At our meetings Tuesday and Wednesday toward the opening of an Okanogan ATC we discussed the founding of a missional order. One of the pillars of any order is special people whose role is to guard the ethos. This is less about skill or competencies than it is about a special kind of person. Both Henri Nouwen and Gordon Cosby talk about this role, and Bonhoeffer names something similar in Life Together.

Abbots and spiritual directors are nothing new, just something old that we misplaced. In the early days of the church elders were given honor and authority through their sacrifice and their care for the flock. During the industrial age this role was increasingly awarded to competent managers, because churches were increasingly run as corporations.

As a result, those whose gift was to guide, shepherd and care for people found themselves marginalized, and the communities in which they lived were increasingly a kind of soil that did not produce mature and healthy spiritual leaders. Consequently, leaders who attempted to function as spiritual guides often lacked either the wisdom or maturity necessary. We have continued to have spiritual elders among us, but they are too few and have often gone unrecognized and have rarely occupied official positions. Even when office and person were congruent, systemic issues have limited healthy functioning. The body has suffered as a result.

Earlier this year I relocated Elizabeth O’Connor’s Journey Inward, Journey Outward on my book shelf. As I came to later pages, I got caught up in the chapter on “preparing for mission.” In their School of Christian living Gordon Cosby covered the three types of relationships we need in order to keep growing. We need those who are further along the way; we need peers and fellow pilgrims; and we need those who are not as advanced as we are, a little flock to tend and nourish.

Elizabeth quotes Gordon Cosby,

“All these relationships are utterly necessary to our spiritual development, but the one I want to look at in this class is the one of being shepherds, because it is at this point most of us will feel the most hesitancy or timidity. We will feel that is it pretentious for us to be guides to others at the point of their life in Christ.” He then outlined three reasons why we shrink back and commented on each.

1. a sense of unworthiness. “Who am I to think of doing this?” There is a sense that the shepherd’s role should be left to professionals, some special class of people.

2. fear of involvement. It is one thing to offer a little help here and there, but to self consciously assume the role of spiritual director is something different, for this puts us in the position where another can call on us a month or a year from now.

3. a sense of the impossible. Every person is so different. How can we possibly know what is right for another? We don’t even know what is right for our own children, not to mention ourselves. “Be a spiritual director? Who am I to do this?” But there will be thousands who will be open to no professional, when they will open to you.

Gordon asked, “What feelings get evoked in you when the call to be a spiritual director is extended? What did Christ mean when he said, ‘Feed my sheep.’ Who did he mean to do it? and when?

Most of the class responded, “I can’t be a spiritual director. I need one” Gordon emphasized the vital need for assuming this responsibility for another if we were to know any vivid sense of Christ’s presence. “It is so basic,” he said, “that unless we deal with this call in our lives , we will reach a point beyond which we cannot go. Feeding and tending others is basic to our lives as Christians.” (112)

Sandra Cronk uses Moses as an example of this leader who does not know his own gifts.

Moses did not (indeed, could not) sit down and identify his skills as ones that would make him a good liberation-leader. Just the opposite was the case. When God spoke to him from the burning bush, telling him that he was the one called to bring forth God’s people from slavery, Moses replied, “Who am I?” He presented every argument he could think of to show that he was not gifted for the task. He did not know God’s name. People would not believe his call. He was not an eloquent speaker. As Moses’ questions were answered one by one, he realized that his strength was not in himself but in God alone. This is precisely the power that he had to offer his people: God’s power. Paradoxically, it was ultimately by obeying God’s call and relying on God’s power that Moses was able to use skills and strengths he never knew he had.

Similarly, Henri Nouwen writes in Reaching Out of the three fundamental requirements for sustaining vital spiritual life: dwelling in the Word, quiet time in the presence of God, and a spiritual guide. But how do we find a spiritual guide? They don’t grow on trees 😉 He writes,

“At least part of the reason for this lack .. is that we ourselves do not appeal to our fellow human beings in such a way as to invite them to become our spiritual leaders. If there were no students constantly asking for good teachers, there would be no good teachers. The same is true for spiritual guides. There are many men and women with great spiritual sensitivity whose talents remain dormant because we do not make an appeal to them. Many would, in fact, become wise and holy for our sake if we would invite them to assist us in our search for the prayer of our heart.

“A spiritual director does not need to be more intelligent or more experienced than we are. If is important that he or she accepts our invitation to lead us closer to God and enters with us into the scriptures and into the silence where God speaks to both of us… Often we will discover that those who we ask for help will indeed receive the gift to help us and grow with us toward prayer.” (98)

As we move toward the founding of a missional order, we will also be watching for people who will have this special fathering role within the order. In the western church we have had many teachers, not many fathers. I believe the Lord wants to change this. We have some work to do to rediscover leadership as primarily a spiritual vocation, and we have other work to do to unlearn a professional model of ministry and relearn a vocational model. Sandra Cronk talks about this same struggle within the Society of Friends:

The professional model assumes that ministry is primarily a skill or body of knowledge that is offered to recipients. These skills are part of a job. But in earlier years Friends saw ministry much more as a way of being and relating. Ministers were recognized for their skills, to be sure, but they were leaders more because their whole way of being pointed toward God or conveyed God’s love and caring. Their words, actions and relationships were their ministry. In this old Quaker conception, ministry is not just a matter of doing but of being.

There are problems with the kind of structure which compartmentalizes life into private and professional spheres. This kind of division tends to make ministry a task. It prevents a full relationship with another human being in which redemption can happen.

It won’t be an easy task to recover this older model, because we have seen so many abuses of spiritual authority. Given our negative experience with authority and the fear generated from these, we have work to do to rebuild trust. (See Brad Sargent’s summary of the five “core needs” for transformation. Also related, “The Speed of Trust.”) Given the individualist culture we live in and our natural desire to center our world around our own small selves, we have work to do to rebuild our common life. Bonhoeffer writes that, “The desire we so often hear today for ‘episcopal figures’ .. springs from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men.. because the genuine authority of service appears so unimpressive.” (109) And later he writes, “The question of trust.. is determined by faithfulness to the service of Jesus Christ.. never by the extraordinary talents [one] possesses. Pastoral authority is attained only.. by the brother among brothers.”

Finally the corrective against misuse is not disuse, but right use. Because of historical conditions, abbots and abbesses will initially be difficult to locate, but over time, as we cultivate healthy communities and renewed rhythms of spiritual life, and as we see missional communities born and thrive, we will see a new type of spiritual leader growing among us whose authority is marked by sacrifice and service and whose ability to hear and listen is profound.
To paraphrase Sandra Cronk, “the fundamental work of the abbot is not to fix all the problems in the world. It is to discern what God is already doing in every person and every situation to bring to birth the kingdom. The spiritual director is a midwife, recognizing that God is the author of our salvation, yet understanding the place of faithful human response to God’s call..” She continues,

For Friends in years gone by, the most important preparation for ministry was “training” in the work of discernment, i.e., learning to see the movement of the Spirit or Christ’s redemptive work in our daily lives. This training did not occur in a separate school. It took place within the community. In fact, this setting was absolutely essential, for discernment arose out of the process of listening to God.

Listening happened in many ways. Paramount among these were the community times of listening in the meeting for worship and meeting for business. There were also special gatherings of ministers and elders which were devoted largely to the work of worship and discernment. All of these occasions were opportunities for learning the art of listening and for testing one’s discernment through the listening skills of the rest of the community.

4 Comments on preparing for mission – spiritual authority

  1. Roland says:


    Early in this post you mention the loss of those in our communities who guide us, etc. I have reflected on this for some time as well and realize that the pastoral function is not merely to be one of maintenance nor one in which we strive to be some kind of corporate leader in order to run the church corporation. Rather it is clear that many of us have set aside our callings to make something of ourselves, rather than to be ones who are called to walk alongside others in community helping them to attend to God. It’s time we regain the biblical metaphor of pastoring as ones who are called to shepherd and guide a community to live out their life in relationship with God so that we might be a community that indeed does demonstrate what it means to be human under the rule of God.


  2. len says:


  3. Rose says:

    this is a great post Len. I am thinking about a lot of these issues along with so many today. The Church of the Savior has been one of our main mentors along our path. I was rereading Call to Commitment recently and in the appendix is their budget. I was actually surprised at the amount (a lot back then) they had for salaries. This is one of our wrestles, we get paid to facilitate the purposes we believe God gave us to exist. We operate much like spiritual directors, listening and trying our best to discern what God is saying through our community. I hear so much talk today about “professional clergy” and I understand it…but do you ever see why it’s reasonable and even necessary to compensate folks who lead and guide the faith community? I would like to hear your thoughts. Thanks

  4. len says:

    rose, its amazing how many can identify the Cosbys and CoS as mentors. I spoke with a friend a few weeks ago who spent time with them in the 80s, and then another acquaintance remembers time there and recalls the wisdom and grace of Mrs Cosby.

    I can’t help thinking that what we need is not a new vision for leadership, but a new kind of community. In the rich and deep soil of the community that is created by a fully embraced, fully nuanced gospel, a new kind of leadership will arise.

    And yes, there are times when it is reasonable to free certain people in our communities to serve. I’m sure someone could work out a discernment process for this and document it, but more basically this could simply be a local process of conversation and discernment. The challenge is to not be formed by cultural.. even churchly cultural.. norms and expectations, but formed by the Word and the Spirit in faithfulness to the call of God and the need of the community.. relative to the missional context. 😉