When the Student is Ready

I am currently attending the Dwight Brown Leadership Experience (DBLE).  This is a week-long leadership training for church leaders in the Unitarian Universalist Association.  It is aptly named an experience, for it is more than seminars, information, and worship. It is experiential learning, application of theory to case studies, community building, and spiritual practices in the context of  on-campus living and dining (or escape from on campus dining).

Virtually none of the information presented to me this week has been new, yet the learning has been deep and important.  Church size dynamics, family systems, polarity management, adaptive leadership, values and mission are all things I have read about, studied and even taught others.  Yet, this week I’ve been able to see all of these topics from a new perspective – that of my own, well, sinfulness.  I’ve gained a new perspective on how I missed the mark as a pastoral leader in these areas.  I’ve had the grace this week to face some very unpleasant things about myself and my ministry.  I’ve come to see clearly how I have become a symptom bearer in the congregational system and need to learn to take on less (none would be nice) of the congregational system’s anxiety.

Every single instance or time when I could have had a better presence or could have functioned better has come rushing back to me and assaulted my esteem.  I have had to be kind to myself and forgive myself many trespasses.  I am peeling back the layers of myself like an onion. Why have I tended to be reactionary instead non anxious when my congregational system is highly anxious? That was the response to anxiety in my family of origin.

My ability to do this learning I credit in large part to the training I have had over the last two years in Spiritual Direction.  I have been a student at HeartPaths Spirituality Centre preparing to be a spiritual director.  I have learned to listen to myself and others. I have learned to listen to God. I have learned many of things covered in many ministry learning experiences, including a lot of the material covered at DBLE.  Most of what I learned  through HeartPaths I was also taught during Clinical Pastoral Education.  What has HeartPaths so successful and DBLE so successful at helping me absorb material to the point of insight that translates into practice?

I think it’s love.  Both HeartPaths and DBLE create an environment that made me feel appreciated, loved and cared for as a child of God.  Both knew that I brought many shortcomings to my life, work, ministry, and learning.  Both valued me unconditionally anyway.  Both practiced what they preached and gave me room to realize my own waywardness – and loved me anyway.

Karl Menninger said, “It is unlove that makes people unwell, and it is love and love alone that can make them well again.”  After many years of counseling, spiritual direction and  working in ministry related fields as a teacher, hospice chaplain, pastor and providing informal as well as formal pastoral counseling and spiritual direction, I am convinced from both my experience and ministering to others, that what enables people to achieve any type of emotional and spiritual healing is that first and foremost they feel accepted, welcomed and loved. I am also convinced that this also what enables us to internalize deep insight.

I think that the old saying “when the student is ready, the teacher appears,” has a lot to do with unconditional acceptance and love.  When the student, or anyone, feels truly loved, welcomed, appreciated, and accepted they will feel ready to learn.  Learning can happen at anytime, but perhaps deep, internalized insight can only happen when we are loved.

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2 thoughts on “When the Student is Ready

  1. Thanks, Tony, for a heartfelt reflection on the process of being deepened. As a fellow spiritual director, I understand the call to that kind of ministry…and its potential for transformation in people’s lives. Sometimes that transformation is slow, sometimes sudden…but there are almost always gifts in its coming.

    Grateful to have you as a colleague!

  2. I am so glad you get this opportunity. I was DBLE Class of ’08, and it was both a prod for me to attend seminary and great preparation, in a way. I’m so happy that ministers often attend that, because it can be a transformative experience for them as well as lay leaders.

    I’m glad it’s been good for you.

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