Though the practice we call spiritual direction has its roots in the monastic desert movement of Christianity it has flowered prolifically in the last 60 years. When I first heard of spiritual direction in 1987, there were only a handful of spiritual directors in Tucson and most were Catholic priests, former priests or sisters.
Thanks to Vatican II and its encouragement of ecumenical dialogue, Catholics and Protestants in the 70’s and 80’s were talking to one another—a lot—and were teaching side by side in the seminaries. This led to a rich cross-pollination of ideas about Christian spirituality. From this discussion, Protestant pastors and pastoral counselors learned about the largely Catholic practice of spiritual direction and an idea formed—what if spiritual direction were available among Protestants, too? That idea expanded further to ask—what if spiritual direction were available to lay people as well as clergy?
A small group of spiritual seekers from a variety of mainline denominations (including Roman Catholic) on the East Coast came together at the request of Episcopal priest Tilden Edwards for a retreat in the spring of 1973. That group evolved into a community of “pilgrims” calling itself Shalem, the Hebrew word for wholeness. Six years later the group had become a spirituality center at National Cathedral in Washington, DC and began offering classes in contemplative prayer and spiritual direction.
In 1989, Catholic sister Mary Anne Scofield of the Mercy Center Burlingame was part of a group of Roman Catholic spiritual directors who had noticed that the interest in spiritual direction was growing. She and her friends formed a discernment circle to consider how spiritual directors might network with one another and support one another. One year later, the Mercy Center Conference gathered 90 spiritual directors together for a widening of the circle of discernment. Eventually from that came the Mercy Center’s training program for spiritual directors and a variety of other program in spiritual formation.
By 1991, Spiritual Directors International was born as a non-profit organization for networking and support of spiritual directors in the US and abroad. The group hired a San Francisco-based Presbyterian pastor and spiritual director, Jeff Gaines, as a part-time executive director, and he helped SDI create its web presence which has allowed many more people to get to know SDI and spiritual direction.
There are now hundreds of education, formation and training (EFT) programs for spiritual directors listed on SDI’s web page about EFT, found here.
If you are looking for a “best of” list you will be quite disappointed. SDI doesn’t do that because the programs cannot all be compared. They are each slightly different.
I will name a few that are long-standing and well respected. They include: the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, DC , the Program in Spiritual Direction Formation at the Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA , the Dominican Center For Religious Development in Cambridge, MA , Upper Room Ministries Living Prayer Center in Nashville , the Center for Spirituality and Justice at Fordham University, Bronx, NY , the Institute for Spiritual Leadership in Chicago, and the Hesychia School of Spiritual Direction in Tucson, AZ (the program I administer).
The best place to start your search for a program is SDI’s website. The next step would be to talk with any and all spiritual directors you know and ask them where they got their training and how they feel about the education they received.
Finding the right program is a discernment process, so give it time, prayer and attention.
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.