What is a Spiritual Director

What is a Spiritual Director?

Bryan was the first spiritual director I ever sought out. He was a deacon in our church with a deep, quiet wisdom about him. I was in a transitional season. I had finished seminary, but the next steps weren’t working out the way that I had planned. Bryan helped me with a rhythm of journaling and paying attention to the movements there over time. He taught me lectio divina.

I had seen a friend write these words on his blog:

I’m coming to the conclusion that if you are in a role of leadership in the church (whether full time, part time, or volunteer makes little to difference to what i am about to say) please consider having a spiritual director.

So what is a spiritual director? I’ve heard it described as “being present to God for another.” It is a process where one person, a director will spend time listening to you while also listening to God to help you discern what God is doing in your life so that you can cooperate with his desires and activity for you.

And I thought, “Sign me up for that.” I’d never heard of spiritual director before, but those were the words for what I was hungry for right then.

The Christian culture of which I find myself seems so soaked in the experience of a personal encounter with Jesus we’ve forgotten the value of listening and submitting to wise Christian guides. We’re more prone to chase the fad of the latest Christian celebrity than we are to submit to the wisdom of a Christ-centered sage who has lived life, knows God, and takes the time to know us.

Eugene Peterson has a series of works related to the pastoral vocation, and in Working the Angles, he devotes the last third of the book of spiritual direction. He writes,

“Spiritual directors used to be important because they attended to what everyone agreed was important; they are important now because they are about the only people left who confirm the insights and longings that everyone in fugitive moments thinks might be important, but that get brushed aside by urgent and hurrying experts on their way to a therapy session or a committee meeting.”

Spiritual Directors International provides a Standards for Ethical Conduct for directors. Below is my riff on those standards. This is the kind of spiritual director you want to look for.

A spiritual director attends to their own self-care

They work on their own spiritual growth. They practice what they preach. Like the image of the oxygen mask in every airline safety presentation, spiritual directors take care of their souls through spiritual formation, both personally and in community.

Spiritual directors continually learn. They continually discern their own calling. They are life-long students of psychology and sociology and culture and theology and church history and spiritual wisdom—all as they pertain to hearing and responding to God’s voice with others.

Spiritual directors receive spiritual direction. They submit to a pastor or a denominational board or other supervisory group. They seek out their own counseling when necessary.

Spiritual directors practice self-care. They cultivate their marriages, family relationships, and other relationships. They establish healthy boundaries in all their relationships, and voluntarily remove themselves from any space that might compromise the spiritual direction relationship.

Spiritual directors know their limits. They can say “no.” They are self-aware to manage their social energy. They notice the ways that physical space can affect both themselves and their directees.

Peterson calls directors, “mentors in prayer… experienced companions in the soul’s itinerary… large-souled men and women thinking strenuously and living arduously at the deep center of life.”

A spiritual director serves as host to the directee.

Spiritual directors set the table. They initiate the expectations for, the nature of, and the limitations of spiritual direction in the life of the directee. They cast a clear vision and articulate the parameters. There are roles and responsibilities when it comes to direction, and spiritual directors communicate those. These may include the length and frequency of meetings, compensation, and the process for ending the spiritual direction relationship.

Spiritual directors value the Image of God in every directee. The story of the directee is honored in high esteem. The questions that a spiritual director asks come from a place of deep curiosity and never from a place of judgment or “gotcha.” Dignity and respect are postures of spiritual directors. Spiritual directors are careful to navigate discrepancies in power and boundaries with directees.

Spiritual directors commit to strict confidentiality. They maintain the privacy of the individuals they serve in all matters of conversation and written and electronic notes. They refrain from initiating conversation in public settings, much like a professional counselor. They host spiritual direction in appropriate spaces. They recognize and address the limits of confidentiality in regards to legal issues such as abuse or self-harm.

Peterson writes, “We need to deal with the obvious, with sin and with the Spirit, and we would rather deal with almost anything else.”

A spiritual director is rooted in community.

Spiritual directors are no lone gurus. Christian spiritual directors are committed to church life. It is in church life where directors “are earthed and find their identity,” to borrow Jean Vanier’s phrase.

Spiritual directors cultivate friendships and relationships with other directors, pastors, ministry leaders, and therapists. They’re careful to hold the work and personhood of such colleagues in high regard among directees. Directors never undercut the work of such colleagues. They know their work exists in a spiritual ecosystem that includes all of the Christian community.

Spiritual directors are open to the continuing work of discernment and accountability. They draw from the work and experience of others. They respect the different church experiences or spiritual experiences that directees may have had.

Spiritual directors are people of deep character and solid integrity in their public life. They are truthful about their credentials, education, and experience. They respect the Image of God in every human being.

Again, Peterson: “Spiritual direction is then conducted with an awareness that it takes place in God’s active presence, and that our conversation is therefore conditioned by his speaking and listening, his being there.”

I’ve been around church long enough to see this pattern: A person walks into church. It scratches an itch they never even knew they had, and next thing they know, they’re coming every Sunday. But it leaves them wanting more. So they find a way to “get connected” or “get involved.”

They join a small group or a Sunday school class. They volunteer in the youth group. They show up early and set up. They stay late and tear down. And then the thought comes, “If only I could be on staff.” So they start collecting a paycheck. They serve as a musician, a youth pastor, or an administrator.

And then they sense a call to ministry, so they go to seminary. Soon they find themselves ordained and leading a church. And then they discover they’re no closer to God than when they started.

People at all the stages of that journey populate churches around the world, and a spiritual director is a necessary voice at each and every stage of the journey interrogating reality.

Just what exactly are you looking for?

Do you have words for that hunger?

Are you responding to God or is this your own wish-dream?

Is your ego dying a slow death on the journey towards God, or are you finding it inflated by the accolades and praise of others?

How are you seeing God’s activity around you? How do you know it’s God?

What I’ve found in direction, over time, is this journey from data to information to knowledge to insight to wisdom—learning how see the signal in the noise, so to speak. A director is an attentive companion on the journey more than they are a guru. They are someone who listens and asks questions, sometimes obvious and sometimes uncomfortable.

image credit: Twitter @gapingvoid

Spiritual direction is no mere naval gazing. We attend to the work of God in our own lives so that we can attend to the work of God in the world around us.

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