November 23, 2011
“Spiritual direction” is a term plagued with ambiguity.
In traditions with an established history of spiritual direction, the practice has often been dominated by clergy. This creates confusion, as the practice is then identified with a wide-variety of activities characterized more by who is doing them then by the nature of the practice. Thus, confession, pastoral counseling, and a casual conversation might all be “spiritual direction” if a Roman Catholic or Anglican priest is involved. In contrast, there are many Christians who have begun adopting the practice of spiritual direction only recently. They may be less likely to identify spiritual direction with the work of the clergy, but they can contribute to the same confusion by identifying spiritual direction with ministries that are more established in their churches. Thus, mentoring, counseling, and a wide-variety of “discipleship” programs are re-named “spiritual direction.” Surely, these ministries are changed in the process, but direction becomes a revision of other ministries rather one with a distinct nature. Finally, there are a wide-variety of programs offering training in spiritual direction, with methodologies and philosophies that are not entirely reconcilable with each other. Thus, spiritual direction as defined and practiced by directors from one center of training may be quite different from that of others.
While some of the methodological differences may prove quite intractable, much greater clarity can be reached regarding the nature of spiritual direction. Adopting a distinction between “spiritual direction” and “spiritual guidance” is a helpful beginning. The phrases are sometimes used interchangeably, and a wide variety of others terms serve as synonyms for one or both (“spiritual accompaniment,” “soul friend,” etc). Drawing a distinction between the two, however, is immensely helpful in clarifying the sometimes ambiguous ministry of spiritual direction.
“Spiritual guidance” is a broad term, which includes “spiritual direction,” along with a host of other ministries. It refers to any ministry in which one believer helps another (or several, even many, others) to respond to God. At its core, this involves first seeking to discern what God is doing, then faithfully responding to His initiative. However, the breadth of approaches and situations sometimes obscures this first step. For example, the preacher offers spiritual guidance through helping an audience respond to the work of God initiated through the Word of God, and also through the work of the Holy Spirit in each listener who encounters the Word. The preacher, and many in his audience, may not be directly aware of this as a ministry of spiritual guidance, thinking of it instead in purely pedagogical terms. Nevertheless, preaching is one of the most common forms of spiritual guidance given and received in contemporary Christian settings. Likewise, most Christians experience spiritual guidance through informal, often undefined, relationships with other Christians. The friend who listens and reflects with a fellow believer may be engaged in a profound ministry of spiritual guidance.
Spiritual direction, then, is merely a form of spiritual guidance. It is also the paradigmatic example of spiritual guidance. This is not the result of direction being a more elevated ministry than other forms of guidance. It is certainly not the most common ministry. It is, however, the most focused form of spiritual guidance; it is the ministry in which the intention toward spiritual guidance is the most explicit. By way of definition, spiritual direction is the ministry in which one believer helps another to discern God’s presence and activity, in order to seek a faithful response.