frightening and very informative. You begin CPE by thinking about your origins. You’re asked about that stuff sometimes, particularly when you act out and people who’re just meeting you ask you questions about why you do what you.  This recognition enables you to see conflicts with people in a new view. It calms you because you’re more aware of you and more aware of when something is “all you” or not you at all. The beautiful thing is in your ability not only to see your stuff for what it is but also to get the tools to address your growing edges, to ask yourself “Is this working for me?” and to change however slowly you need to.

You start the practice of being gentle with yourself. This started for me with spiritual direction, but CPE echoes this lesson. In CPE we’re focusing on the clinical method and reflecting on our ministry to others. But as part of that focus, we learn how to give ourselves a break, how to care for ourselves in concrete and specific ways, even when those ways are not dramatic and when they are, simply, going home and sleeping after 4 deaths on your unit. Of course, the learning extends to other places. Because we learn how to be gentle with ourselves, we teach out of that. We live out of that. We tell other people the same and it sounds right because it comes from a place of close integrity rather than a distant pulpit.

You see death differently. Most ministers are acquainted with death. Christian ministers proclaim a Savior who is acquainted with our sorrows, whose skin is dressed in our grief, and who, sadly, dies as part of an unfolding picture of grace. In CPE, you start seeing the small and grand openings of death. You have to start saying how normal death actually is. You make some sense of it theologically and press yourself to make faith sense of the event that’s been happening forever. You see death as a respite for the woman who has been in and out of the hospital for years because she was praying for it to come. You embrace the death of the old man who sang aloud and always laughed and who saw death as a passage to the door of heaven. Death becomes broader than what we mourn. As uncertain as it is, it is different.

Life has a lift to it. You hear words differently. You realize that two cardiac events for the same person almost always means a soon-coming death. But you walk away from the hospital and you want to live in response to what you saw. You want to hug your mother tighter or you slow down to listen to your son even though you have no idea what he’s talking about. You linger with your spouse or call your friend to hear their voice mail message all the way through. You live and laugh at things you see on the street. You look like you’re foolish. You are a little.

What would you add?

Relationships of Accountability

I believe that anyone who has a responsibility for the spiritual guidance of others should be in a relationship of accountability with another for the sake of the people he or she guides, teaches, or preaches to.  Otherwise we are going to grow, if we grow at all, in a deformed shape that will be passed down to others.  I see such distortions frequently.  It is a biblical concept to be accountable to someone else.  Timothy was mentored by Paul, Paul by the disciples in Antioch.  Friedrich von Hügel, author and spiritual director, once wrote: “Behind every saint stands another saint.  That is the great tradition.  I never learnt anything myself by my old nose.”

From John Ackerman’s Listening to God (pg. 67).

How You Talk Matters

While I had little to say about valentining Monday, I do have something to say about relationships.  In a relationship, how you talk and how you listen matters.  That’s a basic opening for a blog post, I know.  It’s basic, even almost boring.  It’s simple, though, in the words of a wise woman I met, it’s not always easy

If you speak with care, it alters the listener’s ears in a way that opens their hearts to you.  If you speak with irritation or impatience, that, too, alters the listener.  It doesn’t matter if you’re listening in a meeting or talking in an interview.  If you’re sipping coffee or tea with a friend.  If you’re hearing about your spouse’s day.  If you’re asking your children about school. 

When you communicate with care, people notice.  They may not mention it, but deep down their spirit is refreshed in your act of extending a kind word or enough love to listen.  I don’t do this naturally.  I’ve worked on this skill for years, putting myself in a situation requiring me to pay attention or listen or talk with care.  Sometimes I hate it.  Other times, it’s the most human thing I do.  Then, there are those moments, those conversations where “really good listening” is done to me or done for me.  I’m looking forward to one of those conversations next week, my monthly spiritual direction appointment. 

I don’t know that I’ve mentioned spiritual direction on this blog.  It’s kinda like counseling.  Kinda.  It’s a classical spiritual discipline, an old practice in religious traditions where a trained “director” guides, talks with, listens with, and directs another person.  In some sense, spiritual directors are like pastors and they are also like counselors.  Pastors provide spiritual direction to people in our churches, even when we don’t necessarily know it.  And counselors provide the same as the work of counseling and direction often converge.  In direction, though, the context is larger.  The relationship is not attempting to work on a problem or an illness or a life development, as much as it’s working on something about God.  There is both nothing to be done in spiritual direction and very much to be done.  You can’t fix God, but you can learn to live in response to God, learn to be aware of God, and learn to be aware of your feelings about God and other things.

You don’t have to have an appointment with a spiritual director or with a pastor to feel heard.  You can be heard by a good friend or a stranger.  You can listen and talk with care regardless of your relationship to a person. 

So in the general spirit of valenting–along with my post the other day, to which someone asked me “What did Dawn say about your post?” and I said, “Dawn could have written the post for me”–Talk well, friends.  Listen closely.  It’ll make your relationship blossom.  It matters.