Spiritual Fathering and Godly Authority

by Sarah Colyn

Authority exercised with humility, and obedience accepted with delight
are the very lines along which our spirits live. (Weight of Glory, p. 170)

On becoming spiritual fathers and mothers

God loves us and wants to bring us to life. His love is creative and procreative, and we humans are the consummate objects of His begetting love. He is always brooding over us with His fathering intentions, moving toward us, desiring that we become. In this relentless movement of His will, generation after generation, He is always raising up spiritual fathers and mothers to serve the becoming of His people. God Himself initiates spiritual fathering. To understand how someone becomes a spiritual father or mother we must begin with the desire and action of God. Bishop Kallistos Ware, esteemed Orthodox priest and teacher at Oxford, wrote a chapter about spiritual fathering in volume one of The Inner Kingdom: “Spiritual guides are ordained, not by human hands, but by the hand of God” (p. 129). The Spirit proceeds from the Father, is sent by the Son to those who trust in Him, and anoints His followers with the charisms of spiritual fathering. We’ll return a bit later to what these charisms may be – these gifts that empower spiritual fathering. But first let’s consider a bit more how someone becomes a spiritual mother or father.

God Himself ordains spiritual mothers and fathers, and when we study the lives of those who have worn this mantle well, they did not aim themselves at this job. Leanne has written about the moment in her life when she fell to her knees in conversion to a single resolve: to obey God’s will (see chapter 9 of Heaven’s Calling). After this prayer her life had a singular aim: “My eyes would now be solely on the object – on God Himself” (Listening Prayer, p. 138). In his chapter on the spiritual guide, Kallistos Ware relates stories of some extraordinary elders in the Orthodox tradition. What these spiritual fathers and mothers had in common was a wholehearted longing for communion with God. Ware describes these saints who fled to solitude: “They fled, not in order to prepare themselves [to guide and inspire others], but simply out of a consuming desire to be alone with God. God accepted their love, but then He sent them back as instruments of healing in the world from which they had withdrawn” (Inner Kingdom, p. 132). It seems that a true spiritual father or mother becomes one not by applying for the position, but by desiring nothing but God and then responding to His will. Oswald Chambers puts it this way: “Never choose to be a worker for God, but once God has placed His call on you, woe be to you if you ‘turn aside to the right hand or to the left’ (Deuteronomy 5:32). We are not here to work for God because we have chosen to do so, but because God has ‘laid hold of’ us” (My Utmost for His Highest, June 16).

#10 Manfred trnslating 1999

If God ordains spiritual mothers and fathers, how do they end up in positions where they can exercise their gifts? The most natural way to discover that you are becoming a spiritual mother or father is that others will ask you to serve them in this way. When God ordains, fellow humans will identify by recognizing the gifting and seeking this person out. Kallistos Ware describes this process in which others approach, seek advice, and even ask to live under the care of someone who evidences the capacity to give spiritual fathering: “Thus it is his spiritual children who reveal the elder to himself” (Inner Kingdom, p. 130). Sponsorship in A.A. and other 12-step recovery programs is a modern manifestation of spiritual mothering and fathering. Sponsors are revealed in the same way Ware describes – identified by those who need sponsoring. As A.A.’s literature on sponsorship describes, “Often, the new person simply approaches a more experienced member who seems compatible, and asks that member to be a sponsor. Most A.A.s are happy and grateful to receive such a request. An old A.A. saying suggests, ‘Stick with the winners.’ It’s only reasonable to seek a sharing of experience with a member who seems to be using the A.A. program successfully in everyday life” (Questions & Answers on Sponsorship, p. 9).

Wonderfully, to become a spiritual mother or father is to be ordained by God and identified by members of His body. What then of the many lay and clergy leaders in our churches today whose appointment may have been more bureaucratic than charismatic? Perhaps there are some leaders reading this essay who have been assigned to a spiritual leadership role and feel the pain of inadequate preparation for this calling. Surely there are some of us who, rather than being sent by God from our desert cell, were nominated by a Tuesday-night committee. And perhaps some of us have mistakenly tried to rise to this challenge in our own strength or turned to the wisdom of the world for tools and techniques to lead others. Kallistos Ware offers us compassion and extends a lively hope:

Under the pressure of outward circumstances and probably without clearly realizing what is happening to us, we assume the responsibilities of teaching, preaching, and pastoral counseling, while lacking any deep knowledge of the desert and its creative silence. But through instructing others we ourselves perhaps begin to learn. Slowly we recognize our powerlessness to heal the wounds of humanity solely through philanthropic programs, common sense and psychoanalysis. Our self-dependence is broken down, we appreciate our own inadequacy, and so we start to understand what Christ meant by the “one thing that is necessary” (Lk 10:42). That is the moment when a person may by the divine mercy start to advance along the path of the starets [spiritual fathers and mothers]. Through our pastoral experience, through our anguish over the pain of others, we are brought to undertake the journey inwards and to seek the hidden treasure-house of the Kingdom, where alone a genuine solution to the world’s problems can be found…. Provided we seek with humble sincerity to enter into the “secret chamber” of our heart, we can all share to some degree in the grace of spiritual fatherhood or motherhood (Inner Kingdom, p. 135).

It is not too late for any of us to grow in this “grace of spiritual fatherhood or motherhood”; there is a radiant path through this world, and walking this path in obedience to God will cause us to become, including as spiritual fathers and mothers. Perhaps we will find ourselves more able to stay on that path if we highlight what it looks like when we leave the path. When those attempting to serve as leaders “turn aside to the right hand or to the left” (Deuteronomy 5:32), certain characteristic errors ensue. On the one hand, spiritual mothers and fathers can assert carnal forms of power over those they are called to serve. This error is based on an ersatz masculinity. On the other hand, spiritual mothers and fathers can turn aside from God’s will by failing to exercise godly authority. When Christian leaders bend to worldly pressure and unhealed fear, they fail to come into the true masculine. Let’s consider these two errors in turn that we might better discern how to walk on the narrow but radiant path of obedience to our Father’s ways.

Ersatz masculine and false images of spiritual fathering

In chapter 5 of Crisis in Masculinity Leanne explains how Christian maturity requires that the natural masculine drive be tempered by God’s own masculine will. If a man does not find himself in union with God, he will continue to seek affirmation, self-acceptance, and identity in what he can accomplish. And in chapter 4 of The Healing Presence Leanne writes about how natural masculine giftedness becomes perverted by the Fall: “[the] power to initiate can turn into a raw drive toward power” (p. 66). In this important chapter she illuminates the dangers for both the church and family when the ersatz masculine supplants the real. It is not difficult to see how Christian leaders would misuse positions of authority to serve their own ego and trespass against those they are called to serve if they do not remain centered in Christ. Jesus explained this inevitability to His followers: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (Matthew 20:25 NRSV). He went on to explain how it is in His Kingdom: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” To offer spiritual fathering is to serve — to serve our Father’s will in the life of the one seeking fathering. As Bishop Ware puts it, “The abba is… a fellow-servant of the living God; not a tyrant, but a guide and companion on the way. The only true ‘spiritual director,’ in the fullest sense of the word, is the Holy Spirit” (Inner Kingdom, p. 144).

Spiritual fathering is not about being recognized as superior or being given a special title or position. In Matthew 23 we have the record of Jesus cautioning His disciples about this very temptation. He knew better than anyone how hierarchical inequality is “evil in the world of selfishness and necessity” but “good in the world of love and understanding” (C. S. Lewis, Miracles, printed in Complete Signature Classics, p. 276). If we are “loving” the way identifying as a spiritual mother or father strokes our ego or props up our false self, we leave the Vine and fail to love truly. As Lewis said, “It is indeed only love that makes the difference” (p. 276). As Leanne wrote in chapter 9 of Restoring the Christian Soul, spiritual maturity requires that we know the “bad guy” within. Those who are called to spiritual fathering must become especially well acquainted with Christ’s warning here: there is bad guy in every one of us who schemes to win special standing, seeks a distinguished title, and craves recognition as especially admirable. For those in positions of authority or leadership, the question is not, “Do I struggle with pride?” but rather, “How did pride tempt me today?” Jesus gives His beloved followers the antidote to this weakness: “But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:11 KJV). C. S. Lewis articulated this key principle of spiritual fathering in Miracles: “To be high or central means to abdicate continually: to be low means to be raised: all good masters are servants: God washed the feet of men” (Lewis, p. 278 in Complete Signature Classics).


At times the Body of Christ suffers under ersatz spiritual fathering that is formalized into a program or institutional structure. This occurred with what became known as the Shepherding Movement that developed in charismatic circles during the 1970s. (For those who aren’t familiar with this movement, the emphasis was on creating structures in the local church that would provide accountability for each believer in submission to a “shepherd,” a designated spiritual authority figure who “covered” each member under him.) Believers who have been injured through distorted teaching and practices regarding authority and obedience continue to receive healing through the cross of Christ to this day. True spiritual fathering is never coercive, and even in instances where spiritual fathers or mothers call the ones they are serving to obedience, influence is never sought through threats or force. Bishop Ware speaks most plainly on this issue: “Do not force people’s free will. The task of our spiritual father is not to destroy our freedom, but to assist us to see the truth for ourselves; not to suppress our personality, but to enable us to discover our own true self, to grow to full maturity and become what we really are” (p. 145). As is always God’s merciful way when the Church is afflicted with dangerous errors, leaders of the Shepherding Movement were called to repentance. This statement of apology from one of those leaders, Bob Mumford, models the humility required of true spiritual fathers while confessing to the great harm caused by those moving in the ersatz masculine:

Accountability, personal training under the guidance of another and effective pastoral care are needed biblical concepts… However, to my personal pain and chagrin, these particular emphases very easily lent themselves to an unhealthy submission resulting in perverse and unbiblical obedience to human leaders. Many of these abuses occurred within the spheres of my own responsibility. For the injury and shame caused to people, families, and the larger body of Christ, I repent with sorrow and ask for your forgiveness (Mumford’s statement of apology published in Shepherding Movement by S. David Moore, p. 173).

I would suggest that we are more prone to the ersatz masculine when we have a low view of God that fails to appreciate the awesome power of Incarnational Reality. A leader who lacks faith in God’s great secret – “Christ in you, your hope of glory” – is more likely to place faith in his own methods of training others or rely on the control of legalism or coercion. One who offers true spiritual fathering depends wholly on the real spiritual director, the Holy Spirit, and invites the one being served into personal relationship. As Bishop Ware explains, “This personal contact protects the disciple against rigid legalism, against slavish submission to the letter of the law. He learns the way, not through external conformity to written rules, but through seeing a human face and hearing a living voice. In this way the spiritual mother or father is the guardian of evangelical freedom” (p. 146). It is also worth mentioning here that the commitment of spiritual mothers or fathers to the ones they are serving can also tempt some to the practice of substitution. Leanne writes of this confusion that can harm spiritual leaders who over-identify in sympathy or concern with those they care for (see chapter 13 of The Healing Presence). With all due respect to Bishop Ware, I would humbly caution readers regarding his suggestion that spiritual fathers and mothers “make others’ suffering their own” (Inner Kingdom, p. 138). Just as the Holy Spirit is the real spiritual director, Christ is the only redeemer, and the proper work of spiritual mothers and fathers is to point to Him as the source of all life and hope.

The true masculine and godly authority

We live in a day that is impoverished of true masculinity, and therefore of godly authority. This poverty has devastating consequences for the structures essential to human life – most obviously our families and churches. Leanne was compelled to write Crisis in Masculinity to teach the church to pray for healing for this cultural epidemic. I believe one reason Leanne’s ministry continues to grow in its reach even beyond her lifetime is that God moves through MPC to restore the divine masculine to His body, and to clergy and ministry leaders in particular. To put it simply, the Church cannot serve the world in her full power without the operation of godly authority. As Leanne wrote in Heaven’s Calling, “There is no greater need today than for knowledgeable and noble men in authority everywhere, capable of courageously speaking the truth both in the church and in the public square” (p. 292). In her memoir Leanne described her personal wrestling with this deficit in the Church as she sought covering for the work God had called her to do.

Even priests such as Fr. Winkler, were they to be found, were having great difficulty going forward due to problems at higher levels of the institutional church. I was searching for godly authority, which is what hierarchy is supposed to provide, and like Fr. Winkler, could not find it. Increasingly, faulty seminary training together with political correctness had robbed even the better clergy and bishops from the ability to rightly name sin, confront it, hear confessions, and minister into the lives of penitents – the basis of all healing prayer rites and that which brings into our midst the power of God to heal (Heaven’s Calling, p. 233).


Spiritual mothers and fathers must love the truth and love those they are serving enough to speak the truth. Serving God’s will requires us to become men and women who can wield authority rightly to correct sin and extract good from evil in the world around us. We learn to pray for the healing of the will: Descend into me, divine, masculine, eternal will! As C. S. Lewis writes, “A father half apologetic for having brought his son into the world, afraid to restrain him lest he should create inhibitions or even to instruct him lest he should interfere with his independence of mind, is a most misleading symbol of the Divine Fatherhood” (Problem of Pain, p. 387 in Complete Signature Classics). It is Christ’s own living presence within that enables spiritual mothers and fathers to transcend the fear and weakness of human inadequacy for the sake of God’s begetting purposes. Bishop Ware writes of the mysterious power of the saint who abides in Christ: “Such is the pattern of spiritual fatherhood or motherhood. Establish yourself in God; then you can bring others to His presence. Each must learn to be alone, and so in the stillness of their own heart they will begin to hear the wordless speech of the Spirit, thus discovering the truth about themselves and about God. Then their word to others will be a word of power, because it is a word out of silence” (Inner Kingdom, p. 133). As small as we know ourselves to be, we also know that the Holy Spirit delights to come as counselor and helper, moving through us with His mighty presence. In the end, becoming a spiritual father or mother happens in the same manner as all becoming: we listen for the voice of our Beloved and obey all that we hear Him say.


Chambers, Oswald. My Utmost for His Highest. Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour, 2000. Print.

Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: HarperOne, 1949. Print.

Lewis, C. S. The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. San Francisco: Harper, 2002. Print.

_____. The Problem of Pain. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Print.

Moore, S. David. The Shepherding Movement: Controversy and Charismatic Ecclesiology. London: T & T Clark International, 2003. Print.

Payne, Leanne. Crisis in Masculinity. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1985. Print.

_____. Heaven’s Calling: A Memoir of One Soul’s Steep Ascent. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2008. Print.

_____. The Healing Presence: Curing the Soul through Union with Christ. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1995. Print.

_____. Listening Prayer: Learning to Hear God’s Voice and Keep a Prayer Journal. Paperback ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1999. Print.

Questions & Answers on Sponsorship. New York, N.Y.: A.A. Grapevine, 1976. Print.

Ware, Bishop Kallistos. The Inner Kingdom. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 2000. Print.


Photo of Leanne Payne and Manfred Schmidt courtesy of Jean Holt.

“Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn derivative work: carulmare [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“David” (Michelangelo) by Korido (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.