Raymond Merriwether,* a 40-year-old CPA, spends an hour with his pastor every other Tuesday. He and Pastor Carver discuss his prayer life and his Bible and other religious reading, and take time to review the journal in which Raymond has recorded his joys and struggles with prayer and Scripture meditation, any dreams that might have a spiritual implication, and his feelings—good and bad—about his Christian walk.
Pastor Carver is one of many ministers and laypersons who are doing individual spiritual direction with parishioners who want to be spiritually accountable to another mature Christian. These people are adding new dimensions to the charge in Hebrews 10:24, 25: "Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."+
Listening carefully to Raymond, Carver occasionally interjects a word of encouragement or agreement, adding experiences of his own, sometimes confessing failures and struggles. He might even stop Raymond once in a while to ask a question or to gently warn, "Be cautious in that area."
Pastor Carver does all he can to en courage and affirm Raymond's adventure with Christ, and he makes suggestions about reading or prayers. Their meetings are always begun and ended with silent and spoken prayer. Both feel that their times spent together in sacred silence are perhaps the most valuable part of their relationship.
In another congregation, Lois Stephens acts as spiritual director to several people whose needs are much like Raymond's. A strong Bible-reading Christian with an intense and meaningful prayer life, Lois sometimes calls herself "a tour guide—one who has been over this territory and is happy to help others on the way." On the other hand, she often sees herself as an older sister or experienced friend joining her directees in exploring unfamiliar territory together.
Just what is this spiritual direction? Who are the spiritual directors? And is this relationship scriptural?
The biblical basis
Jesus is the greatest example of a spiritual director. After He was through preaching, He discussed the parables with close friends, pointed out the meaning of the day's experiences, and taught them to pray. They asked questions and were encouraged, exhorted, and sometimes even rebuked by the One who cared most about them.
Nicodemus went to Jesus by night to understand the kingdom. The woman at the well received Jesus' personal counsel. Mary of Bethany sat at His feet to listen to words of life. One of His disciples asked, "Lord, teach us to pray. "All these are examples of individual spiritual direction.
Those who enter into spiritual direction long for a deeper Christian life, for the kind of discipling that requires accountability to at least one more human being. The idea isn't new but is experiencing a great revival especially among Protestants for whom, in recent years, the search for spiritual solutions has been somewhat supplanted by psychological therapy. Since the publication of Kenneth Leech's Soul Friend, the idea of one-on-one or very-small-group spiritual direction has gained popularity.
Who can do it?
"But I'm not Jesus," says a pastor in a small church. "I don't want to become some sort of guru to my church members. That could be dangerous."
He is right that there are perils to avoid along this path. To avoid the pitfalls of egotism, arrogance, power, and personal over-involvement, spiritual directors need to be under direction themselves, with either other pastors, small sharing groups, or laypersons (possibly from another congregation) whose judgment and confidentiality they trust. "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ," advises Paul (Eph. 5:21). Being subject does not mean obeying blindly; no directee is ever asked to obey a director. It does mean humbling oneself to confess spiritual ignorance and need in other words, being "poor in spirit."
"Well, that's all very well," says another minister, "but I've got a church to run, the sick to call on, marriages to perform, families to counsel, the dead to bury, the bereaved to console, a steward ship chairman who's breathing down my neck about the budget, and two sermons to write every week. When am I going to do all this individual direction?"
The best solution to this problem is to train small groups or individual laypeople who feel called by God to minister as spiritual directors. If that busy pastor would spend one or two hours a week for, say, 10 weeks, training laypeople who are already spiritually advanced, the whole congregation could be blessed by their ministry.
The training would deal only briefly with theology and should move on quickly to deeper things to prepare the directors to deal with hard questions such as Why am I so dry in prayer lately? How can I achieve more spiritual discipline? Am I compartmentalizing my religion away from my life in business? Why do some people seem to hear God when others don't? Why do we die? Am I really getting closer to Christ, or am I spinning my spiritual wheels? Does God still speak to people, or did all that end with the apostles?
Such questions need exploration and investigation, with both director and directee searching. A pat answer can be found in many popular Christian books—but a pat answer doesn't last, nor does it build up a church of mature believers. Potential spiritual directors need to do considerable reading of their own denomination's special favorites as well as some of the great Christian classics like The Pursuit of God, by A. W. Tozer; The Cloud of Unknowing, by an anonymous fourteenth-century author; and The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence.
A good spiritual director needs to be a mature Christian, well grounded in Scripture and personal prayer and deeply committed to transparent Christian living. The most necessary ingredient in the director's makeup is the ability to love unconditionally. The director must "not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting . . . with gentleness" (2 Tim. 2:24, 25).
Sometimes direction includes counsel about Christian behavior or guilt for past sin. This counsel is, of course, taught best by example; therefore spiritual directors need to "wear" all the qualities they wish to teach.
The apostle Paul was this type of spiritual director. "Brethren, join in imitating me," he wrote (Phil. 3:17). He served as spiritual director to a number of Christians, including Timothy. He offered this younger man counsel about prayer, preaching, theology, and personal demeanor, ending one of his letters with the plea "I charge you to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith" (1 Tim. 6:14-20).
Paul reminds us, "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Phil. 2:4). Spiritual directors are people who follow this counsel. They take an interest in others' needs, and exhort and encourage as they walk beside them.
Is this psychotherapy?
Spiritual direction is not therapy. Problems that arise in the directee's life are dealt with at the level of prayer and loving exhortation. Dorothy, a spiritual director to a number of people in her parish, had been giving a series of classes on prayer and meditation, and she was deeply concerned about Margaret, an aggressive, attention-getting class member who seemed to be seeking something more otherworldly than the class offered.
One morning Margaret called Dorothy, asking for a private appointment for some direction. During their talk together, Margaret suddenly burst into tears and revealed that she had been a childhood incest victim, repeatedly molested by her stepfather over a nine-year period. She also confessed that now she compensated for her feelings of powerlessness and rage by reading books about witchcraft, spiritism, satanism, and astrology.
Dorothy gulped down her feelings of horror and rage at the stepfather, prayed silently, and went to work. First, she gave Margaret the name of a Christian psychologist, and insisted that she see this person for therapy.
"I don't do psychotherapy," she explained, "and you need some help to undo the terrible harm that was inflicted on you in childhood. But I will help you undo the spiritual damage that you're doing to yourself through anger and occultism."
The two women prayed together conversationally. The weeping Margaret prayed for God to help her forgive the stepfather; then Dorothy asked for the same thing, adding her supportive prayers.
After they had prayed together for about half an hour, Dorothy spent some time counseling Margaret about the spiritual dangers of witchcraft and other occult practices and showed her a number of texts forbidding such activities. Then they prayed silently for a few minutes, asking God's forgiveness. Next they renewed Margaret's baptismal vows, renouncing Satan and all his works and professing faith in Christ as the one Saviour. Dorothy counseled Margaret to memorize Deuteronomy 6:5: "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." Dorothy then went home with Margaret, and the two of them burned all of her occult books in the fire place.
Not all spiritual direction is so dramatic. Much of it deals with the day-to- day life of those who are hungry for God and for spiritual growth. But this incident points out the way that pastors and others can deal with psychological problems without trying to take over the therapist's job. (Margaret, incidentally, visited a psychologist for two years; during this same period she continued to go to Dorothy for spiritual direction.)
Styles of spiritual direction
There are a number of styles of direction. In the traditional mode, the director advises and encourages the directee, who willingly submits to this counsel. "Soul friends" engage in a less formal mutual direction. And there are small groups that devote themselves to prayer and spiritual support, sharing their journeys with each other in frequent meetings.
Most Protestant directors prefer to think of themselves as companions on the spiritual journey—fallible people who themselves are pilgrims, and whose counsel and encouragement are given in the spirit of equality, They help directees to clarify what God is calling them to do, and how the Holy Spirit is working in their prayer and meditative life.
Whatever directional style is used, several elements are almost always present in a good spiritual relationship:
1. Prayer. The director should pray daily for the directee, and should open and close their sessions together with prayer. Much of the discussion will be about prayer and its practice, and the directee is encouraged to constantly en rich and extend his or her prayer life.
2. Bible reading. Although spiritual direction doesn't usually include a Bible study per se, it must have strong scriptural elements. Ideas and suggestions must have Scripture teachings to back them up, and the directee should be set on a path of individual study or guided toward a Bible study group.
3. Journaling. The director's job is easier when the directee keeps a regular journal of his or her prayer life and spiritual growth. Keeping this journal will also clarify things in the writer's own understanding.
4. Silence. God loves to erupt into our holy silences, and should be given an opportunity to do so in the directional session. The persons involved may meditate on a verse of Scripture or use the name of Jesus as a "centering device" during this silence (see "Christian Meditation," by William Loveless; Ministry, January 1986).
5. Love. The director should accept his or her directee unconditionally, loving this person as Christ loves us. If there is an aura of disapproval or dislike on the part of the director, little growth can result froiri the relationship.
6. Journey. In the most successful spiritual relationships, both director and directee consider themselves pilgrims. In one of his books on spirituality, Morton Kelsey writes: "It is my measured conclusion that it is most unwise for people to be charged with spiritual formation who are not on their own spiritual journey and who are unable to be spiritual companions. "++
7. Honesty. The people in a spiritual direction relationship must both be open and completely honest with each other. This includes riot only telling the truth but being transparent, defenseless, and unpretentious.
8. Empathy. The pastor or layperson who offers spiritual direction must be one who can understand and empathize with the feelings, emotions, ideas, and struggles of the other person. Detachment is good, but that does not mean not caring. We best learn about God's love through the compassionate ministry of others.
9. Submission to God. The Holy Spirit moves through our dialogue about God; and if we are submitted to His loving ministry and to the compelling presence of Christ when we are gathered together, the relationship will place both participants at the foot of God's throne.
The pastor's role
Pastors can make it known to their congregations that spiritual direction is available and can introduce them to its basic structures. If the pastor cannot or does not choose to do this kind of ministry, he or she can act as a catalyst, helping people discover what is their very best work for God. They may be called to be choir members or a building committee chairperson or Christian educators—or they may be called to be spiritual directors. Offering encouragement and training without being possessive with ministry is the highest form of pastoral care.
*All names in this article have been changed.
+ All Bible texts in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.
++ Morton T. Kelsey, Companions on the Inner
Way: The Art of Spiritual Guidance (New York:
Crossroad Pub. Co., 1983).
For further reading
Kristen Ingram, Being a Christian Friend (Valley
Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1985). See especially the
final chapter, on spiritual friendships.
Kristen Ingram, Quiet Time With God (Valley
Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1984). Examines centering
prayer, joumaling, spiritual dreams, meditation
on the Lord's Prayer.
Alan Jones, Exploring Spiritual Direction: An
Essay on Christian Friendship (New York: The Seabury
Press, 1982). Contains some good basics about
spiritual direction and the Christian journey.
Morton T. Kelsey, Companions on the Inner
Way: The Art of Spiritual Guidance (New York:
Crossroad Pub. Co., 1983). A brilliant book with
sensitive insights about spirituality and mutual aid.
Kenneth Leech, Soul Friend: The Practice of
Christian Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper and
Row, 1980). The seminal work for those who are
interested in finding spiritual companions.
Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements
of the Spiritual Life (New York: Doubleday
and Co., 1975). Nouwen is a Dutch priest whose
words about prayer are always important. See especially
the chapter titled "The Prayer of the Heart."
Elizabeth O'Connor, Letters to Scattered Pilgrims
(San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979). Letters
that might come from one's own spiritual director,
containing counsel about prayer, use of the
"pilgrim journal," stewardship, and growth.