Part of every spiritual director’s training is (or should be) education in the art of spiritual discernment. In addition to the work I do with people exploring their spiritual path, I also serve as a discernment coach for some individuals and groups. That is, they have a particular question facing them—a choice, a change or perhaps even a vote—and they want to check in with a spiritual director to discuss their options and how God’s Spirit might be leading them in the matter.
Let me first define spiritual discernment as the careful sifting and sorting of facts, feelings, intuition, prayer insights and bodily senses around a particular important choice in order to determine where you believe the Spirit is leading you.
A discernment coach is useful as a non-attached, neutral party to help you come to clarity around your question. When a spiritual director works as a discernment coach, he or she will probably do some light instruction with you around key principles of discernment from Christian history and tradition. For example, one key principle handed down to us from Ignatius of Loyola—founder of the Jesuit Catholic order—is that in order to discover God’s desire for you around a particular choice you must first allow yourself to be open to wherever God may lead you. Jesuits call this developing “holy indifference.” A spiritual director can help you determine how open you are to all options, and if the answer from you is “not very open to one option,” then together you can talk about your blocks and fears and how you might pray to become open. This is not to say that you have to choose the fearful option in order to prove something to God or yourself. It simply means you need to look at those fears with clear eyes before you make a decision.
A discernment coach is also useful in giving you an honest appraisal of what he or she hears as you talk about particular options. One good example is a time in my life when I was considering two different paths. One was to work as a discernment coach and the other was to become a part-time campus minister. I believed I was more drawn to being a campus minister as it provided regular income and a chance to work with young adults, a population I adore. I called a spiritual director friend of mine who is gifted in discernment and talked about both options. She said candidly: “When you talk about campus ministry, I don’t hear much excitement in your voice, but when you talk about discernment work, I do.” As perturbed as I was to hear that from her, I also knew she was right. I said no the campus ministry job and have since found many diverse ways to work with young adults.
Discernment coaches are especially valuable to boards, sessions, councils and leadership teams of churches and other faith based organizations. (Read this entry for more.) Many times we are called in to facilitate important, sometimes conflicted decision-making. Having that neutral, unattached facilitator who knows and practices key principles of discernment can help your group make a more spiritually informed decision.
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.