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On Being Spiritually Accountable

By Christine Sine.

Last year I had the opportunity to work with pastors at a leadership training seminar. All of the participants were struggling with the growing pressures of overcrowded lives and a lack of intimate Christian fellowship.

One man shared his frustration at trying to juggle responsibility for five small parishes. Sundays sped by in a mad flurry of activity as he raced from one church service to another and his week flitted by in a blur of meetings that left him feeling stressed and inadequate. Another pastor was desperately searching for a sense of community and belonging. He felt alone and isolated in the midst of a large and prosperous establishment: 'We are constantly giving out to others who come to us for help, yet when we ourselves are in need there seems to be no one to listen to our struggles'.

This tension between the demands of our inner, spiritual world and our outer, public world is something all Christian leaders are very familiar with. We constantly juggle the pressures of congregations, parish life and ministry with our quest for spirituality and a more intimate walk with Christ. Sadly, the often strident and overwhelming demands of the public world with its tangible and measurable results, easily swamp our inner longings for spiritual development.

Yet it is vital for Christian leaders, who are continually ministering to others, to take exceptional care to develop their own inner resources and to provide for their own spiritual nourishment. None of us can help others to progress towards the experience of fullness of life in Christ unless we ourselves are consciously moving along that pathway. In reality, effective Christian ministry flows only from our own state of holiness, spiritual maturity and intimate relationship with Christ.

In this article, I have set out some ideas which I have found helpful in my journey of self discovery, as I have walked hesitantly and sometimes painfully along this pathway of spiritual accountability.

1. Take time each day to develop you own inner spiritual life and relationship with God

It is in the solitude of time spent alone with God in contemplative prayer, meditation and Bible study that we grow spiritually. We are called primarily not to do spiritual things, but to be spiritual people. However we cannot be spiritual people, or help others to become spiritual people, unless we spend time developing our relationship with God - focusing not on the outward (ministering to others) but on the inward (making our lives holy and acceptable to God).

Unfortunately, the prayer and Bible study that develop this intimate walk with God are often relegated to a minor place in our lives. Sometimes I think we shy away from that process of inner transformation and sanctification because we realize that this form of discipleship may result in some uncomfortable changes in our lives. While we are 'doing for God' we can ignore our need to 'be before God'. Developing spiritual disciplines will lead us to come out of hiding, confess our sins, shed our self centredness and commit ourselves to be consumed by the love and compassion that motivated the life and ministry of Christ.

As Athol Gill affirms, 'The way of God begins when the disciples forsake their selfish pretensions and desires for earthly security, power and glory for the sake of Jesus. It does not end there, however, for the disciple must also take up the cross and follow Jesus'1 . No wonder it is easier for us to concentrate on the priorities of our ministry than on the challenge of developing the intimacy of our own lives and spiritual state.

I struggled with this concept of discipleship as I worked in the refugee camps in Thailand in the early 1980's. For the first time in my life I was confronted by heartbreaking poverty and began to realize that 'the challenge of Christianity is to look beyond our own comforts to the hurt and dying world outside'.2 The development of an intimate walk with God is truly a challenge to find a new form of discipleship in which we take up our cross to follow Jesus.

2. Find a spiritual advisor or mentor who will hold you accountable for your own spiritual growth

When we are accountable only to ourselves we are vulnerable to pride and self centredness. A spiritual advisor or director can help us develop a process of intentional growth in our spiritual lives. Such a person can check out our inner promptings to see if we truly are discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit. They can help us maintain our personal disciplines and stop us trivializing the promptings of God that lead us to transformation in our inner beings.

Kenneth Leech aptly describes the spiritual director in his book Soul Friend: 'The spiritual director exists to be a friend of the soul, a guide on the way to the City of God. His ministry is one of 'Diakrisis', discernment of events and of liberation, enabling individuals and communities to move towards freedom, the freedom of the children of God. He is not a leader but a guide and he points always beyond himself to the Kingdom and the Glory'3

Sadly finding spiritual advisors of this calibre is not easy, particularly for those in leadership positions. Many pastors cannot look within the congregation because they are afraid to become too vulnerable with their own parishioners. Yet life is so busy, there is little time left over for the development of any relationships, let alone the deep and abiding friendships that form the basis for good spiritual direction.

So how do we find good spiritual advisors and what criteria do we use for our choice?

Obviously the first requirement of a spiritual advisor is a commitment to his or her own spiritual growth, prayer and inner transformation. Secondly, we need someone whom we can trust to keep a confidence and with whom we feel comfortable sharing our secrets and spiritual doubts. Often it is someone outside our own organization or spiritual tradition, who can bring a fresh perspective to our spiritual growth.

The best relationship is usually one of mutual sharing and burden bearing where each of us is vulnerable to the other and where there is a reciprocal sense of responsibility for spiritual growth. I find that a relationship in which one person is set up as the 'counsellor' and the other is perceived as the 'counsellee' often falls far short of the spiritual enabling we need.

3. Become part of a Christian community that will support and encourage your spiritual growth

I love what Athol Gill, who developed a community in Melbourne Australia called the community of the Gentle Bunyip, says about community: 'Following Jesus on the road always brings us into new relationships with sisters and brothers who are on the same journey. God knows that it would be a terrible journey to undertake on our own, for so few of us are people of vision and courage. Alone we are easily discouraged and diverted into less demanding enterprises. But together we are able to dream dreams and plan and scheme and work towards the kingdom of God, where God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven. When we remain fragmented and isolated, the powerful of the earth are able to beat us every time. Together with Jesus, we may become a force that is able to defy the demonic and overthrow the physical and spiritual oppression that is rampant in so many places. We can offer the liberating power of the gospel to women and men groaning under the weight of their oppressors.' We live in an age of growing individualism in which Christian community is frequently neglected. Yet God calls us to community and it is here, walking together with like minded people, that we truly learn to obey God and to discern the guiding voice of the Holy Spirit. Only in community, do we find the support, encouragement and strength we need to continue walking along the difficult pathway toward spiritual maturity.

Small groups within their own churches may not be the best places for pastors to find this kind of community. Together with their spouses, Christian leaders might consider drawing together a group of other leaders and their spouses who are also very serious about their discipleship. Set a time to meet each week and discuss what level of commitment you want to make to each other and to the group.

4. Take time regularly to evaluate the way you spend your time and energy

My husband and I have found it very helpful to take a day or two every three to four months for a spiritual retreat - a retreat focused solely on our relationship with God. We then take time every Sunday to 'check in' with each other, discussing the week that has passed, planning the week ahead and refreshing our memories regarding the priorities God has given us. It is a wonderful way to keep our lives focused on what is really important.

We start the retreat with prayer and thanksgiving, looking at the joys and accomplishments of the last few months. We discuss the areas in which we can see spiritual growth, and those in which we feel we have failed. We spend time praising God for what is happening and look forward with anticipation to the things to come and His continued working in our lives.

Then we spend some hours alone focusing on the future. I always begin by reading over the Scripture verses that God has impressed on me over the years, and which give me a sense of direction for my life. I then evaluate every area of my life to see if it really reflects this calling:

a) First, I reevaluate my spiritual goals and priorities. Am I satisfied with my spiritual development and what am I doing on a regular basis to maintain or improve that state? Where have I sinned, what temptations am I facing and how am I coping with these?

It is not always easy for me to be honest about the depths of my spiritual need or to face the consequences of my actions. Sometimes I find there are sins to confess, restitution to be made or people to ask forgiveness from. The process often makes me squirm but I know it is important for my spiritual development and the purity of my soul.

Reading David Watson's book Fear No Evil I was powerfully impressed by how God woke him up early one morning to write letters of reconciliation and forgiveness. It was only weeks before he died yet God was deeply concerned for the purity of his soul during those final days.

b) Second, I evaluate my physical health and goals to maintain it. This may seem a strange area to consider in terms of spiritual accountability. However, as a medical doctor, I know that regular exercise and a healthy diet not only improve my physical strength, they also contribute to my emotional and spiritual stability. Walking is one of the best all round forms of exercise and for me it has the added benefit that I can pray or wrestle with spiritual dilemmas while I walk.

c) Third, I evaluate my vocation and work responsibilities. How adequately am I performing my job and what can I do to improve my performance and to maintain an efficient working environment?

We need to know exactly what we are called to be and do, not only spiritually, but vocationally and in our personal lives as well. Sometimes we miss out on the truly important things of life because we are consumed by the urgent crises of our world and have no road maps to get us back on track. We lack accountability because we are not sure what we are accountable for.

As Michael Griffiths points out in his article Can the Pastor Be Reformed?4 it is often easier to go it alone rather than seek to develop the spiritual gifts of a sometimes reluctant congregation. It is often easier to complain about lack of time to spend with family, friends and even God than it is to face up to our own Messianic tendencies and the feeling that we and we alone are responsible to save the world. I have met many burnt out Christian leaders who have suffered from this syndrome and who wonder why there never seems to be anyone around to help. Or they have become bitter and resentful because they feel God has given them an impossible task to accomplish alone.

I was greatly helped in defining my job and developing an appropriate team for ministry by being honest about my own gifts and abilities. I recognise, for example, that I am not good at details and have learned with relief to say 'No' to tasks involving detailed analysis. Yet I still get caught up on occasions in tasks for which I have no aptitude. My regular times of evaluation help me to get back on track and discard those areas that are unnecessary burdens in my life.

One of the commonest questions I am asked by Christian leaders is 'How do I accomplish the enormous task God has given me?'. When I suggest that the best way is to train disciples I am often met with astonishment and surprise. But we are not a lot of disconnected individuals. Christ is building a 'Body' in which all the parts function together so that they become one whole.

d) Fourth, I reevaluate important relationships, community and hospitality. How are my relationships with colleagues, friends and family, and how might I plan, maintain and improve them?

If our important relationships are under pressure it usually means we are too. When we feel stressed out we often blame others, become irritable and argumentative. As the pressure builds we isolate ourselves emotionally and relationally from those we most care about. Being spiritually accountable means we take notice of these changes in relationship and work hard to rectify them and the pressures which have contributed to them.

Sometimes our basic problem is that we just don't see friendships and relationships as an important priority and fun or celebration doesn't even figure on the list. We often talk about having quality time with people because there is no longer the possibility of quantity time. Our work and even our ministry can easily become an all absorbing monster that suffocates our relationships and even our Christian growth. Somehow we need a new view of ministry which includes our families and friends.

e) Fifth, I evaluate my relaxation time. Do I have adequate leisure time and am I using it appropriately?

Like most high achievers, Christian leaders usually enjoy their work. When challenged regarding long work hours and over-committed schedules the usual comment is, 'But I love my work and I don't feel the need for other diversions'. And on top of that, the Protestant work ethic tends to give a low place to rest and relaxation and applauds the person who is driven to work harder and harder. I have learned a lot from my Third World friends, who see the importance of relationship and relaxation far more than we do.

All of us need time to rest and relax, especially after an intense time of draining spiritual ministry. It fascinates me to see that when Jesus' disciples returned from their first preaching and healing mission, He listened to all their reports and then said, 'Come aside by yourself to a deserted place and rest awhile' (Mk 6:31). I think that this is very good advice for all of us in high pressure jobs.

Even our leisure time can be inappropriately used. In fact the more pressurized our lives are the less likely we are to choose activities that help us relax. It is important to know what kinds of activities most quickly help us regain our energy. For an extrovert it is 'people oriented' activities, for an introvert time alone, eg reading brings revitalization.

f) Sixth, I reevaluate my stewardship of time and money. What are my priorities as far as time and resources are concerned?

I believe consumerism and materialism are the greatest traps of Western Christianity. The pursuit of houses, cars and possessions can easily focus our lives away from the priorities of Christ and His Kingdom. They can even more easily divert us from the pathway of spiritual growth and development. And sadly few churches pay much attention to helping their congregations in this area. Most of us have little sense that we are 'spiritually accountable' for how we spend our time and resources.

For those of us in full time Christian ministry the trap can be even more insidious. After all, we spend our whole lives engaged in God's work; surely we are justified in using our resources as we wish? Yet often the best way to free up our time and escape from the seduction of frenetic schedules and mindless consumerism is to simplify our lifestyles and spend less on ourselves. We still live in a world in which to be spiritually accountable we need 'to live more simply so that others might simply live'.

5. In Conclusion

In our desire to grow spiritually and to develop a deeper walk with God, we ourselves are the ones who hold the keys to our own futures and to the lessons we learn from our own struggles. Yet it is not easy for us to commit ourselves to the radical transformations such a call places on our lives for it does mean a re-evaluation of everything we do not just as individuals but also in conjunction with our families and church communities.

That, in a nutshell, is what spiritual accountability is all about. It is a challenge to be radical disciples who are accountable not to this world and its rules and regulations, but to the Lordship of Christ and to the responsibilities of citizenship in a heavenly Kingdom. It is a call to a new way of living that is not only 'good news' for us in our own individual lives but for all of humankind and all of God's good creation.

References: 1. Athol Gill: Life on the Road - the Gospel Basis for a Messianic Lifestyle. Lancer 1989 p 60   Return 2. Christine Aroney-Sine: Confessions of a Seasick Doctor. Monarch Press 1995 p 147   Return 3. Athol Gill op cit p 148   Return 4. Michael Griffiths: Can the Pastor be Reformed? Ministry Today Spring 1994   Return

Dr Christine Sine is an Australian physician who developed the hospital and medical work for the Youth With a Mission Mercy Ship programme and lived on board the Anastasis for 12 years as medical director. Now based in Seattle with her husband Tom Sine, she works as a consultant in the fields of missions and international health. She has written two books: Confessions of a Seasick Doctor (Monarch 1995), and Survival of the Fittest: Keeping Healthy in Overseas Travel and Service (MARC World Vision 1995).

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You are reading On Being Spiritually Accountable by Christine Sine, part of Issue 9 of Ministry Today, published in February 1997.

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