What follows is an adaptation of a paper my friend and colleague, Janet Balajthy, wrote for a course while pursuing graduate work in spiritual direction. Janet’s topic focused on spiritual direction specifically for women in leadership roles and her research involved, among other things, interviewing a number of spiritual directors who meet with women leaders. We at The Well think spiritual direction is a valuable practice to encourage a closer relationship with God. It can help us pay attention to the Lord, acknowledging what he is doing in and around us in all aspects of life. Janet’s own experiences — as a woman in leadership, a woman who receives spiritual direction, and, now, as a spiritual director herself — inform much of what she has written.
— Karen Guzmán
Spiritual Direction for Women Leaders
Thomas Merton said, “A spiritual director is one who helps another recognize and follow the inspirations of grace in [her] life in order to arrive at the end to which God is leading [her].” Meeting with a spiritual director has little to do with being “directed,” but instead fosters an unhurried conversation between three people: you, your spiritual director, and the Holy Spirit. A trusted director who is skilled in deep listening and prayer can help you more consciously experience God’s presence. I’ve found spiritual direction to be a safe place for women leaders to process their leadership experiences along with the longings and tensions that have been part of their journeys. Spiritual direction can create space for listening to God and hearing God’s truth in some of the most challenging circumstances women in leadership encounter.
Cultural Resistance : Clarity on Call to Lead
Contexts shape us and our views about the world, God, and ourselves. Women frequently find themselves in cultural and religious settings that have been traditionally male-dominated which can create an experience of marginalization affecting their sense of self and their relationship to God. Even when women find themselves in settings where the intent is to welcome them, a subtle and often unrecognized gender bias can hold them back. And while the #MeToo movement has created positive outcomes, a negative effect is that some men are now more hesitant or fearful to work with female peers.
For centuries, men authored most theological writings and reflected a male perspective as normative. For instance, consider the ways in which sin and salvation have been defined by the church; male theologians might define sin as pride and playing God, while the opposite is typically true for women, for whom timidity and lack of self-esteem are greater temptations. Awareness of this can be helpful to women leaders as they grow in knowing that God understands them and their particular struggles.
It is difficult to feel overlooked or to experience resistance to your leadership. It can take longer for women leaders to gain credibility than their male counterparts. Resentment can emerge and self-doubt can set in. Younger high-achieving women may be culturally less prone to these, but they can be annoyed and wearied by the lack of recognition of their abilities. A strong sense of call is critical in these situations. Spiritual direction can help a woman live into the truth that her validation comes from the God who has called her and who is with her when she meets resistance.
Self-Doubt : Leading Out of Who You Are
Current leadership culture is experiencing some change toward greater collegiality and group process for which many women are well-suited. Having said that, women in leadership positions are often unaware of the unique gifts they bring. They can still feel “different” from the dominant leadership culture that continues to be primarily male. How women see themselves is crucial to being assured leaders.
Women can develop a pattern of doubting their accomplishments and internalize a fear of being exposed as “frauds,” a response known as imposter syndrome. In Seven Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership, author Kate Coleman says, “For Christian women, the failure to see themselves ‘correctly’ is rooted in an inability to see themselves from God’s perspective.” This is the important work of spiritual direction, helping women see how God has gifted them and inviting them to use their unique gifts. This includes helping them understand key insights for women leaders, that Jesus believes in them and that the Spirit is the One who empowers. When a woman faces key leadership moments or is invited to take on a new challenge, she may be tempted to ask the self-doubting question — “Who, me?” — thinking that she is not enough. Spiritual direction can be key to helping her be attentive and trust in the way God will work through her.
Busy-ness : Clarity on Responsibilities
Women leaders live full and busy lives. They struggle to make time for all the things that are important to them, and they struggle to make time for God. Spiritual direction can help sort through these complexities and bring greater self-understanding and awareness of God in everyday life. Exploring what concerns lie behind saying yes to too many things often exposes fear and the need to repeatedly prove themselves, fear of missing out on opportunities that might not come their way again, and the tendency to be overly responsible for issues that are, in fact, not their responsibility.
In addition, family demands — from either children or elderly parents — can lead to personal guilt or to confrontations with others who are judgmental. Sheryl Sandberg speaks of the “holy trinity of fear” — the fear of being a bad mother or wife or daughter. Spiritual direction can be a safe place to explore what invitations are truly from the Lord and helps women adopt a contemplative posture and spend time in discernment, listening to God, to the community, and to themselves. For one overwhelmed with all the responsibilities she carries, there is a temptation to think that it is ”all up to her.” When life is full I have noticed a difficulty for some women leaders to be in touch with their own desires. I want to see how I can I help them be attentive to their dreams as much as the demands of family and their jobs, so they do not lose themselves. Spiritual direction can help her pay attention to God’s grace and remind her that it is the Spirit’s job to bring it to completion that which he has started.
What was stressed as foundational by all the spiritual directors I interviewed was for women leaders to know they are deeply beloved of God. One said, “It is developing this intimacy with the Lord that is the resource for all life throws them.” Another said, “When they face doubts and criticism, remembering their identity as chosen daughters of God will help them stand strong and embrace their call.”
I dedicate this essay to Marilyn Stewart, my spiritual director of over fifteen years, who passed away last December. She was a spiritual guide to many women whose lives and leadership have been profoundly empowered by her wise spiritual direction and example. I will be forever grateful for her impact on my life and her encouragement for me to pursue giving spiritual direction to women leaders.