SPIRITUAL DIRECTION SERIES (Part Three): Methodology Of Spiritual Direction

November 29, 2011

In my last post, I said:

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.

This distinction also helps clarify the methodology of spiritual direction. The varying approaches to spiritual direction can be grouped along a continuum of formal versus informal, as well as along a continuum of directive versus non-directive. The later distinction refers to the nature of the director’s role, particularly degree of authority. The former refers to the degree to which direction is set-apart from normal activity in an intentional way.

It is most helpful to view spiritual direction as a ministry of spiritual guidance (helping others discern and respond to God’s work) that is characterized by a methodology that is relatively non-directive and formal in nature. Other ministries of spiritual guidance may have one feature or the other. Preaching may serve as a ministry of spiritual guidance and be formal, but it is necessarily directive. Listening to a friend over coffee may result in discernment and response to God and may be non-directive, but it is not formal.

Different directors may still display a variety of orientations within this perspective, showing greater or lesser degrees of formality and directivity.

  • A more formal director might schedule regular appointments with specific end-times, while an informal director may meet as needed for as long as the session seems helpful. Formal directors are more likely to have a sense of the “professional” dimensions of spiritual direction, which might include a formal ethical code (such as that provided by the Evangelical Spiritual Directors Association or the interreligious Spiritual Directors International ) and professional insurance, as well as accepting or requiring payment from directees.
  • A less formal director may or may not be aware of such considerations, and will tend not to introduce them into the direction relationships (often seeing them as a hindrance).
  • A more directive approach will tend to include more statements of what the director is discerning, often a more prominent teaching role by the director, and perhaps more authoritative assignment of spiritual practices to the directee.
  • The less directive approach consists primarily of a ministry of listening, with the director’s discernment focused on helping the directee discern. Statements by the director regarding her own discernment and teaching may occur, but they play a much less prominent role. Likewise, the director will often help the directee consider various spiritual practices and reflect on their use, but will rarely “assign” them in any sense stronger than suggesting them as helpful possibilities.

My own approach toward spiritual direction tends strongly toward the formal, non-directive approach. I approach spiritual guidance with a much more flexible stance, often engaging in approaches that might be considered informal spiritual direction or (less often) directive forms of spiritual direction (teaching a course in formation with required spiritual practices is such as example).

In my ministry as a spiritual director, however, I only move from the formal and non-directive stance when I have a strong sense that doing so would be helpful to the directee in this particular instance, and I return to the default stance as soon as possible.  Such an orientation is helpful in preserving the distinctive approach of spiritual direction, rather than moving more broadly into spiritual guidance (or into another activity entirely). It is particularly helpful for directors in training to be formed in such an approach, as it is easier to move from the formal and non-directive to the informal and directive (which seem to be the default approaches of most forms of spiritual guidance) than the other way around.

Clarifying spiritual direction as a relatively formal and non-directive ministry of spiritual guidance greatly simplifies the discussion of spiritual direction, allowing for agreement on what exactly is being discussed. It also highlights the intentionality of the ministry, that is the direct focus of the spiritual director on spiritual direction per se. Movement from this model can then be seen as an exception, and that exception can be considered as either intentional flexibility or an unintentional deviation from the model.

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