I’m writing this from a monastery where I am diving deeper into the writings of the ancient Desert Fathers and later mystics and spiritual masters such as Saint John of the Cross, Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. As I wrote in my journal earlier this summer, it’s not enough to just exegete a Biblical text and preach a good sermon anymore for me. I want to learn to exegete the human heart and help others explore the inner workings of their own soul. Ten years of preaching has planted seeds, sharpened minds and encouraged the faithful for sure; but not necessarily opened fruitful pathways to actual spiritual healing and measurable transformation.
A new season of ministry is just beginning for me, and I’m excited to keep adding to my tool kit by getting training in the counseling arts (e.g., spiritual direction, spiritual practices, psychotherapy, etc.). But I predict this is the spiritual and vocational path many other pastors are going to find themselves on in the coming decades as people are less likely to just “attend church” but who are open to seeking specific spiritual help in a time of need.
Pastors and ministers are typically “generalists” wearing many hats and working under a big roof of a church. While that will continue to be the case for many, other pastors are recognizing this cultural moment and setting up “life coaching” practices on the side to offer spiritual seekers more personal and specific guidance. Listen again to the words of Eugene Peterson looking back on his life as a pastor:
“I didn’t want to be a religious professional whose identity was institutionalized. I didn’t want to be a pastor whose sense of worth derived from whether people affirmed or ignored me. In short, I didn’t want to be a pastor in the ways that were most in evidence and most rewarded in the American consumerist and celebrity culture” (Eugene Peterson, Pastor: A Memoir).
If Christian pastors will not take this role of “spiritual guide” seriously, don’t be surprised if there is a huge (and continued) movement of people toward other spiritual traditions (Buddhism, New Age, etc.) that do openly address the universal human longing for self-discovery, inner peace, enlightenment, union with God, or holistic spirituality that goes beyond doctrine and tired platitudes. It’s no accident Oprah Winfrey’s “Super Soul Conversations” program/podcast, which features spiritual experts from across a wide spectrum, is so wildly popular today.
Reclaiming the pastoral task of “forming souls” is not a departure from historic Christianity or Bible-based teaching and practice. It is a return to the spiritual preoccupation of Jesus, Paul and the early Church Fathers. And it’s about time.
“Soul care is the heart of a pastor’s work, and the role of spiritual guide is the most important and life-fulfilling task of a pastor.” -Howard Rice