Our western culture, in particular, with its emphasis on and celebration of individualism, has tended to assume that the health of an organization will naturally flow from the health of participating individuals. While there is truth in this, the philosophy ignores important realities of group dynamics. For example, when people come together to practice their faith in community, there is need to attend to shared realities:
- What has brought this group together
- Where is healing needed among the group
- What invitations are being made to the congregation within the surrounding circumstances
Groups that have spent significant time sharing faith together may unknowingly have common strands of experience and questioning.
What might happen if we noticed and attended to these commonalities?
They could help direct the congregation towards being more open to what they as a group entity are being invited to become.
The poet-king David wrote that in times of difficulty, “deep calls unto deep.” A spiritual director can help a congregation begin to notice and attend to what the unconscious deep places in their congregational life may be. For instance:
- What types of people are generally attracted to this particular congregation?
- What practices are most meaningful to us?
- What common experiences are there that need to be brought into the light for healing?
A congregation that is connecting the head of their theology to the heart of their shared experience is one that can care more effectively for its individual members, and for the overall calling or charism of the organization. Many congregations have a sense of their vision or mission and have a formational plan in place that helps their members participate in this shared part of life, but formation plans are only one piece of bringing spiritual health to a group. When organizational goals are informed by the lived realities of the members, knowledge of shared places of hurt or celebration allows for services of healing and recognition to take place and for mission to grow out of genuinely perceived restoration. From this position, congregational leaders also can address more keenly topics from the front that are meaningfully relevant to the lived experiences of their congregants. Public acknowledgement of shared experiences increases stronger relationships among the congregational community, and lessens stigmatisms of perceived taboos.
When a spiritual director takes their role as a reflective companion to the congregation as a whole, what they are able to notice, name, and hold space for can help the entire group to move towards spiritual health and senses of holiness together. Some practical ways spiritual directors benefit the growth of the communal soul of a congregation include:
- A spiritual director noticing similar themes or seasons in directees who come from the congregation and bringing these to the attention of the leadership (while maintaining the bounds of confidentiality).
- The leadership of a congregation benefiting from regularly having a spiritual director present for their planning sessions. For example: A spiritual director is trained to pay attention to where there is energy and where there is quiet. What things does the leadership seem open to? Where is there resistance?
- Directing a congregation’s shared soul may also involve helping to tell the story of that community. Writing a history of a congregation that goes beyond a list of dates and events can help the existing community find its place in history and gain direction for the future.
Sandra Lommasson notes that, when a director serves in the role of discerning the communal soul of a congregation with congregation leaders, the director must have the “freedom and ability to help a community take a long, loving look at its reality, and to bring to God and each other what is noticed.”
Significantly, a congregation that has a grounded sense of who and how we are will be better prepared to weather trauma. The inevitable spiritual questions raised when trauma strikes can be navigated together by a congregation that knows itself and is accustomed to looking for God’s movements in relation to the whole. Sometimes this search for a group sense of soul will be aroused by trauma’s disruption of the status quo. In both cases, a spiritual director’s companionship will be an asset to healing and growth.
Like a family or community, a congregation has a shared identity that represents the group entity. It has its own set of values, ethics, and goals that help define it. There are also ways that the group as a whole experiences and grows into senses of holiness. A spiritual director holds a valuable role in companioning with the congregation’s growing discernment in recognizing, and lovingly tending to, its soul.