Can Spiritual Maturity Be Taught?
In sports, the winning team is usually one that's been together a few years. The rookie or two who crack the starting lineup are more than balanced by the solid core of veterans. Those players have a developed as a unit. They work together; they share common goals; they can depend on one another. In a word, the team has maturity.
For those of us leading churches, how do we attain such maturity for our congregations and ourselves? Sports teams develop through hours of practice and game experience. But isn't growth in godliness something God produces, the fruit of the Spirit? Can we, as church leaders, help create maturity? If so, how?
To address these issues, LEADERSHIP editors Marshall Shelley and Larry Weeden went to St. Davids, Pennsylvania, to interview Roberta Hestenes, president of Eastern College and before that the founder of the Christian Formation and Discipleship program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. She has been interested in spiritual growth ever since she became a Christian while a college student. Shortly after her conversion, she attended a conference on leading a dormitory Bible study, and within two weeks, she was guiding a study in her own dorm.
From her experience as a pastor, professor, and spiritual director, Roberta describes what can be done to stimulate spiritual maturity and vitality.
What sparked your interest in spiritual formation?
I first recognized the challenge when I joined the staff of University Presbyterian Church in Seattle. We had 3,800 members, and about 200 were involved in adult education. Under Pastor Bob Munger, I had the opportunity to develop something churchwide to stimulate spiritual growth.
While in Seattle, I also began a Bible study with some faculty members at the University of Washington, and they encouraged me to pursue a doctorate in communications. So I did and eventually went to Fuller Seminary to teach communications.
Over the years at Fuller, I sensed a major void in the seminary curriculum. While we taught many of the skills of leading a church, we allowed no space for intentionally developing the spiritual character of these students-these present and future pastors.
The assumption seemed to be, Well, they learn their spirituality in the church. But who leads the church in developing spiritual maturity? Presumably the pastor. And where does the pastor learn it? The church figured it was taught at seminary; the seminaries assumed it was caught at church. I was convinced pastors couldn't help others develop spiritual maturity if they hadn't set aside space to learn it.
So I eventually moved from teaching communications and started the program in spiritual formation and discipleship.
What exactly is spiritual maturity? What does it look like?
There are two definitions.
In the King James Version, maturity is often translated "perfect." In that sense, maturity is engaging in behavior appropriate to the stage in which you are. A 4-year-old is mature when he or she does everything it's reasonable for a 4-year-old to do. We don't consider a 4-year-old immature because he can't do what a 12-year-old does. But if he doesn't do the things 4-year-olds are capable of, then he's immature. So one definition of maturity is living up to the capacities God has made possible for you.
The other definition has to do with qualities like those listed in Ephesians 4. A mature person is one who is using his or her spiritual gifts, who is building the body, who is discerning truth from error, who is speaking the truth in love, who is in God-honoring relationships with people.
We're not talking here about a status, a goal that can be reached once and for all. Paul talked about having not yet attained, about pressing on toward the mark. We tend to think of maturity as a status-young Christians are immature, while older Christians are mature. That's not completely illegitimate, but I don't think it's the best biblical understanding of maturity.
Maturity is pressing toward the mark; immaturity is complacency and self-satisfaction.
How can we evaluate the maturity of a congregation?
It's difficult, because the church is made up of individuals, and only God knows the heart. But I think we can look at whether the people, as a whole, care about the things God cares about.
For me, that would mean, first, a genuine concern for the lost, both near and far.
Second, is there a concern for the poor?
Third, are they speaking the truth in love? Most congregations need to grow in this area.
Fourth, is there discernment? In the German church in the 1930s, Christians followed Hitler because he quoted the Bible and talked about Jesus. When I look at the maturity of a congregation, I ask whether the people could detect someone who knows how to use religious language but is really an enemy of the gospel.
Fifth, a mature church is a praying church.
I would sum it up by saying you look at the quality of a church's corporate life and the quality of its mission.
With that understanding, is spiritual maturity something that can be taught?
Yes, it can, to a certain extent, and it begins with how pastors perceive their role.
In recent decades, the pastor has been seen as therapist, social activist, and facilitator. Today the image of the pastor as CEO is widely held. But I don't see any of these images as biblically complete. Looking at Ephesians 4:11, we find the role described as one of pastor-teacher. Another way of saying this is that the pastor is to be a spiritual director for the congregation-the person with intentional responsibility to nourish the congregation in its growth and spirituality.
In teaching, I found many pastors who have not thought of themselves as spiritual directors but who, when I begin to talk about spiritual direction, say, "Oh, yeah! That's who I am! That's what I want to do." It gives them a sense of their vocation again. Preaching isn't enough of a vocation; it's a means to an end.
If pastors are spiritual directors, how does their work complement the Holy Spirit's?
A basic issue in Christian formation is whether we're talking about techniques and management strategies that produce maturity. One of the verses that gives the proper perspective is Galatians 4:19, where Paul said, "My little children, with whom I am in travail until Christ be formed in you." There you have immaturity; they were caught in legalism. But Paul said "with whom I am in travail," and there is the agony and the work of the pastor. Then he continued, "until Christ be formed in you." We are being re-created in the image of God, and it's a work God does. Here, as in Philippians 2, Paul brought the two together.
The pastor works hard at things that can make a difference. Paul wrote letters, prayed, straightened out misunderstandings, and tried to reconcile relationships. But he never said, "I am making you mature." Rather, it's "Christ being formed in you." That's the work of the Holy Spirit. We are co-laborers with God.
How does this work out in practical situations?
Let's separate the pieces. Part of a pastor's task is to create a context within which growth is possible. If, for instance, the church is riven with conflict, and people are dominated by that conflict, a spiritual emphasis may not be possible. Somehow you've got to clear the ground.
Then you have the basic means of nourishment, such as worship and pastoral care. The teaching of Scripture is critical; if our people are biblically illiterate, they are not going to mature.
Pastors can also promote small groups. They're no guarantee of growth, but within them you have relationships where love can be learned, you have a context for prayer and for learning, and you have great opportunity for service.
If you were a pastor, what would you do to promote growth in a specific area like prayer?
Prayer is definitely taught. The disciples said, "Teach us to pray," and Jesus taught them. We can do the same for our people.
I'd start by asking to what extent prayer is a significant reality in the lives of my parishioners. Like any church, I'm sure we would pray on Sundays and maybe have a midweek prayer meeting. But prayer might be relatively meaningless to the people on a daily basis if they don't know how to do it. I would need a realistic assessment of their prayer lives, because only then could I set meaningful goals for teaching.
With my goals in place, I would begin to teach, confident growth was going to occur. I've worked with many pastors who realized their churches had the rhetoric but not the reality of prayer. They have preached sermons and designed things people could do to learn by experience. The key was to answer the questions people really had and to talk about the real barriers to prayer.
For example, how does prayer fit into the daily life of the woman who has three children and can be alone only if she locks herself in the bathroom? (Laughter) A pastor has to remember there are people in those circumstances. But these pastors have seen their congregations mature in prayer.
Besides prayer, what other practices can a pastor teach that will promote spiritual growth?
Two I'll mention briefly are meditation on Scripture and the spiritual retreat. Our people don't know how to reflect interactively with the Bible, yet it's vital to having Scripture actually change your life. Likewise the American Christian knows nothing about taking a day for retreat, whereas Korean Christians do it regularly. This knowledge didn't drop out of heaven; someone taught them.
One spiritual discipline that's been present from the first centuries is journaling, which is a private dialogue between you and God. Augustine's Confessions is a journal. John Wesley kept one, as did Jim Elliot. But Christians today don't realize this is a resource to help them reflect on faith, to make space for God in their lives.
I rediscovered journaling when I had cancer and needed to reflect on the meaning of that experience. I had spontaneously kept a journal as a young Christian. I don't remember that anyone taught me, though all of us in our parachurch movement were taught to keep a prayer list, which is a form of it.
But when I was struggling with cancer, I found journaling an enormously beneficial aid to prayer, a time to quiet the noise externally and internally and pour everything out before God.
After that experience I started to teach journaling, finding that the inability to keep a journal often would be a window into rebelliousness or a lack of discipline in one's personal life. A few people would object on theological grounds: the idea of a discipline like journaling is foreign to some Protestants. So in the name of freedom we do not submit ourselves voluntarily to disciplines that could help us to grow, and thereby we become our own worst enemies.
How would you help skeptical people see the value in a practice like journaling?
I would first explain how helpful journaling has been to me and other Christians through the centuries. Then I would say, "No one can force you to journal. It's a tool we're asking you to try. If you do, there's a high likelihood it will help you grow." We can't create a hunger for God, but we can stimulate the hunger he has placed in people's hearts.
What about the person who's willing to try it but lacks the discipline to stay with it?
The key in helping people develop any kind of discipline is to help them be voluntarily accountable to someone else. I'm not talking about the submission movement, where things are forced on people. I simply let people know, "You don't have to do this alone."
Journaling is one of those disciplines where if you tell another person you're going to do it, and then you report on how you're doing, that accountability is helpful in maintaining the practice. No one is making you do it, but knowing you're going to report to the other person helps you stick to your own intention. Pastors and other church leaders can help people overcome their individualistic isolation and get them into supportive relationships.
You mentioned earlier setting realistic goals for growth. What's realistic?
We tend to make the mistake of assuming that when we begin a new emphasis like learning to pray, we can get everybody excited about it and keep them excited. Thus, if only half the people, or fewer, get involved, we're disappointed.
You never get 100 percent participation-if you do, it's only for short periods and only out of compulsion. I worked with a pastor who made all his people get in small groups by persuasive preaching and by saying, in effect, "You owe this to me." He put all his personal weight behind the program. But within six months, all but two of those groups had died. People had joined out of loyalty to the pastor, not because they sensed their own need and were ready to make the necessary commitment.
We have to remember that people are on different spiritual journeys and have different needs and circumstances and temperaments. Therefore, not everyone should do the same spiritual disciplines in the same ways. We want to respect that God-given diversity.
If you promote a program of concentrated Bible reading to the church and only 10 percent read through the Bible in a month, that's all gain and no loss. You have that many people doing something spiritually nourishing who weren't doing it before. And that 10 percent can provide a tremendous dynamic for growth, a nucleus that can carry the church.
We have to get away from the all-or-nothing mentality.
How far ahead of the congregation do you need to be in those areas of growth you're teaching?
Generally speaking, it's a fallacy to say you can't lead people until you get your whole act together. If that were true, no one would ever lead. You don't have to be nine steps in front of your people, just one. We don't teach these things because we've got them all mastered, but because we're obedient to Scripture and to what we think God is calling us to do.
But if I were a pastor and felt we needed to be more of a praying people, I would have to decide whether I'm willing to do what I'm going to ask them to do. If I'm not going to take prayer seriously in my own life, there won't be any power when I call the congregation to pray.
Being spiritual director to a whole congregation sounds like a bigger job than one person can handle.
It is. Even though a pastor can lead from the pulpit, people also need help on a more personal level, and a director usually can't handle more than two or three people at a time. The answer is to look for those in this church God has gifted in this area.
If you look around in a local church, you'll invariably find people already exercising this ministry. Everyone knows Renee is a woman who prays and has a lot of wisdom, so you'll find people going to her. And George over there is respected and frequently sought out. We just haven't labeled these things as spiritual direction or taught people how to make that gift more available to the body. Consequently, a lot of people are lining up outside the pastor's office. It doesn't have to be that way.
What can pastors do to foster their own spiritual growth?
For one thing, they need to be in community. It's easy to become isolated trying to be the church's supersaint, having no one with whom you can honestly discuss your struggles, but that's a dangerous situation. Pastors need spiritual directors, covenant fellowship groups, and spiritual friendships. They need desperately to avoid the temptation to think they can be holy men or women of God without anybody else's help.
You're in a situation similar to a pastor's: in a leadership position and having to present a consistent public image. You also moved from one coast to the other not long ago. What have you done to avoid the potential isolation?
That's a situation that doesn't just take care of itself. It requires effort. Here's how I'm trying to deal with it.
I'm part of a national covenant group that's been together eleven or twelve years now. We meet once a year for a week of sharing and prayer, and then we form prayer partners for the rest of the year. My prayer partner and I call each other every week, and we've adopted certain disciplines we think God wants us to be working on; right now we're encouraging one another in the area of exercise.
In the past I've also had a local covenant group, but I lost that when I moved from Fuller and have not gotten that reestablished. Finding a new group locally is high on my agenda. For my whole Christian life, with few exceptions, I have been involved in a covenant group weekly.
Do you find this covenant group needs to be people of similar station in life?
Yes. I used to teach that the pedestal effect is easily overcome. And for the first ten years of my public ministry, I was in wonderful groups with lay people in my church, and there was no problem. The more well-known I've become, however, the more I've experienced what the senior pastor of a large congregation would. The pedestal effect is more and more difficult to overcome, and peers are more difficult to find in a local area. But the danger is in deciding that being a peer depends on title or status, which isn't true in the Lord. It is difficult, though, to find someone who can understand your responsibilities and with whom you can talk honestly.
The extra issue for me is being a woman, since there are few women doing what I'm doing. Thus, most of my peer covenant groups have consisted of men. So I've always worked to keep a group of women friends with whom I can be vulnerable and with whom I can listen and pray. I don't particularly discuss professional things with them, but I do discuss my spiritual disciplines and what it means to be a person. Those things can be talked about with anybody.
The person I had looked to as my own spiritual director died a couple of years ago, and I have not replaced that person.
When people get together in a covenant group or one-to-one, what should be on the agenda?
A basic ingredient is a commitment to honest and personal sharing, though the group needs to decide what areas they will share, because some are too threatening. A group of pastors might want a place where they can discuss honestly what's happening in their ministries. If we're going to come together just to tell each other success stories, let's not bother.
An associate pastor, for example, might need a place to talk about how his senior pastor is driving him bonkers. If he talks about that to the wrong people, he could be seen as disloyal or subverting the ministry. He doesn't want to do that, but he honestly needs a mature person to help sort things out to determine if he's interpreting things right or has a blind spot.
Second, of course, these groups should be places of prayer for one another's concerns.
A third element, which is optional, is accountability. This immediately raises the stakes, and usually you wouldn't do this unless you've known the people long enough to trust them. You might say, "I've gotten sloppy in my prayer disciplines" or "I'm not studying; I'm preaching out of the barrel" or "I feel stale, and I believe God wants me to be doing something in my ministry that I'm not doing" or "My time is getting away from me"-or whatever the case might be. "I would like you to hold me accountable."
The fourth element, which is trickier still, is to bring your marriages and families into this relationship. This again requires a great deal of trust, but it can be extremely important. One of the reasons pastors have so many affairs is there aren't accountability groups where it's safe enough to say, "I'm being tempted, and I want you to help me stay faithful in my marriage." Once you say that out loud, you're going to stay faithful in your marriage. I have known marriages that were saved by covenant groups where people could be honest without being rejected.
Actually, when you get right down to it, the agenda of any covenant group or one-to-one accountability relationship is really simple: You. Me. God.
That's pretty basic. (Laughter) But it's amazing how many groups we attend where that's not the agenda.
Rural and small-town pastors might have more difficulty finding such a covenant group of peers. What can you suggest for them?
I believe everyone can have a meaningful covenant group. Let me tell you about Floyd. He's a pastor in a little town in Oklahoma. He took my D.Min. class on small groups a few years ago, and he wrote me a letter a year and a half later.
"I thought it was impossible to find peer fellowship," he said, "but ten of us drive an average of 200 miles apiece to meet once a month in the middle of our area. We stay overnight and then spend a whole day together. That group is nourishing me."
These contacts may be from within a pastor's own denomination, or they may be interdenominational. They may be people you meet at conferences or fellow students in D.Min. programs where you find kindred spirits that happen to live in your same general area.
We've been encouraging renewal groups, as we call them, in presbyteries all over the country. The people have to come together for presbytery meetings anyway, so they just piggyback onto the formal agenda this kind of covenant group, and it has worked.
Another source of contacts is the local ministerial association. Within that group, you'll find two or three or four people with whom you have a special affinity, and you can ask if they're interested in such a support group.
When groups like this form, they typically make an initial commitment for six months, agreeing to meet however often is realistic-every two weeks, once a month, or whatever. If it doesn't work, it's over, and the people didn't lose anything.
Do you think pastors' spouses should be part of the answer to this need for spiritual development?
Of course they should, but too often it doesn't happen. I have been asking pastors year after year, "Do you pray together with your spouse?" and the overwhelming answer is no. Why? Because they feel very awkward, nobody ever taught them, they feel guilty, they had no models, and they have different approaches to the spiritual life.
Often the pastor thinks he has to be the spiritual leader in the home, which means he prays and she listens. And yet they'll say things like, "My spouse is more spiritual than I am." It's a mess.
Conversely, some pastors' spouses feel uncomfortable praying aloud in the presence of "the professional" because they're not as fluent theologically. Being able to relate spiritually is a challenge.
How can that problem be resolved?
We have to start with realistic expectations, and it's probably not realistic to think you're going to have a lovey-dovey prayer meeting every night. When your expectations are unrealistic, you get guilt, and guilt keeps you from moving toward each other.
You can help each other, however, by giving one another opportunity to develop spiritual disciplines. This means watching the children while your spouse has a time of prayer and Scripture, and vice versa. Then you need to find ways to really be together spiritually.
One is honest conversation; it's amazing how often our husband-wife talks never get beyond the superficial.
The second is to get both partners involved, on equal footing, by sometimes using a prayer book or a book of devotions. With our extemporaneous tradition, we get hung up in prayer, thinking we have to perform. But if you use a prayer book or book of devotions and take turns reading, not expecting rockets to explode but just being faithful-maybe just being silent before the Lord together and then saying amen-God will receive it.
Then I'd say start with once a week. Don't even try to do it every day. Let it develop slowly as your schedules allow and as you see how much good it does you.
Another approach you mentioned earlier was the one-day retreat.
Such a retreat is a great way to make space for God in your life. If you can spend a day at a Catholic retreat house that has a spiritual director who understands a broad range of Christian traditions, it can be an enormous help. As Protestants, we tend not to be aware of these places, but they're everywhere, and the average pastor is within driving distance of at least one.
How would you go about finding such a place?
I would start by calling the local archdiocese office and asking if there's a retreat center in the area. If the answer is yes, I'd call the retreat center and ask the following questions: (1) Do you allow non-Catholics to make retreat there? (2) Is there a spiritual director with whom I could talk? (3) Is there a worship service during the day that I could attend, recognizing I couldn't take part in the Eucharist but just wanting to worship? These elements, I've found, are helpful in structuring a one-day retreat.
There's also a growing number of Protestant retreat or counseling centers for pastors, and a good source of information about these is the Wellspring ministry of Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C.
What would you say to a pastor who's trying to be the congregation's spiritual director but is discouraged because not much seems to be happening?
The key, I think, is to look for gradual rather than spectacular change in people. This applies to congregations as well as ourselves. God is surely transforming us into the image of Christ, and that's our hope. But spiritual children, just like natural children, don't turn into mature adults overnight.
Copyright © 1988 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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