A Ministry Beyond the Self

One of the concerns that may be holding some people back from participating in spiritual direction is the misconception that it’s all about the self—which is a common misconception about therapy, too. I’m reminded of these lines from the Dar Williams song “What Do You Hear in These Sounds”:

And when I talk about therapy, I know what people think
That it only makes you selfish and in love with your shrink

In some ways, both spiritual direction and therapy do seem a bit selfish. You’re paying someone to sit down and listen to you talk for 50 minutes or so. There are a lot of other things that could be done in those 50 minutes, practical things like picking up the dry cleaning,  or justice-oriented things like volunteering at the food bank.

two_pathsThe same misconception could keep some people away from small group spiritual direction in a congregation, too. I can imagine some folks saying, “That’s for those new age-y navel gazers who care only about themselves.”

But they’re wrong, I think. Spiritual direction (individual or group) can have the same effect as therapy (individual or group). The rest of the verse in the Dar Williams songs goes:

But oh, how I loved everybody else
When I finally got to talk so much about myself

Which leads me to one of the core principles of Congregation-Based Spiritual Direction: attending to one’s spiritual growth leads to action in the world. Specifically, individual and small group spiritual direction connects us to where we hear the call to serve the world.

Angela Reed, author of Quest for Spiritual Community: Reclaiming Spiritual Guidance for Contemporary Congregations, puts it this way: “When individual’s seek God’s call, they connect with God’s desires for the world.”

Indeed, when individuals take the time to practice the ongoing discernment of how the spirit is moving in their lives, it increases the community’s ability to discern their call to collectively serve the world. Reed goes on to say

Attending to personal spiritual growth often evolves naturally towards a desire to participate in something missional; a ministry beyond the self and even the local community.

In fact, this core principle has helped us structure the entire Clergy Seminar Series in Congregation-Based Spiritual Direction. It’s one of the main reasons we’ve divided up sessions the way we have.

The first session focuses on the individual. Both the individual clergy person as spiritual guide, and the individual seeking spiritual guidance.

The focus of the second session is on the group, or the larger community. This is where the individual learns to participate in the community at a deeper level.

The final session looks at how individual and communal spiritual growth can lead to a collective sense of mission, the kind of mission that makes a congregation indispensable to the larger community.

Far from being a selfish act, spiritual direction is all about finding one’s call to serve the world. It may be a slow process, but that’s okay. Discernment takes time.

It’s worth it, though. A congregation that puts the time and energy into small group spiritual direction is more likely to make wise decisions when it comes to the challenges facing religious communities in the 21st century.

By the way, if you’ve never heard Dar Williams’s “What Do You Hear in These Sounds,” or if you just want to hear it again, you can check it out here!


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