What Is Spiritual Direction?

What Is Spiritual Direction?

Many people have asked me what spiritual direction is, or what the difference is between a spiritual director and a pastor, minister, counselor, etc. So I thought it might be worth while to write a post specifically addressing some of these questions. It is a bit long, but I hope it is thorough!


What is Spiritual Direction?

Spiritual direction is an ongoing, one on one relationship between a spiritual director and a directee with the intent of reflecting on and examining the directee’s relationship with God (Barry & Connolly 5). Jeanette Bakke explains it as, “…the name given to a particular kind of helping relationship whose primary objective is to discern how God is inviting someone to be, to live, to appreciate, and to act in the midst of life” (11).

Spiritual direction is an ancient tradition that has been central to spiritual growth; and historically embraced by so many of our treasured Christian saints, theologians, and lay persons. It might be tempting to automatically classify spiritual direction as a form of counseling, discipleship, or mentoring—and overlaps do exist; however, spiritual direction is unique in its specific focus on the individual’s experience with God (Barry & Connolly 8).

Spiritual direction is about creating space for the directee to reflect upon and examine the structures used to organize their experience with God—structures they are largely unaware of (Barry & Connolly 89).

The Spiritual Director

The spiritual director’s role is not to exhort the directee or to provide a detailed plan of action to address a specific problem. Rather, the spiritual director primarily listens and asks questions. They come alongside the directee to help them “…read the maps, avoid dead ends, and watch out for potholes” (Barry & Connolly 145). A spiritual director “facilitates discovery” through attentive listening and gentle prompting (Barry & Connolly 44). Very rarely in our society is one given the chance to speak for an extended period of time to someone who is genuinely willing listening and cares deeply about what the other has to say (Barry & Connolly 135). The spiritual director creates a space for the directee to reflect and examine their experience with God.

While ideally trained and experienced in listening and discernment “…the spiritual director has neither magic powers nor a direct line to God’s ear, but is only a fellow traveller—at a different place on the road perhaps, but a fallible and ordinary traveler none the less” (Guenther 36). The spiritual director does his or her best to listen to the directee, while also listening to God. By doing so, the spiritual director discerns what questions and prompts are needed to bring the directee to a place of awareness and attentiveness to the mysterious work of God within their life.

A spiritual director does not have to be a pastor, priest, or have a formal ministry degree, but they will ideally have some form of training as a spiritual director as well as ongoing accountability with other spiritual directors, pastors, or ministry leaders.

The Directee

Spiritual direction can be beneficial to anyone seeking a deeper awareness of God’s work and presence in them. However, there are a some important considerations:

First, if someone is dealing with a major crisis or traumatic experience, some form of professional counseling would likely be a better option to specifically address that situation. That does not mean that such a crisis cannot be discussed in spiritual direction, but in spiritual direction the emphasis would be on the individual’s experience of God during that crisis more than its psychological underpinnings.

Secondly, if someone wants to learn about what it means to be a Christian, how to read their Bible, or how to pray; a discipleship program in the church may better address these questions. However, when talking about discipleship it is important to keep in mind that, “Being informed is different from being formed, and the first is a common substitute for the second” (Rohr xviii). Of course topics of discipleship can be discussed in spiritual direction, but the conversation would be more about the directee’s experience with prayer and scripture rather than explicit instruction or teaching.

Third, if someone just wants a good friend to go out to lunch with and to model their lives after, spiritual direction is not likely the appropriate option. In this case, a mentor would be more suitable.

Fourth, the directee must understand that the director will not tell them what to do or how to live, but will instead continually prompt the directee to examine God’s activity in their own life. The directee must understand that spiritual direction is not the place to hash out theological ideas or to seek answers to all their questions for, “…in the ministry of spiritual direction there are no right answers, only clearer vision and ever deeper questions” (Guenther 68). In fact, the directee may occasionally leave a spiritual direction session with more questions than they came in with, but with a much greater awareness of God’s activity in their life.

Lastly, the directee must be ready to be open, honest, and transparent about their actual experience with God—not how they wish it was or how they want to see it—but as it actually is. This may not happen in it’s fullness right away, but it should be the goal and intent throughout direction. Bakke writes, “We are not trying to force ourselves or anyone else to change. We want to be attuned to our real opinions and responses and invite God to participate with us as we are. Openness with God enables us to recognize, release, and resolve many things that could compromise our ability to hear the Spirit and influence our courage to say yes to God” (Bakke 231).

The Spiritual Direction Session

A typical spiritual direction session might begin with a prayer and a brief period of silence. Typically the floor is then given to the directee to initiate the conversation by sharing an aspect (good or bad) about their relationship with God. If the directee is uncomfortable doing so or feels stuck, the director may begin with a few questions to prompt the directee. While the directee is sharing, the spiritual director is carefully listening to the language, tone, and experiences that the directee is sharing. They may summarize what the directee has just shared and then ask a follow up question. For example, if the directee shared about lack of desire to pray, the director might ask any of the following: “What does it feel like when you think about prayer? Where do you see God in your life right now? What would it feel like to persevere in prayer despite your lack of desire? Do you feel like God is interested in hearing from you?” These questions are aimed at getting the directee to dig deeper and to reflect on their relationship with God—not to devise a plan for devotional life or to exhort them to merely “be more disciplined.”

After an hour of sharing, silence, reflection, questions, and listening; the time is closed with a prayer. The spiritual director may give the directee a verse to meditate on that connects with that days conversation, or may suggest a spiritual exercise or discipline to try until the next session, but often times nothing more needs to be said.

It is typical for most people to meet for direction at least once a month and, while they may change directors or take a break here and there, it is intended as a regular and ongoing component of spiritual growth.

The Purpose of Spiritual Direction

Spiritual direction may result in inner healing or simply change the way one thinks about, experiences, and relates to God. Spiritual direction is fundamentally contemplative in practice and recent brain research has documented that “all forms of contemplative meditation were associated with positive brain changes—but the greatest improvements occurred when participants meditated specifically on a God of love” (Jennings 27).

Everyone carries some form of a holy longing, and it can be difficult to know how to respond to it. Wendy Farley writes, “Our deepest desires are not always known to us, but our longings are their light footsteps in the snow. If we follow them carefully, we might be led deeper into the hidden structures of our heart” (Farley 3). Spiritual direction is a process where those footsteps in the snow can be examined and God’s activity discerned. Sometimes saying what is really on one’s heart is the greatest step toward clarity (Guenther 24).

Ignatius reminds us that God is much more eager to communicate with us than we are to listen and receive (Brackley 153). Therefore, one can expect with great confidence that God will communicate to those who seek him. While many have testified to the inner transformation they experience through spiritual direction, “The key positive sign will be the growing fullness and ripening texture of the person’s life as it grows toward the maturity of Christ” (Barry & Connolly 123).

The spiritual journey can be a difficult one, and nearly everyone could use a loving and attentive companion to help navigate it’s paths. Spiritual direction can be a beautifully refreshing way to discern and become more attentive to God’s work.

Photo credit: Lance Baker [Loc.] Indian Lake, MI

Bakke, Jeannette A. Holy Invitations: Exploring Spiritual Direction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000. Print.

Barry, William A., and William J. Connolly. The Practice of Spiritual Direction. New York: Seabury, 1982. Print.

Brackley, Dean. The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times: New Perspectives on the Transformative Wisdom of Ignatius of Loyola. New York: Crossroad Pub., 2004. Print.

Farley, Wendy. The Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and Earth. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005. Print.

Guenther, Margaret. Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1992. Print.

Jennings, Timothy R. The God-shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2013. Print.

Rohr, Richard, Andreas Ebert, and Peter Heinegg. The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective. New York: Crossroad Pub., 2001. Print.

Rolheiser, Ronald. The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering a Felt Presence of God. New York: Crossroad Pub., 2001. Print.

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