[a recent article I submitted for Soul and Spirit, the newsletter for the Society for Christian Psychology]
A recent experience I had in leading an experimental Spiritual Formation group provides a window into some soul dynamics that I thought may be helpful to other leaders. The group consists of two primary elements: emotional health, involving therapeutic elements such as safety and self-awareness, and spiritual formation through union with God in Christ. The unified purpose is to bring all of ourselves before God and live interactively with him in our day to day lives, as Jesus did.
Although there was some inconsistent attendance, things were going well until we had a meeting about 2 months into it where I felt the need to challenge our commitment a bit. I sensed resistance that night, and felt this resistance grow over the coming months. I wondered if people were unwilling or unable to receive the vision I was trying to convey. So, I pushed back harder, trying to correct what I perceived as ignorance. I tried harder to describe the life that God has set before us, in the hopes that willingness would follow. I found that I was only making things worse. I entered into a deep depression and began having stress related health problems.
I realize now many of the mistakes I made - part of the danger in starting something new without much help from previous examples. One of my mistakes was trying to lead too cognitively and not enough relationally, wrongly thinking at times that correct ideas alone would be enough for everyone to experience God’s transforming presence. We all learn differently, and we are all at different places in our journey, but my teaching did not reflect that understanding. The result was that many felt left out and confused.
The nature of my vision for the group, however, involved as much experience as rational content. Instead of pushing harder to “make people understand” I should have invested more in relationships, especially with men who could lead with me, and I should have invited more feedback so that I could get a feel for where people were. In my desire to communicate the ideals of formational spirituality, I tended to run rough-shod over the reality of each person’s unique journey. When things didn’t go as planned, I reacted to what I perceived to be resistance and rebellion in the group, not realizing that some specific events had triggered my old self fear of abandonment. Resistance was interpreted as rejection. I felt my “vision” threatened, and failed to see it for what it was: my pathology of seeing myself as an orphan with no one to care for me. It amazes me how I missed what was going on inside me; it seems I am capable of nearly endless self-deception.
In the midst of all this, I developed a rigid me/them mentality and leading became unbearable. Though most of the members were benefiting from the group, each week left me drained and increasingly discouraged. I finally gave up, deciding that things could not continue like this and I sought a way to leave the group for good, especially as my health problems seemed to be escalating. I shared my feelings with a few core leaders of the group, who were rightly concerned that I might be making a rash decision. The more I tried to help them understand, the worse I felt. I felt increasingly trapped and hopeless. My issues were so strongly triggered that it clouded my view of the group; I couldn’t see beyond what I felt to be rejection and betrayal. Even when those closest to me in the group suggested that this was what was going on, I rejected it. I just couldn’t hear their counsel. It took someone outside the group to speak so that I could hear it.
By God’s mercy, a mentor and counselor helped me to see what was happening. After I shared what I was feeling, he suggested setting the situation in a therapeutic framework. He pointed out to me that I was seeing things in a black and white mentality due to my pain being triggered.
In the normal course of life, things get triggered in our brains that may provoke strong emotional responses. We then have the choice to repress those emotions and hide, to strike back against those we perceive to be attacking us, or bring our issues to God for His healing redemption. Once again, I had underestimated how powerful, overwhelming and distorting my pathology can be. Had I realized what was going on earlier in the process, much of my anguish could have been averted. I needed to learn to recognize, objectify and release my pathology to the Lord. In reality, this reaction was not about the group at all, it was about me and my fear of abandonment, a fear of having to figure out things on my own.
Further, my counselor helped me to see that there are two types of leading - internal and external. Internal leadership has to do with inviting people in, translating the truth and experience of God to where they actually are so that it can be clear to them that God is for them, that his yoke is easy, and his life is our best way. It is a call to model “Come, taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8). The danger with internal leadership alone is that teaching may never challenge us to grow beyond who and what we are. External leadership, on the other hand, has to do with the call, “Come, follow me!” (Mark 10:21; 1 Cor. 11:1) and is necessary because we will always tend to revert to old self patterns of thinking and doing. We need to be called to something bigger and better than what we currently know. The danger with an overemphasis on external leadership is becoming heavy on content and condemnation when people struggle to “get it.” Both of these types of leadership should work together. I tended to lead the group externally, though at the beginning that was not my desire. I am returning to my core desire behind the group - to make this “with-God” life accessible and understandable to tired, weary Christians so that they can engage with God more deeply right where they are. My intent was never to create more weariness or more burdens, and for this I am most sorry. I am still convinced that spiritual formation is a rational, orderly process that can be understood and entered into, and that our thinking is central to that project – but recognize that I need to grow in sensitivity and wisdom as to how to best practice this in leading our group externally and internally.
Further, a false self has emerged in my leading this group. At least two elements came together in its formation. First, a legitimate desire to share a formational spirituality became for me a twisted need to make people see. Second, I felt a need to prove myself. I confess that I wanted this group to validate my worth.
We are free to acknowledge how messed up we are because we are secure in Christ. We can allow ourselves to feel fully our fear, anger and other negative emotions so that we can surrender them to the Lord who longs to heal us. Though my eyes have been opened to my pathology, I know it will likely take the rest of my life to work through it.
I met with the group recently and shared this confession. They responded in deep kindness and familial affection, eager to work with me in community. I feel a new hope growing that I can lead out of freedom of who I am in Christ and not in the insatiable demand to gain the affirmation of others. I realize that not only do I need to affirm my identity in Christ and put on the new self, but also put off the old self and let go of its machinations (Eph 4).