Life Transition: From Pastor to Spiritual Director

Jane Hoober Peifer is from Lancaster, Pa.
Jane Hoober Peifer is from Lancaster, Pa.

By Jane Hoober Peifer

I recently retired from 24 years of pastoral ministry in two different churches. A few years earlier I knew within my spirit that my time of congregational leadership was coming to a close. This kind of thing is not easy to describe to other people (or myself for that matter). I just knew that a shift was happening within me, and if I’ve learned anything in these 24 years, it is to trust those stirrings within. God is usually up to something, so I listened carefully.

When I was in seminary in the 90s, I was introduced to spiritual direction. Since then, I’ve had a director listening with me to God-movements in my life. Along with the sense that I was nearing the end of pastoral ministry, I also noticed how I was being drawn to the notion of becoming a spiritual director. So a year ago, I started the 2-year Spiritual Direction training program at Kairos: School for Spiritual Formation, in Lancaster, Pa.  For the first year of my training, I continued in my role as a pastor.

For this article, I was asked to reflect on the transition from being a pastor to becoming a spiritual director. My conclusion is that becoming a spiritual director has actually sharpened my pastoral skills. My other conclusion is that pastors rarely get the space and time to use their pastoral skills.

In order to begin at the beginning, I looked up “pastor” in Wikipedia and was surprised by what I found.   Pastor is defined as “one who gives advice and counsel to the community or congregation,” which fits how many of us pastors understand our role. BUT… as the article goes on to define the origins of the term, I read, “The word ‘pastor’ derives from the Latin noun pastor which means ‘shepherd’ and relates to the Latin verb pascere – ‘to lead to pasture, set to grazing, cause to eat.'” That is exactly what a spiritual director is trained to do.

A spiritual director first of all cares for and learns to know the directee by listening very patiently and lovingly as they talk about the stuff of their life (much as a shepherd pays close attention to sheep). The director then leads (or companions) that person to the pasture of God’s grace and love where the director encourages the directee to “eat.” Taste and see that the Lord is good. (Psalm 34:8) 

Spiritual Directors International explains spiritual direction like this:

“Wherever the action is in your life is where God is most involved with you. Your whole life is your spiritual life; God is in every part of it. So it would be a mistake to confine the realm of conversation to such topics as prayer, failings, vocation, temptations, ministry, and church. Your life is much broader than these concerns, and issues of equal or greater spiritual significance lie outside these domains.

For example, what do you most enjoy in life? What are your ongoing struggles? What do you think about a lot during the day? What do you dream about at night? How do you feel about yourself? What gets you down? How are the important relationships in your life going? How do you see the world?

God is in all of this, gifting, guiding, delighting, challenging you, presenting you with opportunities to mature, deepen, and broaden. God is, in fact, continually creating you through all your experience, and you are the indispensable co-creator. Everything that is going on in your life is grist for that mysterious, open-ended creative process.”

-What to Expect in Christian Spiritual Direction, by Thomas Hart, Spiritual Directors International, 2009 (italics mine)

There were definitely times when I was able to explore these kinds of questions with the people who called me their pastor, but more often than not, my days were full of helping to lead and manage the realities of a growing congregation. I confess that the urgency of the congregation’s annual report for the conference and/or the next sermon and/or the Advent or Lent planning meeting got my attention and took up my time and focus too often. I’m sure I’m not alone in often wishing I could get to the real work of a pastor shepherd: “to lead to pasture, set to grazing, cause to eat”.

Perhaps congregations can help pastors live into their call more fully by writing job descriptions that provide the expectation of shepherd work. Or congregations can acknowledge the breadth of what they expect of their pastors by providing the services of a spiritual director (someone who is free of organizational leadership roles) to listen carefully to the lives of the people and lead them to the pasture where they will taste and see that the Lord is good.

There is clearly no want of opportunity for pastors to listen deeply to the lives of the people — there just is never enough time. So, in this transition, I’m realizing that the biggest difference between being a pastor and being a spiritual director is that I now have adequate time to do more attentive and holy listening.

I don’t want to suggest for a moment that this transition has been seamless for me. In fact, I surprised myself with the amount of listening skills I had to learn. The learning edge for me as a spiritual director (without the responsibility of being someone’s pastor) has been to let go of fixing, rescuing, teaching and leading people. Spiritual direction is actually a misnomer because spiritual directors really do not direct people. Spiritual companion would be a much better descriptive title.

Margaret Guenther writes in her book, Holy Listening, that “loving detachment” is the wonderful listening gift that a spiritual director provides for a directee. A spiritual companion who asks questions like the ones above is not listening for information, but providing the opportunity for the directee to build trust in their own voice and knowing, so that they can begin to build more trust in their relationship with God. I wish more of congregational life could reflect that kind of living and loving.

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