Spiritual Direction vs. Counseling

There are very real differences between spiritual direction and counseling (also known as therapy). You may be wondering which one is best for you in your current life situation. One thing we learn in spiritual direction training is that spiritual direction can be therapeutic but that doesn’t mean it is therapy! Just like therapy can be spiritually enriching without being spiritual direction. So it’s important to know the differences.

One obvious difference is that counseling generally takes place once a week or twice a month while most spiritual directors only see directees once a month.  Yes, this makes spiritual direction a little less expensive than therapy, however it would be foolish to substitute one for the other in order to save money! Spiritual directors are not trained or equipped to work with your personal problems in a goal-oriented or “fixing” mode. So if you have a crisis or a life issue in which you need help once a week—definitely seek out therapy. Spiritual directors encourage the once-a-month model so that our time together is a gentle “check-in” around experiences that have either drawn you closer to God or felt more like obstacles on your path.

Beyond that basic difference, spiritual directors are trained to focus on your spiritual questions—your deep longings, sacred experiences and your response to what is holy and meaningful in your life. While some therapists may bring a spiritual component to their work, spirituality would not be their main focus. Therapy is designed to help you work on thoughts, emotions and behaviors that impact your life and relationships. You may explore your past to see how it has influenced who you are today. Therapy may be problem-solving, goal-oriented and, at times, confrontational. If you need to dig into a personal problem in your life, therapy is exactly what you need.

If you need therapy, spiritual direction alone is inadequate. We are not trained to help you change behaviors or understand your psyche. Good spiritual directors know a bit about psychology but just enough to know when we are out of our league. You will only be discouraged if you try to substitute spiritual direction for therapy. Then again, if you choose therapy alone in order to explore your spiritual path you might also be disappointed.

Some people are in both therapy and spiritual direction. If you have a therapist who is interested in spirituality and willing to work in connection with your spiritual director (as I do), then you have the ideal situation. You can work on your psychological health with the therapist and connect that work with where you are on your spiritual path by sharing that with your spiritual director.

For more about spiritual direction as I practice it, check out my website. If you have questions or comments about the content of Spiritual Direction 101, please let me hear from you in the reply section below.

About Teresa Blythe
  • http://www.shawnmcnabbcounselling.com Shawn McNabb

    Hi Teresa,
    Thank-you for your clarification between therapy and spiritual interventions. Since graduate school I have always been intrigued by spirituality, especially my own connectedness to earth. It sounds like a valuable intervention could be a combination of a spiritual director and a therapist to promote valuable change and spiritual grounding.

  • http://imperfectfollower.blogspot.com NickD

    Someone told me that your spiritual director can’t be your counselor and vice versa, because there are legal or ethical problems with that…do you know anything about that? Thanks

    • http://www.teresablythe.net Teresa Blythe

      I don’t know if it is a legal problem to have a spiritual director as your counselor, but it muddies up the water. Which makes it an ethical dilemma. Some spiritual directors are also pastoral counselors and they use skills from both fields with one person. That is OK. But if you go to a spiritual director and expect counseling advice, diagnoses or goal-setting, then you are expecting too much. That is not our job. In fact, it is unethical for a spiritual director to pose or act as a counselor (unless they are that combo I just mentioned, which means they had training as a counselor and the state they are working in recognizes them as one).

      States regulate counseling so what you heard may be correct in some states. I just happen to think it’s a bad idea. I personally need both a spiritual director and a therapist in my life for different reasons. Do they sometimes do or say the same things? Yes, because there is overlap. But I don’t ask my director the same questions I ask my therapist.

      I hope that sort of answers your question.