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Spring 2005 · Vol. 34 No. 1 · pp. 54–63 

The Great Work to Be Born: Spiritual Formation for Leaders

Vange Willms Thiessen

What dominant discourses have shaped your experience of spiritual formation? For those of us who have been influenced by a pietistic evangelical tradition, spiritual life was expressed through an individ-ual experience of conversion, Bible memorization for the assurance of salvation, church attendance, private devotions and, if plagued by guilt or doubt, multiple re-dedications of submission and obedience to the will of God.

Cocreation is a powerful metaphor for the spirituality which emerges from and expresses itself in connection, compassion, and contribution.

Others have been most informed in their sense of spirituality by the accumulation of theological knowledge. Christian leadership training takes seriously the study of Scripture, from informal discipleship programs to academic disciplines of exegesis, hermeneutics, and system-atic theology. For many this forms the foundation of faith.

Having gained entrance to a denominational club through baptism and church membership, some exercise their spirituality by serving and doing the Lord’s work. Dynamic preaching, seeker friendly services, and contemporary worship may contribute to spiritual formation. For those who are part of the emerging church culture, it may be coffee, couches, and conversations that facilitate spiritual vitality.

Today, living in a culture of prosperity and indulgence, we are indeed privileged people who can choose from many options what best informs our spirituality. And yet why could so many of us sing with U2, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” 1 Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and accomplished paleontologist, wrote in his later years, “I still, you see, don’t know where life is taking me. I’m beginning to think that I shall always be like this and that death will find me still a wanderer.” 2 Are you, like Chardin, still curious, searching, and open to new possibilities?


What does spiritual formation look like for leaders within the church and the wider kingdom of God? I am not a pastor, theologian, or biblical scholar. What I know about leadership comes from my life experiences: my participation as daughter, spouse, and mother within the life and work of a family; my active involvement in the church culture; and professional positions in health care, adult education, family therapy, and clinical supervision. The spiritual journey that began at birth continues to meander through diverse and undulating landscapes. In the process, I have traveled across territory uncharted for women involved in church leadership. Yet as coworkers in the kingdom of God, I believe men and women share many mutual experiences and similar challenges.

The phenomena of spiritual formation in the lives of people I encounter as a family therapist, clinical supervisor, and mentor continue to intrigue me. As I listen to stories of pain, brokenness, and suffering, I observe the courage, strengths, and resiliencies that emerge from within these narratives. I find that the spiritualities of my western Christian culture—which emphasize right thinking and right living within the social context of conspicuously consumerist lifestyles—fail to provide me with an adequate response to the heart cries of broken people.

Beginning in my early adult years, I began to find that the culturally dominant spiritualities of health, wealth, and victory collided with my actual life experiences and my growing multicultural global perspective. In addition, correct doctrine, rigid beliefs, and judgmental attitudes infused with assumptions of cultural separation and spiritual superiority repeatedly clashed with my deepening emotional sensibilities and compassionate response. A growing dissonance provided motivation to search beyond the familiar and to intentionally seek new possibilities that might influence my spiritual formation.


As I begin these reflections, I am drawn to a story told by Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher and storyteller. I have condensed his story, “The Angel and the World’s Dominion,” for the purposes of this article, believing it has much to tell us about Christian spirituality and the process of spiritual formation for leaders.

There was a time when the hand of the Lord, who has the power to create and destroy all things, unleashed an endless torrent of pain and sickness over the earth. Even the legions of heaven were not immune to the hovering suffering and sadness. In this state of discomfort and confusion, one of the angels, from the goodness of his heart, contended with the Lord and begged God to place the administration of the earth in his hands for a year’s time, that he might lead it to an era of well-being. The angelic bands trembled at this audacity. God, however, looked at the suppliant with great love and announced his agreement.

And so a year of joy and sweetness visited the earth. The shining angel poured the great profusion of his merciful heart over the anguished children of the earth. The groans of the sick and dying were no longer heard in the land. The earth floated through a fecund sky that left her with a burden of new vegetation. When summer was at its height, people moved singing through the full, yellow fields; never had such abundance existed in living memory. At harvest time the storage bins were overflowing with the bounteous crops.

Proud and contented, the shining angel basked in the glory of his own accomplishments, for surely the people of the earth would be enjoying the gifts of prosperity for years to come. But one cold day, late in the year, a multitude of voices rose heavenward in a great cry of anguish. Frightened by the sound, the angel, dressed as a pilgrim, journeyed down to the earth and visited the homes of the earth-dwellers. The people there, having threshed the grain and ground it into flour, had then started baking bread. But, alas, when they took the bread out of the oven it fell to pieces and the taste was unpalatable like disgusting clay in their mouths. They began to curse the Lord of the World, who had deceived their miserable hearts with his false blessing.

The angel flew away and collapsed at God’s feet crying, “Lord, help me understand where my power and judgment were lacking.” Then God raised his voice and spoke: “Behold a truth which is known to me from the beginning of time, a truth too deep and dreadful for your delicate, generous hands, my sweet apprentice—it is this, that the earth must be nourished with decay and covered with the shadows that its seeds may bring forth—and it is this, that souls must be made fertile with flood and sorrow, that through them the Great Work may be born.” 3

What Buber calls the “Great Work,” I interpret as the spiritual formation and maturation of the human being—that our souls might be “made fertile” in the likeness of Christ, God incarnate.


This Christmas season, Mary became, for me, a powerful example of participation in the “Great Work to be born.” When the angel told her she would conceive and give birth to the Son of God, she responded, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be according to your word” (Luke 1:38 TNIV). Mary was willing to be a birthgiver, a cocreator with God. For Madeleine L’Engle, who writes of the visual and literary arts, the cocreator/artist is a servant who is willing to be a birthgiver. She calls the process of cocreation, as the artist births a new work, incarnational activity. 4

Is it presumptuous to see ourselves as cocreators with God in the Great Work of spiritual formation? In his reflections on the Taoist poem, “The Woodcarver,” Parker Palmer also draws on the metaphor of cocreation. The woodcarver is an artisan engaged in the creation of beauty. He knows that, like himself, the tree has its own identity and integrity. As the woodcarver enters into a “live encounter” with “this particular tree,” he allows its “hidden potential” to emerge. The wooden bell stand that comes out of this dynamic meeting between artist and other is clearly a cocreation. 5 Gestation and birthgiving are basic to any form of creative activity. All of us who have given birth to a baby, to a story, or to a sermon, to a painting, to a musical composition, to a Web site, know that the process of creating is ultimately a mystery closely knit to God’s own creative activities which did not stop at the beginning of the universe. God is constantly creating—in us, through us, with us; to cocreate with him is our calling. 6 How, as leaders, do we participate in this creative process of spiritual formation?

In the world of postmodern therapies, we speak of a concept known as isomorphism, the parallel process that occurs between various subsystems within a larger system of interaction. In the therapeutic system, when a client shares a traumatic experience, it is replicated in the therapist as vicarious traumatization and further repeated when the therapist discusses it in supervision. Sequences and patterns of interaction then reverberate back through the system from supervisor to therapist to client.

When I apply this concept to spiritual formation within the context of cocreation, I find I must begin with my responsibility as a supervisor/leader to participate in an active creative process with my Creator. If I am not mindful of my own spiritual formation, I am less likely to integrate spirituality into my therapeutic conversations with supervisees; in turn, they are less likely to be intentional about spirituality with clients.

Are we prepared to engage in this kind of incarnational activity? Like the angel in the story, I often want to offer my “help” to others from a comfortable and convenient distance. In my position as a leader, I may be driven by my desire to impart knowledge as well as to alleviate the pain and suffering that surround me. It is often easy to offer advice, exhortation, and edification. Thus, when I set out to “do good,” I may be tempted to interact with the unlearned, the needy, and the disadvantaged in ways that maintain my position of power and authority. I wonder if my efforts to “fix” others are just ways of keeping my distance from the messy lives of others and my own “hidden darkness.” In the words of the angel I plead, “Help me understand where my power and judgment are lacking. How can I participate in the Great Work to be born?”


Early last spring I attended a seminar with Bill O’Hanlon titled, Integrating Spirituality and Brief Therapy. 7 He described what he called the 3C’s of spirituality—connection, compassion, and contribution. I find his approach helpful in formulating a framework for understanding spiritual formation. Teilhard de Chardin’s assertion that “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience,” 8 is also significant. How would our concepts of spiritual formation expand if we viewed humans as spiritual beings capable of cocreating with God in these three distinct ways: connection, compassion, and contribution?

The Pathway of Connection

Connection speaks of attachment and relationship. Our Christian view of a trinitarian God presents a model for connection and relationship. Perichoresis is the Greek term used to describe the circle dance of the Trinity: God, Father and Holy Spirit. This image portrays a rela-tional, connected, ever-present, passionate Creator who is inviting us, as leaders, to join the divine dance. Connection is the basic step in the creative dance of spiritual formation.

Connection with God. According to O’Hanlon, spirituality is concerned with a person’s search to feel connected to something beyond the ego or individual self, beyond material and physical matter. 9 Ray S. Anderson asserts that human persons have an instinctive and existential “reach” for a transcendent reality. 10 We then can understand spiritual formation as the growth and development of the whole human being in relation to the Transcendent and Sacred One who is beyond the material realm. But with what do we long to connect? Beyond our knowledge about God and preoccupation with right doctrines and creeds, as leaders we long for a relationship with God that touches the depths of our being. Evangelicals speak much of having a personal relationship with God. But how do we connect with our Creator?

In his response to Rembrandt’s painting, The Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen creates a picture of homecoming:

I could not take my eyes away. I felt drawn by the intimacy between the two figures. I saw a man in a warm red cloak tenderly touching the shoulders of a disheveled boy kneeling before him. But, most of all, it was the hands—the old man’s hands—as they touched the boy’s shoulders that reached me in a place where I had never been reached before. After a long self-exposing journey, I was anxious, lonely, restless and very needy; the “son-come-home” was all I was and all I wanted to be. For so long I had been going from place to place: confronting, beseeching, admonishing and consoling. Now I desired only to rest safely in a place where I could feel a sense of belonging, a place where I could feel at home. 11

Where is your home—that place where you are safe and secure, knowing that you are loved? Like Nouwen and the angel, we have much work to do. Human needs surround us like a bottomless pit. In the midst of our busyness, our connection with God opens us to the source of all Wisdom.

Connection to the inner self. Do we as leaders fear to go within? For that is where the dragons lurk. Jean Vanier speaks powerfully of the “wolf in us.” 12 This is the place where anger, jealousy, and hatred live—that wounded place that festers deep within and manifests itself in inner turmoil, loneliness, depression, anxiety, violence, church disputes, and broken relationships. And yet we have the capacity to pretend all is well. At the very center of our being we will not only find darkness but also Jesus. Unless we discover our darkness, can we enter into the presence of light? It is through stillness and silence that Jesus reveals himself. Let us be a listening people—listening first to our deepest selves before we attempt to listen to others. Many leaders have found that self-reflection, solitude, contemplative/centering prayer, meditation, fasting, and journaling help them to connect with their inner life, quelling their fears and releasing cocreative power and possibilities.

Connection to community. As humans we are created to be in relationship, not only with God and with oneself, but also with others. This spiritual pathway may include connections with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and a church community. It is often in relation to others that I gain a more comprehensive understanding of my needs and limitations as well as of my strengths and capacities. My relationships generate distress and provide comfort. In them, I experience both pain and analgesic.

Jean Vanier asserts that forgiveness and celebration are both crucial aspects of community. It is so easy to judge and then condemn others in community. Instead, to forgive is to understand the cry behind the behavior. We can truly accept others as they are, and forgive them, when we discover that we are truly accepted by God as we are and forgiven by him. 13 Furthermore, in celebration we cross that divide from autonomy to relationship, from individuality to community, from judgment to acceptance. The liturgy of celebration brings us into communion with God and with each other through prayer, thanksgiving, music, dance, and good food. Celebration is a communal experience; celebration nourishes us, restores hope, and brings us the strength to live with the suffering and difficulties of everyday life. 14 The demonstration of forgiveness and celebration in the life of a leader is a pathway to connection with the community.

Connection to nature. For me, being in nature provides a sense of solace and nurture. In it, I experience Shekinah (glory), the presence of God. After my father’s death, I returned to rural Saskatchewan, the holy ground of my childhood. As the flight attendant announced preparation for landing, I looked out the window and thought, “My God, there is no place to hide here.” This prairie landscape was the cradle of my spiri-tual birth, the place where I wrestled to form my inner spiritual geography. Watching storm clouds fill the sky, I could almost taste our dependency on the Creator’s provision. Will the rains descend?

In this scientific age of urbanization, do we fail to recognize our reliance on God? What stirs our souls to wonder and worship in this techno-literate era? In her book, Dakota, Kathleen Norris speaks of finding desert wisdom in the plains:

The irony and wonder of all this is that it is the desert’s grimness, its stillness and isolation that brings us back to love. Here we discover the paradox of the contemplative life, the desert of deprivation and solitude can be the school where we learn the art of self-giving love. 15

Encountering nature afresh can indeed be an experience of the holy, a place to meet God. How has nature shaped your spirituality? What is it around you that nourishes and sustains your soul?

The Pathway of Compassion

Buber’s angel strikes out in confidence but without true understanding and compassion. Likewise, if we only minister to each other out of our strengths, knowledge, and illusions of perfection, we base our spirituality upon a false understanding. Our language of victory is only a shallow pretense if our success stories suppress the realities of our pain and anguish. As leaders, our positions of power and authority may inhibit us from being honest, both in self-evaluation and in ministering to others. We need to ask, “Where, O God, have my power and judgment been lacking?”

Vanier speaks of certain compulsions that affect leaders. Knowledge can give us the illusion of expertise and power. Positions of power and control over others are seductive because they tend to camouflage our own powerlessness and insecurities. Often unaware of our own need for belonging and approval, we set out to do good in a way that will place us above the fray. And yet we can never do enough to fill our inner emptiness. 16 Our generosity eventually becomes our downfall and we experience burnout—an occupational hazard of leadership.

Can we help people if we are unaware of our own needs? The Great Work to be born in us depends on compassion for our own neediness and a willingness to be made “fertile with flood and sorrow.” When I truly walk alongside the poor, the weak, the troubled, I risk the possibility of encountering my own wounds. It is only as I acknowledge my brokenness and touch my own pain that I can begin to develop compassion for myself. Vanier states that having an open heart that lets the waters of compassion, understanding, and forgiveness flow forth is a sign of a mature person. Compassion is maturity and maturity is acceptance. And acceptance comes only through the grace of God.

The Pathway of Contribution

Service has been elevated to sacramental levels in the Anabaptist tradition. It is not new to our understanding and practice of spirituality. Spiritual formation that emerges from a sense of connection and compassion will, I believe, express itself in contribution. Not only is there an existential reach for God within us, we also long for earthly justice and mercy. Booth described spirituality as an “inner attitude that emphasizes energy, creative choice, and a powerful force for living.” 17 Spiritual formation is concerned with a search for value, meaning, and purpose which includes actions of inclusion, care, and compassion toward all humankind.

True evangelical faith cannot lie sleeping
For it clothes the naked, it comforts the sorrowful,
It gives to the hungry food and shelters the destitute.
It cares for the blind and lame, the widow and orphaned child.
It binds up the wounded man, it offers a gentle hand.
Abundantly we have received and gratefully we will respond
With true evangelical faith. 18

In summary, I want to emphasize cocreation as a metaphor for spiritual formation, the “Great Work to be born” in all of us. This spirituality emerges from and expresses itself in connection, compassion, and contribution. The new stories that come out of this incarnational activity clearly inform our spiritual formation. I have claimed a new story in my own life and ministry, a story based on the belief that God is constantly creating in us, through us, with us. To cocreate with God is our human calling.


  1. U2, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Joshua Tree, Island Records, 1987.
  2. Teilhard de Chardin, quoted in Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (Toronto, ON: Penguin, 2000), 185.
  3. Martin Buber, Tales of Angels, Spirits, and Demons (New York: Hawk’s Well, 1958), 9-11.
  4. Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1980), 18.
  5. Parker Palmer, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1990), 69.
  6. L’Engle, 81.
  7. Bill O’Hanlon, Seminar on Spirituality and Brief Therapy (Richmond, British Columbia, May 2004).
  8. Ray S. Anderson, Spiritual Caregiving as Secular Sacrament (New York: Jessica Kingsley, 2003), 64.
  9. O’Hanlon.
  10. Anderson, 26.
  11. Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 4-5.
  12. Jean Vanier, Faith and Sharing Lectures (University of Victoria, British Columbia, July 1983).
  13. Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (New York: Paulist, 1989), 37-38.
  14. Ibid., 313.
  15. Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (New York: Tick-nor & Fields, 1993), 121.
  16. Jean Vanier, Becoming Human (New York: Paulist, 1998), 111-13.
  17. Marsha Wiggins Frame, Integrating Religion and Spirituality into Counseling (Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 2003), 3.
  18. Menno Simons and Larry Nickel, “True Evangelical Faith,” Sing Alleluia (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 1985), 111.
Vange Willms Thiessen received her Master of Arts degree in Marriage and Family Therapy in 1990 from Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, and is currently in the Doctor of Ministry program in Leadership and the Emerging Culture at George Fox University, Portland, Oregon. She is the Clinical Director of the Master of Counseling program at Associated Canadian Theological Schools, a consortium of six denominational seminaries located in Langley, British Columbia. She teaches courses in spiritual formation, supervises interns and graduate therapists, and maintains a private practice.

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