You may have heard about Tabor’s newest course, the Graduate Diploma in Spiritual Direction, beginning in 2016. But you may not know much about the ministry of spiritual direction (SD) itself. If you have spent most of your life in evangelical churches, that’s probably not surprising. SD has a long history in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, but has only really been ‘rediscovered’ in Protestant circles over recent decades. I thought, therefore, that an FAQ about SD might be helpful.
What is SD?
SD is an ancient practice of a spiritual director accompanying you in your spiritual journey. Three words, I think, characterise the SD encounter.
- Hospitality: SD is built upon imago Dei—whatever your story, as someone created in God’s image you are precious and your journey will be honoured. Therefore, hospitality—the creation of space to both be and become—is foundational. In this ‘grace space’, in being deeply present to you, your director seeks to ‘listen into speech’ the real stuff of your life—joys, hopes, prayers, griefs, weariness, questions, worries, work, play, relationships, failures, and so on—without you fearing judgement or being told what to do. This fosters the movement towards spiritual authenticity.
- Discernment: SD is built upon missio Dei—there are no ‘no go’ zones for the incarnate and redemptive God, who in Jesus has entered into human experience and is thus already present and at work in yours. Therefore, discernment is less about future-orientated, outcome-focused decisions, and more about a journey in contemplative, slow and deep listening and responding to that Presence. In SD we often say that we live our lives forwards, but understand them backwards. Hence, as you tell your story, together you and your director ponder significant points of connection and divine movements in your life. This fosters the movement towards spiritual insight.
- EnCOURAGEment: SD is built upon the ministry of the Spirit, the True Encourager—we need God’s animating life to respond. Therefore, in light of what has been discerned together, your director offers the gift of courage to faithfully live out your life in God. A director will hold you prayerfully as your reengage with what you are being called to, whether that is incremental or monumental. This fosters the movement towards spiritual engagement in your world, your reality.
What isn’t SD?
- SD isn’t pastoral or clinical counselling, or psychotherapy. Directors know this, and refer as appropriate. SD isn’t focused on working towards solutions to problems, but on the ways problems offer potential sources for spiritual maturity, self-discovery, trust in God, and possible transformation. It is your relationship with God in the midst of issues, rather than working through them, that is at the heart of SD. The ‘problem’—if there is one—that SD seeks to address is that you are not as attentive and responsive to God’s presence and activity in daily life as you might be. This means you and your director try to let go of trying to ‘achieve’ something in a session; accompanying presence and attentiveness to the Holy Spirit, through deep listening, is the point.
- SD isn’t about your director giving guidance or telling you what you ought to do, despite what the name might suggest. Your director might suggest a Scripture or encourage a different way of praying, but you are encouraged to hold this loosely as part of your discernment process. In this sense, ‘spiritual director’ is really a misnomer, for it is the Holy Spirit who directs as you and your director listen together. That’s why some prefer different titles for this ministry, such as ‘spiritual mentoring’, ‘spiritual companioning’ or ‘spiritual friendship’. We have chosen to retain ‘spiritual direction’ since it is widely recognised.
- SD isn’t mutual. That’s not to say your director won’t share something of their own life or be blessed/challenged/touched themselves. But the focus of SD is you, and through their training directors will be aware of this ‘imbalance’. Thus it is usually best if SD is the only context for your relationship with your director.
What might a directee and their director talk about?
SD is concerned with what is—actual life—rather than what we think our lives ought to be. I love the poem Start Close In by David Whyte; here are the first two stanzas:
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way of starting
David Whyte, River Flow: New & Selected Poems, Revised edition. (Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 2012), 212.
SD begins with this ground we know, this pale ground beneath our feet. Sometimes you might struggle to imagine God at work in your quite ‘ordinary’ life. Sometimes it’s hard to take that first step towards sharing what’s really happening for you; it’s the step you don’t want to take. But SD takes a radical punt on the grace of God, assuming Divine Presence might be found in this circumstance, in this pain, in this reality. So human experience is the raw data for SD. You choose what to reflect on each time. It could be something overtly ‘spiritual’—a moving prayer time, an encounter with God in nature or the Scriptures, an ‘aha!’ moment through circumstances. Equally, though, it could look quite ‘normal’—the ‘one step at a time’ plodding through ordinary life and all its ups and downs, with God quietly at your side. So although the focus is your relationship with God, together you and your director assume that God is present in all things. It’s not just about your ‘prayer life’; all is grist for the mill in SD.
Who can come for SD?
Anyone who has a hunger for reflecting upon their experience of God or ‘the Other’, exploring deeper questions of meaning, or furthering their spiritual journey—whether they express this with religious vocabulary or otherwise—may find spiritual direction helpful. Those who are called to public ministry roles may find SD particularly helpful in attending to the soul of their leadership amidst the crucible of ministry.
Meeting details will be decided upon together, but typically sessions are an hour long every 4-6 weeks. Directors and directees may be of the same or opposite gender. SD relationships are reviewed regularly, and can be short term or last for many years. Often, though not always, directors will receive a fee for their time. SD is not a ministry that can be turned on and off like a tap. Directors themselves, therefore, will have undergone training and formation; meet regularly with their own director; will be committed to their own ongoing formation in contemplative prayer and living; and will engage in regular group or one-to-one supervision as part of their ongoing development and accountability. They will make explicit with their directee their adherence to a code of ethics, including issues surrounding confidentiality and appropriate boundaries.
How can I find out more?
Benner, David G., and Larry Crabb. Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship & Direction. InterVarsity Press, 2004, esp. ch. 4
Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2005, pp. 115-117
Jones, Tony. The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005, ch. 10
Thompson, Marjorie J. Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995, ch. 7
Networks: Australian Ecumenical Council for Spiritual Direction (AECSD), Australian Network for Spiritual Direction (ANSD)
The GDSD in a snapshot?
- A two year, part-time Graduate diploma, developed in line with the formation program guidelines of the AECSD
- Entry via
- BMin/BTh/MDiv/equivalent + 1yr experience in being directed; OR
- GDDiv/DipTh/equivalent + 2yrs experience in being directed
- 8 subjects
- 4 cores focused on spiritual direction (each run as 2x3day intensives)
- 2 cores + 2 electives (on-campus or online)
- FEE HELP available
- More info: visit the GDSD website or email me
Lecturer in Spirituality and Practical Theology, MTC School
Administrator, Graduate Diploma in Spiritual Direction