I only became aware of the ministry known as ‘spiritual direction’ relatively recently. Maybe it’s new to you too. I was a student on a Master’s program with the University of the Nations, studying the processes involved in discipleship and spiritual formation. As part of completing the program, students could opt either to write an academic research paper or design some sort of project based on the discipleship process.
For my final project, I designed a series of retreats guiding people through creative activities and art-making. As I noticed the way God was leading me to walk alongside others, it felt a bit different to what I had done before in Youth With A Mission (YWAM). I continued to read widely in order to complete the project and began to find out more about a ministry known as spiritual direction.
Spiritual direction describes the way one person might accompany another on their journey of discipleship. While new to me, it is an ancient practice of the Church, developed as people sought to support one another in the prayerful process of learning to focus our attention on God. Since our lives are constantly being affected by the things that draw our attention, learning to be discerning about what we give our attention to is part of what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus. Helpfully, spiritual direction teaches us to distinguish between the ways in which we are being orientated towards God, or away from him. Essentially, it offers a place to stand back in order to listen to, recognise and respond to the Spirit of God in our lives. The Bible itself offers us many examples of what it means to be accompanied by others on our spiritual journey.
The Road to Emmaus by Fritz von Uhde
A spiritual director, then, is not a director in the way we think of a director in business or education. (I think it was that word association that put me off initially). Rather than acting as ‘director’ of another person’s life, the role of a spiritual director is to help discern the leading of the Holy Spirit, to listen more closely to His movements and invitations in our lives. In fact, there’s an awful lot of listening going on in the spiritual direction relationship!
The person who has sought out the support of the spiritual director (often called ‘the directee’) is listening to the questions and reflections offered by the director, while simultaneously listening to the ways God is present in the conversation. Sometimes the most tricky part is learning to listen to himself, his own internal reactions, questions, emotions or places of resistance. The spiritual director is similarly listening to what the directee is sharing while paying attention to how God might be directing the conversation towards a particular question or topic.
You might guess that in this kind of conversation there can be a strong sense that God himself is the director. This three-way listening (God, the spiritual director and the directee) is characteristic of spiritual direction. It means that there may often be silent pauses in the conversation as both director and directee lean in to listen more carefully to the ways God is leading them.
My first step in exploring this for myself was to seek out my own spiritual director. I had heard that Debbie, a woman I had met at the church we were attending, was a trained director so I reached out to her. She was happy to set up an initial meeting. It turned out that this is the usual thing, to get a feel for one another and figure out if the relationship feels like a good fit. We arranged to meet at her house, which suited me because it would be free from distractions (I have since met many spiritual directors who are happy to meet people over Skype or some other video conferencing platform. This is great for people in mission who might not have access to a spiritual director where they live).
At our first meeting, Debbie welcomed me into the house and we got settled in her comfortable sitting room. She offered me a cup of coffee or a glass of water, and I gladly accepted a coffee; I was feeling slightly awkward and it felt easier to have something to wrap my hands around. I noticed the box of tissues on the coffee table and wondered if people often find themselves crying in spiritual direction. Would spiritual direction be a little like therapy, I wondered?
Some of these questions were only answered as I continued going to spiritual direction over the coming months. Others were answered right off the bat. Debbie used this initial meeting to lay out the parameters of spiritual direction and briefly explained that we would meet about once a month for an hour each time. She told me that I could talk about anything at all during our time together and that our focus would be on the ways God is seeking to be present to me in that particular experience. This means that, unlike counselling, she would not be offering advice or potential solutions to problems rooted in the past. And, unlike coaching, she would not be encouraging me to create goals in order to realise some future vision. While there are points of intersect between counselling, coaching and spiritual direction, she explained, the latter will tend to focus on the person’s awareness of the ways God is present to them in their lived experience.
None of this answered the question about crying, but I was beginning to feel more comfortable. It couldn’t be that hard to talk about life and God, could it? Debbie went on to remind me that everything we discussed would be confidential (barring the obvious exceptions) and added that if we went ahead with regular sessions she’d have me sign an ‘agreement’. This turned out to be a single page document simply setting out what I was agreeing to (things like not ditching a session without decent warning) and what she was agreeing to (which included praying for me). There was also a mention of finances which, while some directors have a fixed fee, in Debbie’s case was donation-based.
So far, so director-ish.
Fast-forwarding to our first couple of ‘official’ sessions, I quickly got into the rhythm of Debbie offering an opening prayer and then asking where I wanted to begin the conversation. So I realised it was good to have spent at least a brief time reflecting on how to use the time, even if the conversation never seemed to go exactly along the lines I thought it would! I gradually came to expect those sorts of surprises that reminded me why it is good to have someone else asking questions and reflecting on my responses.
I noticed immediately that Debbie seemed far more at ease leaving space for silence than I was! In my discomfort I would ramble, spiralling off into unnecessary rabbit trails of external processing. It took a while, but eventually I came to realise that silence can offer the deepest places of listening. If I can sit in the silence, it is so often there that I realise things about myself that had escaped me in the noise of everyday life. And I hear quiet nudgings from the Lord that I would otherwise be simply too distracted to notice and attend.
Sometimes Debbie will reflect on a passage or story from scripture. When she does, we seem to chew it over a few times and a word or phrase can become a motif for that session. At other times, she will suggest a particular way of praying or some sort of reflective activity that she senses would be helpful. Somehow I never feel put-upon or talked down to, which I think is due to the gentle, wondering way that seems characteristic of spiritual direction. When offered in a way that is true to this particular ministry, any input seems to open up spacious places of invitation, rather than shaming us into feeling like we must do better. Sometimes Debbie invites me to pray at the end, sometimes she prays. There’s nothing heavy or forced about the pattern of our time together; it feels light.
These days I try to schedule a spiritual direction time about once a month. Maybe you wonder what I find to talk about every month? Well, sometimes I am aware of a particular question or aspect of life that is begging for attention, and I go prepared to talk about that. I don’t always turn up feeling like I have anything in particular to talk about, yet somehow in the course of the conversation I ‘wake up’ to my own longings, to my hunger for God, to any areas of discomfort or dislocation. Often spiritual direction helps me to reframe some of my unconscious perspectives on what is going on in my life.
This, to me, is the beauty of spiritual direction. It offers us a place to peel back the surface distractions that are a necessary part of ordinary life, in order to pay attention to the deeper, quieter conversation that, in our day-to-day busyness, lies just beyond our conscious thought. As we listen to ourselves speaking, responding to questions, and as we pay attention to our unspoken feelings or reactions, we are led by God in ways we might otherwise miss. By cultivating a greater awareness of what is going on within me, and in my relationships with others, I have been challenged to greater honesty. Overall, I feel certain that this has led to a deepening and strengthening of my relationship with God.
Maybe this is something that you’d like to experience for yourself? It could be that you aren’t currently in a training context where you are assigned to a ‘one-on-one’ or perhaps it’s just that you’ve outgrown what is available in your context. Maybe you have the sense that the overwhelming need of those to whom you minister is causing you to lose touch with your own sense of being with God. It could be that you have questions around faith and are not sure who to talk to about that. Perhaps you are going through a difficult season and are trying to find God in the struggle or discomfort. Maybe you are simply longing for someone to talk to about your spiritual life. Spiritual direction is a good place for any of these sorts of conversations.
It is possible that your local church will have information on spiritual directors living nearby. If you are not living in a place where this is straightforward, then you can either ask someone familiar with spiritual direction for a recommendation, or access directories of people offering spiritual direction remotely. In every case, it works best to have an initial meeting before deciding to connect regularly. Unlike coaching or counselling, spiritual direction does not usually have a fixed number of sessions and it is common for people to journey with the same spiritual director for many months or even years. It is not necessary to make this commitment from the get-go. It is possible to benefit from just a few meetings with a spiritual director, however, many people find that the positive effects of this sort of relationship is cumulative and the blessings seem even greater over time.
(Note: to be sure that you are speaking with a certified spiritual director who is trained in best practices, check that they are part of an association such as the Evangelical Spiritual Directors Association and that they receive regular supervision themselves.)