A church too focused on the “bottom line” needs to get more interested in what is at “the bottom of our souls” and help people who are asking for it.

Edward Sellner believes this hunger is not a fad but a harbinger of needed change. Sellner is a professor of pastoral theology and spirituality at the college of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn. In Mentoring: The Ministry of Spiritual Kinship,he examines one of the crucial processes of spiritual transformation: that of mentoring or spiritual guidance.

Sellner uses the words “spiritual kinship” rather than “spiritual direction” because the latter has often been seen in a rather hierarchical way. While the actual practice of spiritual direction in those Christian traditions making a place for it does not always operate in this fashion, his choice of words is a good way to broaden our thinking.

Mentoring, Sellner believes, must and does happen beyond professional clergy or the institutional church. It can happen in spiritual friendships, through correspondence, even through reading the works of those who are long gone from the earth. We are mentored in many ways in our Christian journey, but it is helpful for the church to consider that this is a major aspect of its calling. Baptists would call this “discipleship.”

Sellner examines the nature of mentoring as a spiritual art, then digs down into the rich layers of Christian tradition to look at C.S. Lewis and the Irish tradition of the anamchara, or “soul friend,” to give us specifics in how this lives out in life.

Moreover, this practice is something that happens in the relationships of simple and ordinary Christians every day. Sellner hopes that this book will help all those who mentor others, whether formally or in a single relationship.

One of the Holy Spirit’s great gifts to the church today may be this “underground spirituality” out there that reminds us first of all that we have yet to fully grasp the responsibilities implicit in the phrase, “the priesthood of all believers.” It is not simply about our freedom, but also our mutual needs and the great provision of God in giving us to one another.

Perhaps this hunger has been aggravated by the preoccupation of the church with big things—fund raising, numerical growth and cultural prominence—that caused leaders to ignore many ancient tasks that the church in all ages has had to do. These include the slow work of exploring our inner lives.

Amid all of the “big” issues going on in the world, the interest in spirituality today may seem narcissistic and escapist. After all, there are so many larger concerns than what goes on with one person. However, the work of “soulmaking” is vitally needed in the midst of all the great issues of our age.

If we lack the political will to change our world, we also lack politicians and leaders whose own spiritual depth is lacking. If we lament the lack of courage, will and vision in our world, we also need to ask why the intermediating structures of our society don’t seem to produce them.

Loyd Allen noted that once the main interest of Baptist churches was the careful work of examining, nurturing, preparing and living out conversion under the intense scrutiny of the congregation. Increasingly, and especially after revivalism, he says, we reduced conversion to programs and instantaneous transformations disconnected from community and distanced from the responsibility of discipleship.

There is a craving among people in the churches for the opportunity to, as Kenneth Leech once put it, not merely to confess their sins but to explore and understand them. Sellner’s book is a fine introduction to the subject, though from an Anglican background that does not always connect to Baptist terminology and traditions. Still, this book opens a door through which we need to walk.

Pastors need to see themselves as spiritual mentors, coaches and guides—not as CEOs, media stars and celebrities. This book can help. I particularly found the chapter on the role of dreams in spiritual growth interesting.

Near the end of the book, Sellner quotes E.M. Forster’s Room with a View. Mr. Emerson, father of a young man in love with another character, Lucy, is talking to her about her choices. Lucy’s life is characterized by self-delusions. The father begins to function in the story as a spiritual mentor who enables her to “see to the bottom of her soul” and then help her take the steps required to move away from “the hell that her illusions had created” and move toward committed love and the joy it brings.

A church too focused on the “bottom line” needs to get more interested in what is at “the bottom of our souls” and help people who are asking for it.

Gary Furr is pastor of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and adjunct professor of religion at Samford University. 

Order Mentoring now from Amazon.com!

And check out these additional resources on spiritual direction and spiritual friendship:

Ties That Bind: Life Together in the Baptist Vision, edited by Gary Furr and Curtis Freeman

Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction,by Margaret Guenther
Toward Holy Ground: Spiritual Directions for the Second Half of Life,by Margaret Guenther

Gary Furr’s “Spiritual Direction and the Baptist Tradition: In Search of Connections” in Presence: The Journal of Spiritual Directors International  (Volume 5, Number 3), 31. Back issues can be obtained at http://www.sdiworld.org/html/presence/index.html

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