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What is Spiritual Direction?

What is Spiritual Direction

Overworking, screen fatigue, bad news in the world, health problems, relational conflicts, and missing loved ones can drain your soul of life.

Many of us feel over-stressed and hurried. Or trapped in a digital world void of human touch. We may go days without enjoying the beauty of nature or receiving empathy and prayer from a loved one.

Meeting with a spiritual director offers you the ministry of holy listening, which can help you feel known and loved by God.

For those called to this ministry, it is exciting to know that this is an ancient practice and a calling for which you can become equipped!

In this article, we will explore…

  • What spiritual direction is (and is not)
  • Examples of spiritual direction in the Bible
  • What happens in a spiritual direction session
  • How to find (or become) a Christian spiritual director

Ready to dive in deep?

A Ministry of Holy Listening

The ministry of spiritual direction is an ancient Christian practice that has received more attention in recent years, but many people do not know or are fuzzy on understanding the art of spiritual direction. 

The History of Spiritual Direction

Christian spiritual direction was established by the desert fathers and mothers of the 3rd and 4th centuries. Then, in the centuries following, monks in monasteries developed this ministry further.

The classic books of Christian devotion are a rich source of spiritual direction. Some of these are compilations of letters from spiritual directors to their disciples. A few examples include:

  • Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Piere de Caussade
  • The Complete Fenelon by Francois Fénelon
  • Story of a Soul by Therese of Liseux
  • Letters by a Modern Mystic by Frank Laubach

What Spiritual Direction is Not

Spiritual direction is not the same as Christian discipleship, counseling, or coaching. While there can be areas of overlap, spiritual direction is unique. 

Discipleship usually follows a program of lessons from the Bible on becoming more like Jesus. Spiritual direction does not follow a curriculum–it is customized to the person seeking God’s presence and guidance.

Counseling focuses on resolving specific problems with mental health, compulsive behavior, and relational conflict. It’s natural for stressors and hurts to surface in spiritual direction, but the focus is less on solving those problems and more on understanding the person’s experience of God.

Coaching helps leaders and other people to set and realize their goals to advance their life or work. In spiritual direction the goals are to improve their relationship with God and become more like Jesus.

Ironically, spiritual direction is not directive. It’s not advice-giving, teaching, or trying to get people to believe and do the right things. Instead, it’s collaborative, empathetic, and prayerful.

Simply put, spiritual direction is a conversational and prayerful relationship of seeking God together through the journey of life. It focuses on the client’s personal experiences of God.

It can foster discipleship to Jesus, emotional and relational health, and reaching God-inspired goals.

Definitions of Spiritual Direction

Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) was a Trappist monk who wrote Spiritual Direction and Meditation. He explained, “A spiritual director is… one who helps another to recognize and to follow the inspirations of grace in his life, in order to arrive at the end to which God is leading him” (p. 17). 

More recently, David Benner, a Christian psychologist and spiritual director, defined spiritual direction as “increasing awareness of God in the midst of life experiences and facilitating surrender to God” (Sacred Companions, p. 5).

In other words, the spiritual director offers the gift of holy listening—reflecting Jesus’ love and empathy for others to help them experience God and follow the Spirit’s leading, while providing guidance for their relationship with God. 

In fact, the real director of the spiritual direction process is not the person hosting the conversation, it’s the Holy Spirit. The human director simply serves as an ambassador to the Spirit of Christ by ministering God’s continual friendship (2 Cor. 5:20).

The Benefits of Spiritual Direction

Spiritual direction can be helpful in many aspects of everyday life including: 

  • Experiencing God’s love
  • Empathy for personal and relational difficulties
  • Spiritually caring for children
  • Engaging in soul talks with your spouse
  • Praying for a hurting friend 
  • Discerning God’s leading
  • Care and guidance in a Dark Night of the Soul
  • Becoming more effective in your ministry or work

In fact, you’ll find that spiritual direction can strengthen your sense of calling as Christ’s ambassador, no matter your line of work. 

As a child of your Heavenly Father, you have been given the Holy Spirit as a guide and comfort –– and this same Spirit wants to pour out love and truth and comfort to those around you! 

In the ministry of spiritual direction you can entrust yourself to the Spirit of Jesus in a deep and personal way that provides you with comfort, guidance, and strength to joyfully serve God and love people.

Is Spiritual Direction Biblical?

All through the Bible we see examples of a friend, prophet, or teacher providing ministry similar to what we now call spiritual direction.   

  • Ruth and Naomi journeyed together to find Yahweh in a season of grief (Ruth 1:16-17).
  • David and Jonathan became soul friends, even though they were natural competitors (1 Samuel 18:1-3).
  • The Sons of Korah banded together to compose, pray, and sing Psalms of praise and lament and then they invited other people to join them (e.g., Psalms 42, 46, and 84).
  • Elizabeth listened and prayed with her young cousin Mary while they both were pregnant and formed a special bond (Luke 1:39-45).
  • Jesus spoke heart-to-heart with the Samaritan woman at the well and she drank the living water that he offered (John 4:4-42; 7:37-39).
  • Ananias ministered hospitality, listening, healing prayer, and encouragement to Saul (Paul) who just a few days earlier was prepared to kill him (Acts 9:10-18).
  • Mary Magdalene met with the eleven frightened apostles, waiting for the risen Christ to appear to them just as he had to her (John 20:11-23).
  • Paul wrote letters of spiritual nourishment and instruction to minister the grace and peace of Christ to people.

These Scriptural examples of spiritual companionship, hospitality, love, and friendship show us the whole spectrum of spiritual direction ministry.

You’ll notice how the examples from the Bible are unique, both situationally and in the way people related to one another. Indeed, since clients have different needs and spiritual direction sessions are guided by the Spirit of Jesus, they can look different from person to person and session to session.

What Happens in a Spiritual Direction Session?

As we’ve said, the format of spiritual direction sessions is not a fixed program–it’s fluid and customized to meet the client’s needs. The goal of each session is to foster a healthy, safe setting for the client to explore and discover greater intimacy with Jesus and love for God and others. 

Here are some general guidelines for a “typical” session in spiritual direction.

Where do sessions take place?

Historically, spiritual directors often have met with clients in diverse locations like churches, monasteries, or retreat centers in which they serve, or in their offices or homes. 

As mentioned earlier, other times spiritual directors have provided soul care and guidance through corresponding by letter. 

With recent technological advances pushed forward by the challenges of the pandemic, spiritual direction sessions are often conducted through video conferencing. It has been remarkable to witness in recent years how the Spirit of Jesus has drawn people together over diverse geographic areas and time zones–God knows no bounds! 

What does a session look like? 

Spiritual direction sessions may open with conversation, prayer, or a brief time of being quiet in God’s presence, depending on the comfort and desires of the client. In any case, it is helpful for the director and client to “set apart” the time from the busyness of the day. 

For the majority of the session, clients share with the director important life experiences, related to their relationship with God. 

Before the end of the session the director may recommend resources or spiritual discipline practices for the client to consider exploring. 

Often the director will conclude the session with a prayer of intercession or blessing.

What do you talk about?

The foundational spiritual direction question for the director to ask is, “How have you been experiencing God’s presence?” (The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William A. Barry and William J. Connolly).

But Dallas Willard suggested that a great spiritual direction question is simply, “What is bothering you?” That guards against the conversation being “spiritual” in an idealistic or intellectual way and promotes it being real and authentic to the client’s actual life.

Paul wrote, “Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15). That’s wording for the empathy that invites the real talk that is the heart of a great spiritual direction relationship.

Finding a Christian Spiritual Director

Soul Shepherding Spiritual Directors

Soul Shepherding has a team of Sr. Spiritual Directors who are available to give you the empathy, guidance, and prayer you need. They’ve been trained in our model of spiritual direction that’s Christ-centered and psychologically informed. You can learn more and schedule a time to connect here

If you sense the need to be heard, known, and loved by a spiritual companion who will reflect the workings of the Spirit of Jesus in your life, don’t hesitate to take the first step by connecting with a spiritual director. Soul Shepherding’s Sr. Spiritual Directors offer complimentary meet and greet appointments. 

Are You Called to Be a Spiritual Director?

If you find yourself often supporting others spiritually, providing empathy and companionship, you may be called to the ministry of spiritual direction. And it is a ministry for which you can become equipped.

This is not just for professional ministers. Soul friends, parents, educators, health care workers, and all kinds of people serve as spiritual directors. 

There are several spiritual direction training programs throughout the U.S. and around the world. Training is generally a two-year program that includes academic work and residential retreats.

Spiritual Direction Training with Soul Shepherding

Soul Shepherding’s approach to spiritual direction is informed by Christ-centered psychology and emphasizes empathy, growing in the CHRIST stages of faith (from Journey of the Soul), and using our specialized tools for soul care. 

Our approach to training Christian spiritual directors is unique — it’s experiential rather than just academic and based in homes and churches rather than monasteries. 

Our students receive training in and personal experience in:

  • Spiritual Formation
  • Spiritual and Psychological Development
  • Soul Care
  • Relationally Healthy Leadership
  • Ignatian Meditation
  • Lectio Divina
  • Breath Prayer
  • Healing Prayer
  • Enneagram
  • And much more

With a few hours per week of home study, and an experiential rather than just academic approach, our students quickly grow in emotional-relational health, gain skills in ministry, and—if desired—are equipped to start a vocational ministry providing spiritual direction for clients. 

You can receive and experience free spiritual direction classes by visiting this page.

In the Spirit-led ministry of spiritual direction, you do not have to have all the answers for your client. Truly, care is the cure in many cases. And Jesus himself is the Wonderful Counselor. 

What freedom and joy to be yoked with Jesus while serving in this ministry of love and holy listening to others! 

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