Boundaries in Spiritual Direction

Spiritual directors must be clear about limits. Boundaries are important for everyone, but for those of us in the helping professions, they are crucial. It is most important that the spiritual director know within himself or herself where those boundaries are set.

A boundary is an external limit placed on a person, object, space or area. It determines how distant or close we become to another person. All human beings get to decide where we set our limits, our boundaries. As spiritual directors we handle intimate personal content from directees, and being the listener (and not the sharer) creates a necessary power differential. We can and must hold the boundary since we are the more powerful person in the direction relationship.

For example, let’s say a directee feels very close to us and asks us to give her a ride to the doctor’s office one day because she lacks transportation or friends to help her out. Good boundaries dictate that we be spiritual directors and not complimentary taxi drivers, nor are we a personal friend. Good boundaries require us to politely decline (in most cases—there are always exceptions).

People have physical boundaries so that if someone does not want to be touched by another person, they can set that boundary. It is for that reason that touch, other than a simple handshake, is not initiated by the spiritual director. If a directee wants a hug, it is up to them to request it or reach out for it. Spiritual directors are advised to never initiate touch as intimate as a hug.

We set boundaries around time. Spiritual direction is usually an hour long unless otherwise indicated. When that hour is up, we end the session (our boundary) so that others may have their sessions begin on time. Even if we don’t have another session coming up, it is wise to honor the time boundary. Perhaps the directee has somewhere else to be, or maybe we need the time alone to “regroup” after a session.

We set boundaries about contact outside of spiritual direction sessions. Spiritual directors don’t have to go so far as to spell all this out on paper beforehand, but it is wise to have a sense within yourself of what you will do if a directee begins to call you on the phone or email you frequently, invites you out to dinner or other activities or otherwise attempts to engage you outside of the direction relationship. By the same token, you as director need to “let go” of the directee between sessions. Praying for them is your job, not checking in with them frequently on email, phone or text. Whenever you or they feel a need to go outside the direction relationship, it is time for a frank talk about boundaries. And remember, everyone always has the right to say “no” regardless of how the other person handles that boundary. If someone gets mad at you for setting a boundary (a common reaction), then you need the interior strength to let that be. If their anger or anxiety upsets you, it’s time for you to visit your supervisor.

Professional boundaries exist to protect both the spiritual director and the directee. For more information about how boundaries are ordinarily set in the spiritual direction relationship, the booklet, A Code of Ethics for Spiritual Directors from Dove publications has a wealth of information covering a number of ethical boundary situations.

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.

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