By Sue Reeve & Contributors

Left to right:  Sharon Smith, Sue Reeve, Jeannie Carpenter, and Cindy Ward

Spiritual Direction Sisters Re-Unite:

In the late afternoon on Sunday, February 25, 2024, four Sherpas from different regions in the U.S. met at the Franciscan Renewal Center near Phoenix, Arizona, to attend the 8th Annual ESDA Gathering. Following joyful hugs and catching-up conversations, each of us was anxious to settle into four days of listening, learning, growing, and building new relationships with like-minded spiritual directors.

Jeannie Carpenter, Sharon Smith, Sue Reeve (all members of Sherpa Cohort One), and Cindy Ward (Cohort Two), registered for not only the main conference, which began Tuesday, but also participated in the excellent Monday Pre-Gathering Event, The Art of Retreat, facilitated by Mike Bowden. 

Uncovering Stories We Believe: 

The theme for this year’s Gathering was The Stories We Believe:  Uncovering Shame in Spiritual Direction. We prepared beforehand by reading recommended books: The Soul of Shame by Curt Thompson, M.D., and As I Recall – Discovering the Place of Memories in Our Spiritual Life by Casey Tygrett. 

A Foundation of Scriptural Teaching:

Debbie Swindoll, founder of Grafted Life, the parent organization of ESDA, began each morning with scriptural teaching. 

Opening with the story of Moses, she illustrated how shame impacted his narrative (Exodus 2 and 3) in a story which eventually led the Israelites from the desert to the Promised Land. Debbie then moved to the beautiful story of the woman who bleeds (Luke 8:40-48). Despite her shameful condition, this brave woman pursued Jesus and left with Jesus’ reassuring words, “Go in Peace!” 

Encounters with God bring the shameful parts of our story from failure into victory; from slavery into freedom; and from hopeless wilderness into a place of peace.

Next, Debbie took us to The Genesis of Shame (Genesis 2 and 3) beginning with when God’s beloved creations lived “naked and without shame.” Because of choices Adam and Eve made, they experienced abandonment but also the loving grace of “The Lord God, who made them sturdy clothes, giving them back stability in their disruption.” 

As spiritual directors, our personal journeys include learning how to “wear Christ” as we journey with directees as they confront their own stories of shame. 

In her concluding talk, Debbie vulnerably and graciously related the impact of her own personal story of shame.

ESDA Gathering Structure:

Throughout the Gathering, various speakers shared experiences related to shame, which had become embedded in their stories. All were heartfelt, inspirational, and filled with hope. Small group exercises and spiritual practices were interspersed throughout. These will not be summarized in this post, but each segment added both depth and breadth to the Gathering. 

In addition to beginning each day with foundational scriptural teaching, the two keynote speakers at this year’s ESDA Gathering were “top-notch.” 

First Keynote Presentation: 

Dianna Kubacz, M.D., family practice physician, missionary, spiritual director, and mother to five children, including nursing infant, Silas, who accompanied his mama, spoke on Shame Rooted in Our Stories.

Dr. Kubacz explained shame changes the ways we write and remember our stories. She explored ways in which life stories develop, how shame becomes rooted in narratives, and the fruit shame produces. Most importantly, she stressed our stories can be re-written. 

While healthy shame teaches us about beneficial limits, toxic shame isolates, robs joy, and makes people vulnerable to “pseudo-joys,” including a variety of addictions. Toxic shame leads to “false guilt, which condemns rather than “true guilt,” which produces good fruit and leads to freedom. It often produces an “overly scrupulous conscience,” burdening one down with a sense of unattainable perfectionism. 

Hope is restored through spiritual direction as we offer:

  • Awareness 
  • Attention
  • Vulnerability 
  • “Hesed” Community, which leads to integrated minds and healthy, grace-filled stories.

Dr. Kubacz spoke about the relevance of spiritual direction in the process of helping a directee become free from the grip of shame, since as spiritual directors, we “invite our directees to a space of ‘selah’ openness.” As a spiritual director accompanies a directee, “We come alongside them and stay with them as he or she holds an implicit mental model in focused self-reflection, allowing the Holy Spirit to speak Truth into areas needing adjustment.” 

Keynote Presentation Two:

Memories, Neuroplasticity + Pneumaplasticity:  God’s Sacred Work of Rewriting Your Story was the title of the second keynote presenter, Genalin Niere-Metcalf, Psy.D., whose resume’ includes degrees as Registered Nurse, Clinical Psychologist, and seminary-trained Spiritual Director. 

This presentation was personally impactful for me (Sue Reeve). While impressed with Niere-Metcalf’s credentials, my soul was touched deeply by her heart for people and God, which she declared with tearful humility. Even though I consider myself a novice spiritual director, the deepest prayer of my heart is that in some small way, I will be used in my ministry of spiritual direction to help directees realize the healing love of God, which has been my experience in receiving spiritual direction. This session from the ESDA Gathering created a new level of commitment and trust in the faithful work of God’s Spirit to bring about transformation.

Thanks to Cindy Ward who highlighted the following thoughts from Genalin Niere-Metcalf’s presentation: 

  • The invitation with memories is to gather who we are so that we can become who God designed us to be.
  • Our memories help us say, “I am here, and my story matters.”
  • Concerning memories, God is gracious, and He will bring to mind what we can handle.
  • Our original design is to be seen by someone else. 
  • In spiritual direction, we practice “with-ness” to witness others’ pain.
  • To be present to others’ stories and be okay, we must first become okay with our own stories. 
  • Be honest with the truth you know today.
  • Be with Jesus in your story.
  • Hope is wired in our very being.
  • “Only God can re-write wilderness into a place of blessing.”

A pictorial bibliography from Dr. Niere-Metcalf.

Jeannie Carpenter Reflects:

The colorful sticky notes on my life mapping project did not reveal the root of shame in writing my spiritual autobiography. Shame totally escaped my awareness. Approximately one month prior to attending the ESDA gathering, which focused on uncovering shame in spiritual direction, I asked the Lord to reveal hidden shame in my story. He did. 

Key to understanding shame is knowing that we are wired for joy. Curt Thompson expressed joy as “a byproduct of deeply connected relationships in which each member is consummately known” and “absolute joy must eventually include my being completely known.” We have a “shame attendant” who remains at our service to constantly supply us with thoughts that we are not good enough or we are defective in some way. That’s how Eve was deceived. The shame attendant told her, “For God knows that when you eat from it (the tree that is in the middle of the garden) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Previously Eve had been naked and felt no shame. Eve was believing since God did not want her to have what he had (opened eyes like Him), she was NOT ENOUGH.


Casey Tygrett reminded us in As I Recall, the field of epigenetics suggests memories can be transferred through our DNA. Curt Thompson further comments that epigenetics now suggest that human experience has the capacity to turn genes on and off. Wow, that suggests a troubling question: Can I inherit shame? Even people who are deceased can continue to have sway over my life, depending on how I continue to process my ongoing experiences with my memory of them. This is why I can continue to have feelings of shame when I have memories of events involving a parent who is no longer living.

Hebb’s Axiom, in honor of Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb states: Those neurons that fire together wire together. In essence, the more we practice activating neural networks, the more easily they are to activate, and the more permanent they become in the brain. The thoughts of shame can be a never-ending cycle if there is not intervention. Quoting again from Curt Thompson: “[Shame] is the emotional weapon that evil uses to (1) corrupt our relationships with God and each other, and (2) disintegrate any and all gifts of vocational vision and creativity. We must do the sometimes painfully hard work of perseverance, of looking at shame repeatedly and disregarding it repeatedly. In so doing the resilience of character—the flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, and stable states of integration—emerges as the byproduct of our transformation, which enables us to remember a different future. This is a hopeful future, God’s future, that, as N. T. Wright suggests, has in Jesus already moved forward into our present, renewing everything about it, while pointing to what is coming. And this hope, this imagery of being joyfully known, leaves no room for shame.”

As Sherpas, we are equipped and prepared to do this hard work. It is my ethical obligation to look into the mirror of my own soul for shame recognition prior to asking a directee to look into theirs. When we recognize and name the shame which brings it out of the darkness, the light of love and God’s word will dispel the darkness. It is most important for us to build loving, accepting relationships with one another in our ministry of individual spiritual direction, with family, friends, and colleagues as well as within communities in which God places us. 

Closing Thoughts from Sherpas Jeannie, Sharon, Cindy, and Sue:

Jeannie said in closing, “I am thankful I made the decision to attend the ESDA Gathering this year. I know the experience will improve my ability to recognize and hear shame in myself first, and then in others. I am challenged by the Gathering’s closing evocative question: How do we get back to being naked and unashamed?”

Sharon’s and Sue’s primary takeaways were almost identical. Sharon said, “My biggest takeaway from the ESDA Gathering was a reminder that we all have a toolbox, and the tools are good. Both Sharon and Sue referenced Dr. Genalin Nere-Metcalf’s qualifying closing reminder, “No amount of knowledge can heal you like the love of God. All we learn and study are tools to help clear the obstacles that get in the way of experiencing the love of Jesus.” Sue resoundingly says, “Amen” to Sharon’s assessment that “God’s love is the only thing that can truly heal, change, and transform a life!” 

Cindy’s takeaway: “The ESDA Gathering was a gift to me, not only in content and new friendships but also in the gentle, safe space we were given to tackle some heavy subjects. In addition to the many discussions of how shame affects us all, the conference also included excellent teaching and treatments of the power of memories in our formation and the stories our directees carry. 

I arrived in prayerful hope that the Lord would minister to my heart and story and give me fresh ideas on listening more accurately to my directees. God graciously gave above and beyond what I asked for – in the gentle rhythms of teaching, personal reflection time, and small group time – much healing occurred for me. And new tools were added to my spiritual direction toolbox for dealing with shame and memories in direction sessions.

It was also wonderful to be with other spiritual directors – folks who required no explanations or disclaimers about what we do and readily jumped into the deep end of conversations. It was beautiful to sing, pray, and share this intense week and heavy information with folks from all over the country and beyond. The week was a great reminder that God is inviting his children into wholeness and healing and is using spiritual directors to host many of those moments. What an incredible honor.

Next year is already on my calendar, and Lord willing, I will make this gathering part of my yearly rhythms. It would be wonderful to see lots of Sherpa friends there, too.   

Should You Consider Attending ESDA ‘s Gathering Next Year?

All four Sherpas who contributed to this blog post agree the 2024 ESDA Gathering was well worth the time and expense. All plan to attend next year’s gathering which will be held in late January 2025.

The Franciscan Renewal Center near Phoenix in Scottsdale, Arizona, is an idyllic desert facility (especially if you live in cold weather climates). Temperatures were in the low to mid 70’s. The grounds are beautifully landscaped, providing plenty of walking paths, a serene Healing Garden, as well as spots to get away for times of personal reflection. The rooms were comfortable, and all meals served were delicious, offering a variety for every dietary preference. 

Grafted Life and ESDA staff were helpful, efficient, and gracious. The opportunity to meet with a wide and diverse group of likeminded spiritual directors was refreshing and encouraging. Plus, as previously stated, every scheduled session was relevant and high quality.   

For future information regarding next year’s Gathering, check out

Ever since Debbie Swindoll, founder of ESDA introduced the concept of Shame and Spiritual Direction, when she taught Sherpa’s Retreat C for Cohorts 2 and 3, we now  include in our Sherpa, Certificate in Spiritual Direction Training Program (Retreat C), material related to the themes of ESDA’s Gathering 2024. Sherpa’s regular spiritual direction trainer for Retreat C from here forward is our own (Sherpa Cohort 1, and SD Supervisor) Dr. Helen Kim Nowalk. Cohort 4, alums, and guests who join our April 4-7 retreat at Ignatius House in Atlanta, will have an opportunity to take your own deep dive into this rich and beneficial material.