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Some thoughts on bivocational ministry

Back then (almost 15 years ago),
we weren’t talking much about bivocational ministries.

Bivocational chuck lawless (2)I came across this blog from Chuck Lawless on Tom Rainer’s site. He provides some compelling reasons for promoting bivocational ministry. BVM is nothing new to pastors among racial/ethnic and poorer communities, along with certain streams of pentecostal and charismatic churches.

For me the most telling sentence is the one quoted above. Something dramatic has happened in the last 15-20 years. The landscape of the historic mainline and mainstream evangelical churches has shifted dramatically, as a part of the much larger and broader changes taking place across our modern/postmodern world. Those are too many to catalog here. What we do need to recognize is how significant the shift has been and how it impacts clergy incomes and relationships to congregations.

I graduated with my Master of Divinity in 1996, and it never occurred to any of us (at least not straight white guys – no, there’s also not room to unpack all of that here) that we would struggle to find a life giving and meaningful ministry staff position where we could support ourselves and our families. Only a few years later and the majority of seminary students ought to be thinking seriously about a parallel or alternative source of income, and one preferably that they can also see as a meaningful contribution to the world and God’s reign.


  • How are we helping current and prospective seminary students prepare themselves for this new reality with hope and expectation, not a defeatist “well, if I have to…” attitude?
  • How are we helping congregations think differently about their expectations visavis the roles of clergy and laity in ministry leadership?
  • How are we helping current clergy adjust who, like myself, were not trained or prepared for any career options outside of a local congregation?


Discerning, Choosing and Acting with limited information and limited control

Download Discerning, choosing and acting with limited information and limited control
We often are faced with situations in life where we feel a need to choose and act without all the information and answers, and where various elements are beyond our control. At the same time, we do not want to be reactive or reactionary. We believe faithful and fruitful require us to consider, pray, reflect, discuss, discern, choose and act as best we can, individually and collectively, “trusting God with the rest” whatever that may mean. One way of building our capacity for this discernment work is through the Ignatian Prayer of Imagination. In this prayer method, we hear a biblical story and place ourselves within it, thinking, feeling, sensing, and experiencing it. Most often Ignatius invites us to pray with stories of Jesus acting in the world. At other times we are with Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, and the disciples, as they respond with a Yes to God’s call on their lives. We can also learn from those in the Hebrew Scriptures who were called to make choices in the world and trust God along the way. Following are some scripture passages with which to practice this form of prayer. You might use them, one each day, Monday through Friday, or take several days to hear, experience and discern the wisdom in a particular text for you. You may also select texts of your own choosing – keeping in mind that this form of prayer is more effective when used with stories than with lessons, teachings, rules or theological discourses. Other resources may be found at:;; . For more reflection on Choosing and Discernment, see Joseph A. Tetlow, SJ, beginning with this prayer:

A Week of Abraham and Sarah
Abram is called to Journey – Genesis 12:1-9
Abram, Sarai and Pharaoh – Genesis 12:10-20
Abram, Sarai and Hagar – Genesis 16
Abraham, Sarah & three visitors – Genesis 18:1-15
Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar & Ismael – Genesis 21: 1-21

A Week of Moses
Birth and childhood of Moses – Exodus 2:1-10
Moses – Prince of Egypt – Exodus 2: 11-15
Moses from prince to shepherd – Exodus 2: 16-25
Call of Moses – Exodus 3:1-14
Moses negotiates with God – Exodus 4

A Week of Exodus
Israelites at the Red Sea – Exodus 14
The Israelites Thirst – Exodus 15:22-27; 17:1-7
The Israelites Hunger – Exodus 16
Israel measures the challenge – Numbers 13
Israel rejects God’s invitation – Numbers 14

A Week of Women
Tamar – Genesis 38
Deborah – Judges 4
Ruth – Ruth 1
Esther – Esther 4
Judith – Judith 8

Reflection Paper on “Soul Friend – Spiritual direction in the Modern World”

Soul Friend – Spiritual direction in the Modern World, Kenneth Leech, Moorehouse Publishing, 2001.

Archbishop Carey remarks, “How refreshing then that Soul Friend places spiritual development firmly within the corporate and sacramental life of the Church. The growth of an individual’s relationship with God cannot be set apart from their relationship with their fellow Christians.” (ix) Kenneth Leech has written a broad overview of Spiritual Direction that appears conversant with the whole sweep of Christian history, as well as 20th century secular and world faith spiritualities. I’m reminded of the sermon I heard just yesterday regarding the description of people as Spiritual But Not Religious and Religious But Not Spiritual. He seems determined to help us recover the best of the Christian spiritual tradition, learn from the traditions of others, and be fully Spiritual And Religious.

Leech’s book, written originally in a British context in the 1977 and revised 25 years later, begins with a contextual description (marked predominantly by mid-century traits) and offers a comprehensive historical overview of spiritual direction before reviewing literature regarding the relationship between therapy, pastoral care and spiritual direction. From there he goes on to describe prayer in the Christian tradition, the practice of prayer, and the prophetic spirit within direction. The first two chapters in particular are dense with references to various traditions, periods and authors – it’s challenging to plow through, but serves as a wonderful reference – which is how it reads. I probably will need to return to it a few times for it all to sink in. The appendix adds a reflection on the relationship between spiritual direction and the sacrament of reconciliation.

Father Joseph Tetlow, SJ, has titled his workbook on Ignatian spirituality “Choosing Christ in the World,” thus pointing to this need to discern, a distinctly Ignatian emphasis as Leech notes (55). I am interested in how Leech highlights the incongruous notion of Christians being “socially well adjusted” which is seen as the goal of much psychotherapy, and modes of pastoral counseling and direction which follow its lead.

“Social adjustment is frequently seen as an objective, while issues of social criticism are ignored. Kathleen Heasman even goes so far as to define counseling as ‘a relationship in which one person endeavors to help another to understand and to solve his difficulties of adjustment to society.’…. But adjustment to society is a highly dubious goal for the Christian. One American liberal writer, Daniel Day Williams, strongly criticized the tendency in the counseling movement to see freedom from anguish and the attainment of inner peace as an end. To exist in such a state within a society so marred by injustice and lack of true peace as ours was, he argued an untenable position.” (98)

As a pastor, I have gotten trapped in trying to help people adjust to their family and social situations when perhaps what God was calling them toward was radical transformation of their own lives, and through them their communities. This kind of life, a new life, requires humility and courage, and the support of a community (of faith?) to endure the journey and even thrive in its midst. This quote is found in the chapter on therapy, but it speaks, I think, of the prophetic role of pastor and director. It also relates to the need for sacraments of confession and reconciliation. We need to confess of our alliance with social expectations, confess of being socially well adjusted, and instead seek reconciliation with God and a Christian community that is radically other. This otherness offers light and life and peace and hope to those who find “the world” to be debilitating and defeating. Paul counsels us: “2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12) Israel, God’s servant, is set apart, a light to the nations (Isaiah 42, 49, 60).

Regarding this prophetic role, Leech states

“If this is true, it ceases to be surprising that Charles Elliott, the economist, should end his study Inflation and the Compromised Church (1975) with a call to contemplation. Christians, he says, must face in their concrete situation the inequities and miseries with which they are surrounded. They must face the challenge of justice. ‘It is then that they begin to reflect the life of Christ and to foreshadow the life of his Kingdom. But they will reflect it only to the extent that they have seen it. Radical action begins with radical contemplation.'”(p187)

Interesting that Leech references an economist – hardly what I would consider to be a spiritually sensitive science – to point out the need for spiritual direction that is prophetic, and that leads the directee into deeper, and ‘radical,’ contemplation. The New Testament uses numerous variations of the Greek root “oikos” meaning household, and its derivative “oikonomia” meaning stewardship or administration. These words are related to right order and relationship in the social organization and are often used to contrast two different ways of being – one that is consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures (Luke 12), and one that is not (Luke 16). In 1 Peter 4:10 we read “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” This speaks to the need for direction to discern and develop what gift each of us has received and to know how to serve one another in a spirit of love. Continuing this contrast:

“15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; 16 for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.” (1 John 2)

Returning again to the work of Daniel Williams as quoted by Leech:

“The Christian ideal of life envisions something higher than freedom from anguish or invulnerability to its ravages. Its goal cannot be perfectly adjusted self….What does it mean to be completely adjusted and at peace in a world so riddled with injustice and the cries of the hungry, with the great unsolved questions of human living as this?” (98, quoting Williams in The Minister and the Cure of Souls. 1961.)

The work of spiritual direction is to help us be transformed until we “grow together to maturity, the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13) not to be conformed or adjusted to a society that is itself maladjusted. The whole of the Christian life is a prophetic witness to this distinction – pastoral counseling and spiritual direction must support us in this work or they are a distraction, or worse a means of our destruction. This reading is challenging me to think even more deeply about the whole scope of my ministry from the perspective of direction and to consider how I might bring this spirit more fully into everything I do. For instance, in my preaching I need to be more thoughtful regarding how I instruct, train and equip people to practice their spiritual lives in ways that will enable this transformation from and resistance to society and the world (i.e. the social structures and systems of power, not the created order itself). In my administration, do I support the prayer and devotional lives of those I lead, or do my techniques tend to support the value and power norms of our society? We have recently been through an experience of wrestling over conflicting values among our leadership, and trying though all of that to relate in community with integrity – to honor those with whom we disagree, which is not easy to do. Deeper contemplation is certainly a powerful aid during such times.

Taking a cue from Ignatius that consolations and desolations can both come from either good or evil spirits – either one can be the Lord’s prompting or a darker spirit seeking to lead us astray – the director must not be in a hurry to help people resolve their issues and feel better. “Rather, the priest needs to recognize that all Christian experience involves the experience of disturbance, and to look for the movements of the Holy Spirit in the troubled and shaken individual.” (116) In this, we seek to discern together with the directee the moving and leading of the Spirit, to ask: “What might God be doing? What might God be asking? Saying? What does the Lord require?” We provide time, space, and permission for the exploration of these issues, drawing on the Christian tradition and spiritual wisdom from around the world, within the context of the Christian community. I want those I direct, whether or not they participate in the congregation where I serve as Pastor, to understand that the experience of direction is a ministry of the church and that they are thus embraced in the loving care and prayerful concern of the church. For the SBNR and the RBNS, spiritual direction can help reconcile and restore us to right relationship with God, self and others, enabling us to engage thoughtfully in the divine economy in the household of God.

Ministry of Spiritual Direction

(written as part of my application to the Perkins’ Certification in Spiritual Direction Program)

Scripture is filled with stories of people who serve as guides. Moses guides the people from Egypt to Canaan. John the Baptist directs the gaze of his followers saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Jesus says, “Follow me…” Paul says, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” The spiritual life is about moving in a direction – toward deeper experience of our life embraced by God. As the stories in the Old and New Testaments suggest, this journey is one of twists and turns, peaks and valleys, dead ends and glorious vistas.

The journey toward oneness with God is simple, but not easy. Our lives are filled with competing claims from within and without. As Paul writes of his own experience (Romans 7) we hear the struggle of one who is sorting out the right path from the various options, seeking to make sense of powerful compulsions to choose this or that path – and he admits that he fails regularly, though not every time.

During his own ministry we do not see Paul humbly seeking the guidance of any human. He admits to having been brought up at the feet of the Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and to having traveled to Arabia and returned to Damascus, where he had previously literally been led by Ananias while Paul’s eyes were still covered with scales (Galatians 1:17). In this we see some evidence that Paul had those whom he considered wise guides in his spiritual journey, first in Judaism, and later in his early formation as a Christian. He even admits to surreptitiously meeting with Peter (and briefly with James) in Jerusalem without coming before the whole Jerusalem council of Christian elders (Galatians 1:18).

These examples illustrate some of what I understand spiritual direction to be. Spiritual direction begins with the premise that we are on a transformative spiritual journey, one made easier when we are helped by others who bring insights and knowledge to which we lack access otherwise. As the biblical journey stories demonstrate, this process is not a quick one, but is marked by seasons of days or years of exile, of fasting, paring down, chosen or forced deprivation, so that the participants might come to rely less on temporal supports and more on the eternal Spirit. It is noteworthy that in these stories some choose their guide while for others the guide seems actively chosen by God. Perhaps this apparent distinction is simply one of awareness and perception – in reality we are choosing, and God is choosing, simultaneously. Either way, or both, spiritual direction involves one being led, and one leading. Even when practiced in community, this one-on-one relationship is still primary in the direction experience. A group of peers may come together for spiritual support on the journey, but it is difficult for me to envision how several people gathered together could effectively direct one another. This would represent too many voices muddling things rather than moving us toward the clarity we seek in the midst of an already existent cacophony.

The nature of this directive relationship and the resources brought to bear will vary based upon the background of the participants. Christian spiritual direction will necessarily be in conversation with the Christian Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Along with this will come the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) found through the Jewish and Christian theological and spiritual traditions. I personally am drawn to the Ignatian tradition and have worked with spiritual directors from that perspective. Among contemporary writers, Merton and Nouwen and Foster are primary for me. Spiritual direction will often present new authors or traditions to the directee, but this needs to be done with sensitivity and respect for where that person stands now and from whence she has come and how. The role of these authors is often to point us toward God with new language, articulating insights we may approach but cannot put in words. They are perhaps, like the “Road to Emmaus” story illustrates (Luke 24), walking companions who open the scripture to us so that our hearts burn within us.

Spiritual direction also must honor the diversity within the Christian community. Directors will each have personal spiritual practices that resonate deeply – these may or may not connect for a particular directee. Part of the early relationship is coming to understand these differences and determining whether a productive relationship can be established that supports the person seeking direction. If I as a mainline protestant lack knowledge of or appreciation for Pentecostal traditions, for instance, it may be very difficult for me to offer direction to someone who comes from and still feels deeply rooted to such a way of understanding God and self in the world. If the directee and I are both are open, this could be a wonderful learning experience for us.

For some, openness to other religious and spiritual traditions provides additional resources and companions for the journey. Much wisdom is to be found beyond Christianity and Judaism in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, African and American spiritualities, to name a few. It may be that these are brought into the direction process by the directee who has a casual interest or a deep sympathy for the history and culture from which those beliefs and practices arise. The director will want to help the directee listen for what is life-giving and redemptive in those traditions and seek connections with the broad and diverse river of Christian faith and spirituality.

As an ordained pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a natural part of my vocation is offering spiritual direction to parishioners and others in the community. As I preach and teach and interact with people around town, they often have occasion to seek further conversation in support of their spiritual journey. It may begin with a conversation in person or by email regarding something that was stirred by the sermon. Or they may simply reach a point in their life when it is time to begin another part of the climb up the “seven story mountain”. As people pass through transition times – adolescence to young adult hood, beginning a family, having a family disrupted by divorce or death or other crisis, career change, “midlife crisis”, “empty nest syndrome”, retirement, declines from old age – they often want to reinterpret the place of God and self in the world through a spiritual lens. This work is supported by spiritual direction.

My own calling draws me toward people who are asking questions, who understand themselves on a journey which will not find its final destination in this life. I believe that mystery, paradox and ambiguity are inherent in the spiritual life, and exist within the Christian scriptures. “Systematic Theology” has always seemed something of an oxymoron to me – how can we presume to systematize time-bound human words about a God whose ways are not our ways and thoughts are not our thoughts, existing both within and outside of time? How can we summarize the theology of the bible in pithy phrases when the bible itself represents a long and difficult development of theological understanding from a pantheistic “our God is the strongest among the many gods and everyone goes to sheol when they die” to a variety of New Testament understandings of “eternal life and bodily resurrection through the grace of the one and only God, beside whom there is no other, who by the way is not just one but three-in-one”? God’s name as given to Moses is like a Zen Koan – “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be” and the very notion of the trinity is shrouded in incomprehensible mystery. These instances seems to be to suggest a God who actively resists our efforts at systematizing, categorizing, codifying, and cataloguing for all time what is true and what is false, what is good and what is evil, who is redeemed and who is damned.

My own spiritual journey has very much been “working out [my] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) – well, perhaps not fear and trembling, but certainly awe and humility. I understand my call to ministry in general, and spiritual direction in particular, to be about supporting others who are on the journey. It is difficult to offer direction to people who don’t know they are lost, or who are not searching for a better path, or to walk the path they are on with peace and grace and hope. I’m reminded of the scene where Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) I hear a note of irony in his tone – all of us are sick and sinners, it’s just that some (Pharisees) are oblivious to their own state and thus not receptive to what Jesus seeks to offer them. Similarly, spiritual direction can be offered, but not forced or coerced.

My ministry is marked by several characteristics which those around me recognize. Perhaps the first is the aforementioned openness to ambiguity. My anxiety is not raised by it, and so I am able to create a safe space for others to wrestle or rest, as they choose, until they find a place of equilibrium. This capacity of mine causes frustration for some in the midst of administrative processes in the church where people want to be told what to do and how, or just want to “make a decision already” without taking time for prayerful reflection and God’s unfolding revelation in the midst of the community. There certainly are times to direct by telling people what to do and how – generally spiritual direction is not one of them except at the very early periods, when new skills are called for. When asked to teach them to pray, Jesus offered his disciples a concrete and specific and simple response. Other times when speaking of the kingdom of God and life of the spirit he spoke in parable and metaphor filled with ambiguity and open to a diversity of interpretation.

Another practice of my ministry is what now is called coaching, a way of asking powerful questions and doing “appreciative inquiry” to help another person explore place and path. In my ministry I have always sought to accompany others and help them build their own capacities for life, faith and ministry – including ways of seeing and experiencing the spiritual in life. I think all life is spiritual, whether or not we recognize or embrace this reality. Part of spiritual direction is helping people to see with the eyes of the heart (Ephesians 1:18) to recognize God in the whirlwind and in the silence (1 Kings 19); to learn to ask, “Where is God and what is God doing?” This work of learning to think theologically is, I believe, an important strength that I bring to my work of spiritual direction.

Lastly, I would emphasize my work as a writer, and my ability to put into words what others are thinking but have trouble articulating. Whether in conversation or through poetry and essays, this skill offers, like other spiritual writers of present and past, new ways to view past and present experiences, along with a window into possible futures. Working toward the Certificate in Spiritual Direction will give me an opportunity to continue this work of reading, reflecting and writing within a community of likeminded sojourners.

In June I will begin the Doctor of Ministry Program at Perkins. My project direction is toward a “center for suburban spirituality” where people come together to practice spiritual formation, theological reflection, personal emotional and relational growth, and ministry discernment and development. This is a “beyond the church walls” kind of ministry that includes but is not limited to folks in a particular congregation – many of whom would currently classify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. I’m interested also in what spiritual direction might mean among these folks. The work toward a Certificate in Spiritual Direction will complement and help strengthen my DMin experience, providing a different way of approaching these topics. Along the way I would hope also to be able to support my peers in the certificate program as we form a community during our time together, developing relationship as colleagues and as sisters and brothers in Christ.