Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Experience is not the End

Written by: on November 15, 2019

When I was sixteen my parents went to a conference with John Wimber. During the course of the conference my dad went forward to get prayed over by Wimber. By all accounts it was an amazing experience for him. My dad was a mistake, or at least that is what his mother repeatedly told him as he grew up. He was born ten years after his only sibling at a time when his mother thought she was done with kids. Shortly after he was born his parents got a divorce, his father moved to the other side of the state and his mother married a man that was physically and emotionally abusive to both him and his mother. She would stay with that man until my dad was big enough to stand up for the both of them. Needless to say, my dad did not have a great father figure to look up to, so when he became a father he emulated the father he knew. He was not physically abusive, but he was (and is) a harsh man. When my dad went up for prayer that day, he says that he finally experienced fatherly love and was cleansed of the shame he felt all those years. He came home a changed man and I knew it because he hugged me, something he had never done in the sixteen short years of my life. There was an expectation that he was now a new person, but he was not, he would return to old patterns after a couple weeks except now he was considered more spiritual by the people that went to the conference with him.

Simon P. Walker is a researcher at Bristol University. He established the research field of Cognitive Steering. Walker’s Undefended Leader Trilogy explores what it means to be a leader that is not constrained by their steering biases – those unconscious forces that cause us to act in particular ways. He explores the ability of people to lead freely and how that makes them better leaders. In the first book “Leading Out of Who You Are” he explores the biases that hold leaders back from being undefended.

In the church we often lift up those people who have had spiritual experiences as if the experience makes that person laudable without regard to anything else. I saw this first hand with my dad. The problem is that all too often the experience comes and goes without any follow up. Walker would likely agree with me that there is a problem with having an experience of the Father and then expecting the experience to suffice. With every experience there is a call to the deep work of solidifying the results of that experience.

In providing us these experiences God’s hospitality is inviting us into a deeper relationship with her. God is saying, I have made space for you to dig deeper — come and dwell with me. We miss a tremendous opportunity in not taking God up on this offer. It is in this time that God allows is providing space for us to work on the forces that have caused us to be who we have become and refine what was provided in the experience.

As people of God we need to provide that space for those experiencing God to dwell in what God is calling them to rather than simply lifting them up for having an experience. Leadership often means knowing when a person is ready to be lifted up and when they are not. Inviting those we lead into the space provided by God will help us to see more fully realized followers of Christ.

About the Author

Sean Dean

An expat of the great state of Maine where the lobster is cheap and the winters are brutal I've settled in as a web developer in Tacoma, Washington. As a foster-adoptive parent of 3 beautiful boys, I have deep questions about the American church's response to the public health crisis that is our foster system.

14 responses to “The Experience is not the End”

  1. John Muhanji says:

    This is an incredible sharing, Sean. Your point of reference is very touching and encouraging as we grow in our ministry and how you have connected with Walker’s research field of cognitive steering and your family story is awesome. You just spoke to me through your story. “We miss a tremendous opportunity in not taking God up on this offer.” Thank you for sharing this Sean.

  2. Jenn Burnett says:

    Sean this was such a moving post. Thank you for your vulnerability. I appreciate to your picture of that solidifying work happening as a result of the hospitality of God being accepted. That initial experience might be seen then more as an invitation rather than transformative in and of itself. As leaders, how might we approach ministry so that it does that deeper work? Is there a place for those one off encounters? If so, how do be more transparent about the risks? (Rather than finding a way to measure such events so they always appear successful.)

    • Sean Dean says:

      The more I think about it the more I’m treasuring the practice of spiritual direction. I think that it’d be great if there were spiritual directors to help people as the process the experience. That being said, God works in mysterious ways, so I’m not going to exclude the one-off experience that ‘s just a nudge in the right direction. But by and large I think most experiences need to be process and soaked in before we can fully understand them.

  3. Sean, I so appreciate your perspective of the need to provide space for those that are experiencing God to dwell in what God is calling them to rather than lifting them up for having an experience. It brings to mind how important it is disciple young believers and helping them to nurture a closer relationship with God that allows the transformation of their lives by His Holy Spirit.

  4. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Sean, wow. Thank you for sharing so personally about your father. How difficult.
    I agree with you about the progress and hard work needed to sustain a spiritual experience. Events I guess are fine (part of my perspective is that events are costly in the way of staff time, etc) but fail in many ways as you have poignantly pointed out. Accountability and true community may have made a difference in your father’s life surrounding that powerful event. No simple answers but do you agree that accountability would have helped or do you see something else that could have provided support by the local church? Appreciate you friend.

    • Sean Dean says:

      I see your point on events being more work than they are worth – or at least seeming that way. I think that experientially as believers it’s important to have things that throw us off our balance in order to allow God to move powerfully. That being said, I think that it’s important for the local community of the attendees to be ready to both provide space and also help lead attendees in the experiences they’ve had. I was thinking about this and I’m wondering what it would look like to have a team of spiritual directors that are at events ready to help people process their experiences in the heat of the moment.

      As for my dad, I think that definitely if someone had come along side of him to help him walk out and process what he had experienced, that would have made a huge difference. I can hardly imagine what that would look like, but yeah it would have been a great start.

      Thank you for your kind words.

  5. Mary Mims says:

    Thank you Sean for sharing your example. This story illustrates why there are so many broken people in the church that only have a partial healing. I think about Kayne West, who although has been recently saved, obviously still needs help with emotional issues. I pray the church would stop this practice of elevating people who still need help, and help these broken people live fully, undefended.

  6. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Thanks Sean. You’re personal reflection on unconscious steering is one that most people will identify with in some way. The old saying that a Leopard does not change it’s spots’, is behaviourally true. In the philosophy of linguistics there is a question that rattles people: “What comes first, language, or experience?” Most philosophers agree that language comes before experience, because it’s language that makes sense of experience. The language we have grown up with determines how we interpret and understand our experiences. I’d be interested in your opinion. Having been through major drama personally and then walking with others going through similar experiences, I realised that the inner language (steering?) determines the outcome. Words like forgiveness, grace, love transformation often sit at the heart of modern Christian religious interpretation of experience, which seems to mean other interpretive words like repentance, restitution and reconciliation rarely preceded the word most hoped for, ‘restoration’. For me at least, these last few books have given me pause to consider the language that surrounds leadership conversations and how it interprets (often poorly) our contextual experiences. It reminds me that if I don’ have a full enough language of religion and reflection, then my experiences may remain missed opportunities. Thanks again.

    • Sean Dean says:

      The language question is so important. I understand the argument that says that we have to create the language to be able to have the experience. But I wonder if it’s a chicken and the egg question. Perhaps it’s more of us having an experience we’re not able to describe, so we develop language which helps us to relive the experience in a deeper way. I don’t have a good answer, but I think it’s a good question to be asking.

  7. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your heart-felt, yet painful experiences. Your reflection of your father’s experience and lack of follow-through is so evident throughout the church and unfortunately, often in its leaders. Walker’s construct of the continuous interaction of our front stage and our backstage helped me so much to connect with this. What does or does not happen in the backstage will invariably be expressed on the front stage. My father also was a harsh man having survived the ravages of WWII as an adolescent German native. I have always wondered how things may have been different for my father if he had been given access to the resources I have been so richly afforded. I want to lead out of freedom as an undefended leader and walk with other leaders who desire the same. Thanks so much for walking with me on this journey.

    • Sean Dean says:

      Thank you Harry. Yeah, I wonder how my dad’s life would be different if he had been given the opportunity to grow in his experience of God. The front-stage/backstage dichotomy is critically important. My mom has said of my dad – he has to hear himself being a [jerk] before he realizes he’s being one. It’d be great if that processing could happen backstage, but alas we are where we are.

      Thank you for your kind words and thank you for walking with me on this journey as well.

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