What Is The Role Of A Spiritual Director?

"Though I don’t see myself in the clergy role so much, I do see myself sharing the spiritual concerns and growth of people. I’ve heard there is a growing specialty called Spiritual Direction. Can you share something about that and how to prepare?"

asked by Peggy G from Dallas, Texas

This role of spiritual director has historically been filled by ministers, pastors, priests, religious brothers and sisters. They have been the ones sought out by spiritual seekers and those desiring particular spiritual growth. Through the years that has changed for some interesting reasons.

First, ordained clergy still do lots of that. In fact, for many, that is one of their primary roles. But that role of spiritual direction has been affected by several things. With the rise of pastoral counseling and ministers who have been equipped to council people in more sophisticated ways, those same ministers often changed their direction away from the historic role of the clergy more toward that of secular counselors. That included various schools of counseling and psychotherapy. They almost always maintained a spiritual focus, but the practice of counseling became predominant.

The role of minister in the modern world is very programmatic. There are committees to tend, budgets to raise and programs to staff. So much of the minister’s time is given to tending the church body as opposed to the care of souls. When the minister does meet with parishioners it is often in crisis situations rather than for spiritual growth. With increasing specialization trained pastoral counselors often started taking more responsibility for counseling. That may or may not have included traditional forms of spiritual direction.

With all these changes people continued to turn to the ordained clergy for spiritual growth, but also began to turn to centers of spiritual growth, like monastic communities that provided retreats. With this new quest for spiritual growth in motion, religious leaders – ordained and lay – began to equip themselves to do more intentional formation of the soul. The new specialization of Spiritual Director began to evolve.

Spiritual Direction is different than pastoral counseling or therapy. There is a place for both of those, but spiritual direction is neither of these. If a person needs therapy or counseling they should get it and then pursue the growing edge of spiritual direction. Spiritual direction involves walking with another person in an intentional mentor/mentee relationship. The director listens carefully to the spiritual themes of the person and reflects with them from their own experience and also their informed knowledge of historic approaches to spiritual growth.

This often includes spiritual practices such as journaling, sacred imagination, lectiodivina (or sacred reading), and contemplative prayer. The person shares their experience of the spiritual journey with the director who responds to their stories and themes with council, questions and in many instances a ministry of presence, of just being with them. Spiritual direction can be offered on a weekly, monthly or ever so often basis. It often stretches into years and grows deeper as the relationship grows deeper.

Certified Spiritual Directors may be ordained clergy, lay religious, or very active religious persons who specialize. Many pastoral counselors and general counselors have received advanced training in order to add this to their existing practices.

It is common for Spiritual Directors to take particular course work and receive a certificate from a recognized institution. This requires one to be in spiritual direction him or herself in order to understand what it is like and offer that experiential base to others.

Spiritual Directors are often affiliated with religious organizations or are housed by them in their buildings with a kind of adjunct status. They are often paid directly by their clients.

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