It’s hardly newsworthy to point out that parish clergy must wear many leadership hats in the day-in, day-out life of the congregation: executive and administrator, manager of the physical plant, theologian, staff supervisor, budget analyst, scout troop leader, preacher, teacher, counselor, director of volunteers.

And spiritual leader.

Of course. No question that the leader of a congregation has responsibility for the spiritual growth of the flock. Frederic Roberts, in his recent book Be Not Afraid: Building Your Church on Faith and Knowledge, makes the case that, amidst all the many roles of a pastor, the highest calling is to be a spiritual leader. “Ultimately, the bottom line for pastors is not how many people are in the pews but how they help their faith communities towards spiritual growth and salvation.”

Despite its importance, though, being the spiritual leader for a congregation may be easier said than done. A pastor is more often positioned by the congregation as an “overseer and manager, an administrative leader, rather than someone who spiritually feeds them,” says The Reverend Stephen H. Wade, Rector of Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, Virginia. “The ways a congregation positions its leader go back years and years, sometimes generations. You have to get beyond those projections and expectations and help people open up and listen to God. That’s hard.”

Father Brendan Hurley, SJ, Associate Pastor of Baltimore’s St. Ignatius Parish and Associate Director of Xavier House of Prayer, describes spiritual leadership as countercultural. “At times it’s easier to simply put on the administrative cap. Our culture emphasizes a “take charge” attitude. Congregations know how to relate to that administrative role, and can feel uncertain about a spiritual role. Being the spiritual leader is countercultural.”

Given the cultural hurdles to live into this countercultural role, what are some important next steps to develop your pastoral role as spiritual leader?

Develop an authentic spiritual life of your own.
Father William from Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, is clear on the primary importance of this: “The congregation as a whole cannot grow in faith beyond that of the pastor.”1

But a rich spiritual life might not be as natural for clergy as one might hope—seminaries tend to focus on the intellectual aspects of training, like the great ideas, exegesis, and good sermon structure. This training informs one’s spiritual experience, but it isn’t the spiritual experience itself. “We’re not talking about an intellectual exercise, not about opening your head to more information about spirituality. It’s opening your heart to God,” says Mr. Wade, “so you can become authentically present to your folks.”

Learn to listen.
“Listening [to an individual] is the greatest gift a pastor can give. And it’s also one of the most difficult skills to learn and practice,” says Father Hurley. “The temptation is to take everything I know and apply it like a fire hose. Being a spiritual leader calls us to develop the listening skill.”

Break the mold.
The “mold,” a congregation’s preconceived notions and expectations of the pastor’s role, is real, and can limit one’s effectiveness as a spiritual leader. According to Wade, it is important to acknowledge their expectations, but to “break the mold so that you can guide people spiritually and allow them to break free of the cultural positioning.”

Choose spiritual leadership over ideological leadership.
Every congregation has its hot-button issues, which may burn bright—blindingly bright—for a time. In the long run, however, the effective spiritual leader will plumb the depths of the spirituality rather than the ideology of an issue. Father Hurley articulated the challenge of bringing insight of where God presence is amidst issues—and the challenge of not being perceived as the place where the buck stops. Mr. Wade recommended developing “a prayerful vision of what’s central to the spiritual growth of your congregation, and not be knocked off that by the ideological currents that roil the church.”

Have courage to be a spiritual person and a spiritual leader.
Both Wade and Hurley spoke of the challenges of being a self-differentiated, spiritual leader, and the courage it may take to have the spiritual freedom and humility to allow what happens to happen.

But they also spoke of the rewards—recognizing the congregation as full of graces, experiencing the faith of the community as it gathers, relating in a different and deeper way to those who have together in prayer and reflection, and discovering the freedom of relying on God.

The Reverend Stephen H. Wade, Rector of Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1970, and has served parishes in New York City, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Chicago, and Virginia. His pastoral specialty is in the area of spiritual guidance.

Reverend Brendan Hurley, S.J., is Associate Pastor of St. Ignatius Parish and Associate Director of Xavier House of Prayer, both in Baltimore, Maryland. A graduate of Weston Jesuit School of Theology, he was ordained in 1993. Before coming to Baltimore to study Pastoral Counseling at Loyola College he was a part of Georgetown University’s Campus Ministry for seven years. His pastoral interest lies in the spiritual formation of adults.

1. As quoted in Attending Parishioners’ Spiritual Growth, by Thomas P. Williamsen (The Alban Institute, 1997).

Featured Resources

AL305_SMBe Not Afraid! Building Your Church on Faith and Knowledge by Fredric M. Roberts

Be Not Afraid! is the result of an in-depth study of eight diverse, yet “ordinary,” mainline Protestant congregations by anthropologist (and churchgoer) Fred Roberts and a team of field researchers. While these may not be the best of times for mainline denominations, Roberts finds that when local congregations are evaluated by spiritual and religious standards instead of corporate- or pop culture-based values there remains much to celebrate.

AL178_SMAttending Parishioners’ Spiritual Growth by Thomas P. Williamsen

In this clarion call to tend to spiritual growth, Williamsen provides a much-needed resource for clergy. Discover how to assist parishioners in their prayer and spiritual life. Learn how individual spiritual growth can flow back into the congregation’s growth as a community. Explore new ideas and practical approaches to using Christian education, worship, retreats, devotional guides, and church meetings as tools to achieve spiritual growth.