Warning Signs in Spiritual Direction

In spiritual direction as in much of life, you have to be careful. While most spiritual directors (I believe) are highly ethical and want only the best for you, there have been cases of abuse by spiritual directors. That is why I recommend everyone interested in spiritual direction (directors and directees) obtain and read a copy of the small booklet A Code of Ethics for Spiritual Directors so that you know what is and is not acceptable behavior by a spiritual director.

Warning signs that you are in an unhealthy relationship include:

Director desires a more personal relationship with you. Spiritual directors are not your friends. We are friendly to you (I hope) but the relationship contains some power dynamics that are not conducive to friendship. Because the director listens as you share your deepest thoughts and reflections but does not self-disclose to you, they are in a position of power. It is the director’s responsibility to know that and refrain from using that power differential in an unhealthy way. Along the same lines, your director should not be someone you go into business ventures with, dine with regularly or attend social events with. Ideally, the direction relationship needs to be the only relationship you have with this person. Certain exceptions may apply in very small towns but any time you attempt a “dual relationship” with your spiritual director, you need to talk about the ethics and parameters, making sure no abuse of power takes place.

Director touches you in ways that make you uncomfortable. It is never appropriate for a spiritual director to become physically intimate with a directee. No romantic or sexual relationship between director and directee is ever considered ethical. So if your director appears to be making romantic or sexual advances, know that this is always wrong. Even if both of you are single and somewhat interested. As for appropriate touching between director and directee, a handshake is the gold standard. Hugs are questionable. If you, the directee, want to hug your spiritual director, then hold out your arms and request a hug. That’s OK. If you do not, then you should not be subjected to mandatory hugs by your director.  Talk to your director about any behavior on his or her part that makes you uncomfortable. If they do not change, move on.

Director desires a certain path for you. Of course spiritual directors want the best for our directees. But we have no way of knowing exactly what that path is. So if your director begins to push you to make certain choices or seems interested in only hearing you talk about particular options and not others, then you are headed for trouble. The first thing to do is confront your director about this (if you feel comfortable doing so). If it has gotten to the point where you feel you would be disappointing your director if you make a certain choice or talk about a particular subject, you need to make a change.  The director’s bias has become an abuse of power and has no place in your relationship. You are not there to please the director. Ever.

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
  • Jim Smith

    Teresa: Interesting reading. I especially agree with your points on refraining from any personal relationships. You have expressed my feelings about the ethical considerations of avoiding developing personal friendships in some other professions, too, such as your doctors. To a large degree that is why I also have some question about ordained clergy in parish ministry allowing friendships and social contacts to develop far beyond pastor-parishioner relationships that could become comprising. While we can be friends and in social settings, there always need to be the awareness that the friend/social relationship is different than relationships with non-members. To me, for this reason, my question of any clergy is “have you developed and nurtured personal friendships outside your church?” Also enjoy reading your postings. Jim

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

      Thanks, Jim. I think you raise a very pertinent issue about relationships for clergy. I read some clergy people’s facebook sites and I cringe at how they are sharing such personal information publicly as if everyone—including their parishoners—were their personal friend! I think Danger ahead!! I know it is hard for clergy to navigate such waters because they work so long and hard. It would be nice if every clergy person had a spiritual director and maybe even a supervisor to bring “case studies” to for continuing education and learning.