It was 8 p.m. on Friday, after a long week of ministry, when our phone rang. Fran, an eighty-seven-year-old friend from church, had called because she needed a listening ear, some pastoral encouragement, and prayer. Fran is the mother of four grown children, all of whom are facing traumatic health issues, including spinal fusion surgery, lupus, breast cancer, muscular dystrophy, diabetes, and cataracts. Spending most of her days ministering to others, she now took her turn to receive some support at a crucial time of need. She admitted she was weary from her days spent cooking, laundering, visiting, and caring for her extended family.
In the midst of our phone call, she mentioned that one of the hardest parts of living alone was that no one was there to sing with. After chatting about her favorite hymn, “Be Still, My Soul,” I suggested we sing it together before we prayed. The excitement was palpable through the phone lines as I heard the sound of her feet briskly walking to another room to grab her hymnal.
We sang all the verses with passion, she, leading the way, and I following along. Thankfully, I didn’t stumble too much on the words, knowing that she had them in front of her. We prayed and hung up the phone, both fully satisfied that our souls had been refreshed and our weary bodies renewed by the Spirit’s obvious presence and power.
This Friday night conversation with Fran reminded me of the crying need today for shortening the distance between pulpit and pew. There are more Frans out there than we could ever imagine. All are desirous of meaningful communion with God, acknowledged and enhanced by pastors who understand the importance of leading others into a deeper fellowship with Christ and ultimately with one another as a faith community. This thought generated two prominent questions in my mind.
First, is it too much to ask or assume or even dream about a day when spiritual direction and formation are the central aspect of pastoral ministry and congregational life?
My first exposure to spiritual direction walked into my professional ministry office in a plain T-shirt, bib overalls, and open-toed leather sandals. I had called my friend’s spiritual director and had the audacity to invite him to come to my office the next time he was in the area. I told him I would need to meet and interview him to see if this (spiritual direction) was going to be right for me.
Surprisingly, he showed up. Humbly, he sat with me and patiently answered all of my naïve questions. Fifteen years later, I must admit it: my favorite Episcopal monk has taught me more about listening prayer and authentic communion with God than any other human being I’ve had the privilege of knowing. All other learning on the subject of spiritual direction has been discovered through the scores of books I’ve read, courses, seminars, retreats, and a handful of spiritual leaders who truly understand what spiritual guidance is all about.
Now, serving as a spiritual director for other leaders, I am reminded daily why this ministry is so vital in the contemporary church. Because of people like Fran, who need to be pointed back to the Savior when the going gets tough, the way ahead seems blurry, and the people around us are wearing us thin. If for no other reason than hope, we need to embrace the joys and challenges of spiritual direction, especially from the pulpit to the pew.
Every time I share my journey into spiritual direction with others who are hungering for a deeper communion with God, I get a common response: “How can I experience the same thing?” Many have had good discipleship experiences; some have even been well mentored, but few have had the privilege of ongoing spiritual guidance purely for the sake of developing the “muscles” of our soul’s connection with the living God. We need to raise up a new generation of pastoral leaders who understand this need and step to the plate to fulfill it, sooner rather than later.