Clergy Renewal and Circles of Trust
by Rev. Caryl Hurtig-Casbon
I have always resonated with James Hillman’s notion of the acorn theory regarding vocation, which claims that we come into life with an acorn within us that wants to take seed and grow; it ‘chose us for its reasons’ and contains the DNA of our destiny. (1) When I consider my acorn, which ‘chose me for its reasons,’ it always comes down to the same thing: I am here to create spaces where the inner life can be encountered and nurtured. Plant me anywhere, a dinner party, a meeting, and I invite conversations around meaning and soul. Put me in front of a class, or a congregation—it is always the same.
This goes back to my childhood, where I felt most at home in church where we talked about things that mattered most. I remember sitting at the dinner table with my family, impatient with small talk, wondering when I could be in places where God was at the head of the table. I guess you could call this a holy restlessness, an impatience with the surfaces of life.
Yet it is not always easy to create and sustain soul spaces in community—even and especially spiritual communities, where disappointments are accentuated by high hopes and values, and where we run up against our shadows and limits. As we all know, community life, especially in organizations, can be draining, fraught with power struggles, tensions, competition, and failure. Seldom does it live up to my fantasy of what I hope can happen.
After too much time in community, I begin to feel dried out, and a longing arises to go within for renewal.
I have always loved the Silkie story (a myth coming out of Ireland and other cold, northern countries near the sea), where a beautiful female seal is lured from her watery home by a lonely hunter who steals her seal skin and promises to give it back after seven years if she will become a woman to bear him a son and live a married life. She agrees reluctantly. Over time, she realizes that her skin is turning scaly and dry, she is losing her sight, and she is limping in weakness; she must return to the depths or she will die. After her husband refuses to give her seal skin back, it is recovered with the help of her son, her spirit child, and she slips back into the ocean to save her own life. In mythology, the seal is considered one of the most beautiful symbols of the wild soul. (2)
As Clarissa Pinkola Estes reminds us, “Every creature on earth returns to home. It is ironic that we have made wildlife refuges for ibis, pelican, egret, wolf, crane, deer, mouse, moose and bear, but not for ourselves in the places where we live day after day.” (3)
I suspect that community is both life-giving and life-draining for most of us. Part of the challenge of being human is knowing when we are dried up from too much exposure to the outer world and need to slip back into the waters of origin. Little in our extraverted culture helps us take this internal journey.
This dynamic became more conscious for me when I began to offer retreats to clergy. As I listened to their accounts of their church communities, I realized that I have a lot in common with their struggles and questions, and much to learn from their stories. I began to ask questions about what people were longing for in their church communities, what needs brought them there in the first place, and why they so often went away with these needs unmet.
Living Above Sea Level: Drying Out in Our Souls
I have facilitated circles of trust retreats for over 12 years. This program, based on Quaker practices, was founded by my friend and colleague, Dr. Parker Palmer. The process is designed to create a trustworthy space so that people can access the voices of their souls. It is based on the simple but countercultural belief that we all have an inner teacher, or a spark of the Divine, and with the proper conditions, all we need to know can be found from within.
When I had the opportunity to facilitate a series for clergy and lay leaders over a year and a half, one comment by a Methodist minister rang in my ears: “As a result of being in this retreat program, I feel that I am in touch with my soul again.” I could hear the Silkie story echo in his words. I think what he was saying was that in these retreats, he found the life-giving waters of his inner life, a place he could slip into the depths away from the outer work world and contact what nourished him while in the protection of a safe community.
My first thought was, “How painful that someone would serve a church and not be in touch with their soul.” Yet I know that being in touch with one’s soul is a lifetime commitment, one we have to attend to day-in and day-out.
Individuals who enter in to the ministry do so out of a sense of calling and a close relationship with God. Yet even though they are there to “tend God’s house”, it seems that the act of doing so takes them away from that very relationship that drew them in. The demands on clergy pull them in many directions, especially outward in service. Ironically, the requirements of their role can alienate them from their own connection to the Divine. Yet to be in integrity in their work, this living relationship with their souls is imperative, or they are forced to fake it by the very nature of what is asked of them.
A Presbyterian minister in one of our retreats named the dilemma clearly:
“I went into the ministry with the love of God and Jesus at the center of my life, but after I was ordained for a couple of years, there was a growing knowledge within me that I had become a religious practitioner. I know how to walk the walk, how to preach, but with a sense of hypocrisy. I began with the sense of ‘My joy in You is complete.’ But sadly, I don’t experience any of that any more. I experience busyness, and my life slipping through my hands like sand. I guess you could call this a vocational crisis. I am not walking my talk. Should I go through this life playing a role? I can’t minister if it is not real to me.”
Like any leadership role, much is projected onto the clergy. Often they are under attack for petty reasons, as well as for issues of theology, morals, politics, finances and power—in other words, the business of the church. What is unique about the role is how public it is. In my church, I often hear members of the congregation discussing what our pastor is doing, reading, thinking, wearing, where he is working out. He lives in a fishbowl, and so does his family.
A Place for Discernment: Swimming in the Depths
“…we are born with a seed of selfhood that contains the spiritual DNA of our uniqueness…an encoded birthright knowledge of who we are, why we are here, and how we are related to others. We may abandon this knowledge, but it never abandons us.” (Parker Palmer) (4)
As I talked with these pastors, they often named the value of the circles of trust retreats as a place they could ‘give it a rest’ (meaning the armor of their roles and the endless pressures and busyness/business of the church), and hold the questions of their own calling, their challenges and their suffering in a safe, deeply honoring place. They could slip back into their seal skins and go under water for awhile. One minister stated, “This is the only place I have ever shared a concern, where I haven’t been ‘should’ upon.”
A central practice in circles of trust is the Clearness Committee, where, in the context of deep confidentiality, an individual is asked open and honest questions for an extended time, in order that their own wisdom might be accessed. This Quaker practice has been around since the 1660’s. Simple yet profound, it is especially useful in approaching issues of call, as well as in exploring one’s suffering and challenges.
In the words of the Presbyterian pastor, speaking of his experience of a Circle of Trust:
“Every time I came away from one of the retreats, I thought, ‘Wow, I just experienced something holy with other people.’ That drives my interest to understand how to help promote community as I haven’t experienced in other places. Church isn’t creating a community where people are growing spiritually. My mantra is: I want people to know God, not just about God. The Circle of Trust retreats are about a movement in your soul beyond you, that guides you. This is very rare in church life, in my experience. More can be done to create venues to let people listen to themselves, to God, and to others in this deep way. Circle of Trust processes offer a powerful way to learn how to be a non-judging presence—which is so hard, but can be transformative.”
And as the Methodist minister who is committed to interfaith dialogue shared:
“We need to shift the traditions to get rid of superiority and recognize we are one. We need to learn how to be passionate, without being dominant or superior. The only way to share at this level is through hospitality and collegiality toward every person’s soul, for only then are we true to Jesus and His teachings.”
Circles of Trust are refuges where the cycles of the soul can be nourished in communities of faith. We unite on the common ground of our soul connections to the Great Mystery—from where we all come, and to where we all return.
1. James Hillman, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling (New York: Random House, 1996) p. 12.
2. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992), p. 262.
3. Estes, p. 266.
4. Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Wiley & Sons, 2004) p. 32.
The Center for Courage & Renewal has prepared (as of 2009) over 175 facilitators in 30 states and 50 cities as well as a few overseas. Located on Bainbridge Island, Washington, near Seattle, the Center has supported affiliate programs in Dallas/Ft. Worth, Boston and Washington State, and has served over 25,000 people in retreat settings since 1997. The Center offers many resources, including contact information for a growing community of facilitators who can guide you toward opportunities to experience this process under the guidance of qualified facilitators, and/or locate consultative help. At the Center’s website you will find descriptions of current offerings, and can sign up for an e-newsletter as well as download articles and podcasts. To learn more about the Center’s work and its growing community, visit www.CourageRenewal.org.