During my time in seminary and even before when I was in university, I found many of my fellow students to be intrigued by the concept of Spiritual Direction. Many of them wondered whether they should get a Spiritual Director and what it would be like. What would they talk about? Would it be worth the money (since many directors charge about $50-60 per session or more). Would they like it?
Equally, I discovered people who had their reservations about direction. Was it new age? What was the point of it? Shouldn’t they just go see a counselor? What’s the point of going to a director when there is nothing “wrong” and when your life is headed in the direction you want it to be headed in?
With theses questions in mind, and a someone who has done direction now for 4 years and who advocates for it, I would like to clear up what direction is and why I believe every seminarian and pastor should engage in direction. I believe it is paramount that pastors and religious lay leaders have this experience if they truly want to maximize reaching out to their flock. It is my hope that the following article will help you to decide if Spiritual Direction is right for you.
Since my time at Tyndale and moving into my time at AMBS, I have discovered that in the circles I run in Spiritual Direction is not very common and so some may have the wrong understanding about it or be skeptical about what they think of it. I have had friends who thought Spiritual Direction was New Age, and many people regard Spiritual Direction as just a type of counseling. I am not a professional counselor or director nor do I have extensive knowledge. However, I have become acquainted with each these practices either through course materials or through personal experiences, and so I will share with you my understanding of each one of these. If you have further questions you can also look up definitions online.
Pastoral Counseling: Pastoral counseling is generally meant to be brief. There is some discussion about how many times a pastor should counsel someone, but the general consensus is between 4-8. Pastors are typically not qualified to deal with some of the more extreme cases or simply have many other duties that they cannot devote too much time to the realm of counseling. Typically pastors deal with such things as crisis counseling as relates to traumatic experiences as opposed to more on-going counseling. Pastors also do premarital counseling which is a different type of counseling altogether. Pastors generally act as resources doing a general assessment to determine the congregant’s needs and from there may do referrals to an agency more qualified than they are to deal with that specific issue. A pastor’s main role is to walk with the congregants and help them in their spiritual journey. Thus although a pastor may not wish to take on the full responsibility or scope of the problem, they may continue to offer check-ins or help the person to process their counseling experiences with them from time to time. Because pastoral counseling is meant to be short term and not continuous, pastors typically will not seek after the “roots” or go into details about the person’s early life. Rather, they typically prefer to stick to one topic per session and to work more in the “here and now”.
Professional Counseling: The role of professional counseling is generally to move one towards healing and wholeness. There are different reasons why one might choose to go to a counselor, including for premarital counseling, but many professional counselors deal with those who have a specific issue or concern they wish to work on. Most of the time counselors deal with fairly severe issues that a pastor might not be qualified to deal with such as addictions. A counselor is able to devote a longer amount of time to a client and also is a good resource because they do not know the client personally and so their helping is non-biased. Although one may go to a counselor for only a few sessions, their relationship seems to be more on-going. In counseling the counselor will mostly listen as opposed to talk and generally only ask questions to clarify points or to make sure they are interpreting the information clearly. Minimal advice is given, but the client is encouraged to work through their own situations for themselves. The role of the counselor is to facilitate a dialogue and there are generally goals which the client will have. Although the client can talk about whatever they want, the counselor will generally bring them back to a central focus in order to track their progress. Once a person feels that they are able to be independent from the counselor they will likely cease seeing the counselor. In counseling this is seen as growth and as a good thing. If the counselor perceives growth in this area they may even start “weaning” the person off counseling for example suggesting shorter or less frequent sessions.
Mentorship: In my experience, the mentors I have chosen have been people I have admired usually as a result of being part of a church or school. They are people who walk alongside me, pray with me, perhaps disciple me, and offer advice when needed. They are not meant to give the same advice as I would expect a counselor to, but they are people from whom to bounce off ideas and who can draw from their own life experience. Mentors also seek out their own mentees – someone they feel they can give something to but also receive from. They seek to be part of the process of “reverse mentoring” – where the mentor and mentee learn from each other. Mentoring is an ongoing process – it is often not meant as a way to “fix” things, but more of an adult friendship. There are different reasons one may be mentored though, for example, one may be mentored into a new job in which case the mentor is more of a coach or supervisor. When I mentored leaders for my job as a small group coordinator this included things like meeting with the leaders one-on-one to listen and help them process things, hosting and facilitating large group meetings, and providing resources. I also would track their progress and offer them suggestions as I saw fit and would advocate for their needs to administration. That type of mentoring is not the type of mentorship that I am referring to here, but is a very important type as well.
Spiritual Direction: Spiritual Direction is a process in which the directee is encouraged to listen to God, to search out God’s presence in their life, and to engage in a more fruitful spiritual life. The director acts as a guide, but also as a co-listener. Some choose to engage in spiritual direction to address a certain topic for example discernment of call, fostering a richer prayer life, or seeking out God’s will regarding a certain decision. The schedule for direction is set both by the director and directee. In the past 4 years I have had 3 directors because 2 were on a volunteer basis and eventually moved into full time work, and at AMBS I have a new director. One of my directors was focused more on spiritual disciplines and our sessions would begin with a Bible reading and then times of silent and spoken mediation where I would discover what God wanted to say to me in the passage. Sometimes my sessions also included disciplines such as Lectio Divina (which is too complicated to describe so you’ll have to Google it). My other two directors focused more on a conversation where I could come to them with whatever concerns I had and we would talk together about what God was showing me and how God was present in those concerns. Sometimes we would also talk about what God was doing in my life. Spiritual direction retreats are also very common. Those retreats are usually focused on various spiritual disciplines or even just on the discipline of silence. The retreats may be in groups of people or just individuals for example when I volunteered at a church youth group all of the people in the young life division went on a day long spiritual retreat together. Spiritual Direction is NOT counseling, although some directors are okay with offering a certain level of spiritual counseling. The goal is not to move towards healing, but to move towards being like Christ. Spiritual direction also tends to be ongoing. Although direction may be terminated at any time and sometimes one may feel the need more pressing than at other times, it is a continuous process unlike pastoral counseling but there is no need to “wean” off of it or become independent like in professional counselling. Presently, many seminaries offer spiritual direction degrees or classes and also offer spiritual direction for students at subsidized or free prices. Spiritual direction is very helpful and should be encouraged for those pursuing the ministry because it is of vital importance that a pastor or other ministry leader should know how to first listen to God and then share their experiences with others in their fold.