Spiritual directors are not preachers, missionaries or evangelists. There is no place for proselytizing in this practice.
Our ethical standard goes even beyond the Golden Rule: Do to others as you would have done to you. Spiritual directors are to treat clients as they wish to be treated. Our clients, companions, directees (all those names fit) are to be seen as mature, whole people who are on their own spiritual journey — if that’s what they want to call it — and our only job is to assist them in discovering where they feel invited to go on that journey.
I bring this up because there is an on-going social media discussion about people who are giving up completely on Christianity because aspects of their fundamentalist or evangelical background no longer fit for them. Some Christians — both progressive and evangelical — criticize these folks for quitting church altogether rather than giving other forms of Christianity a chance.
High-profile red-letter Christian, Shane Claiborne, has offered an image of those “no religion” former Christians. It’s biblical, but it’s not pretty.
He’s saying if you jump ship, you’ll drown. As in…no hope for you.
Meanwhile, ex-Christians and exvangelicals (who may or may not be Christians) are rejecting that image saying they’d rather “jump the ark” because, guess what? They are “not your mission field.”
“Not your mission field” is a phrase every spiritual director should ponder. The people we work with, we listen to, we help with discernment, are perfectly capable of determining whether to stay on the ark or jump — and swim! Not all who jump ship drown.
Assuming that everyone who is not a Christian is drowning in apostasy has a long and ugly history in Christianity. Those of us Christians working as spiritual companions or guides must be especially aware of our Christian Privilege — the assumption that Christianity is the norm and everything else is suspect.
Seeing people as a mission field to be converted is basically saying it’s “my way or the highway,” even if the way we do it is ever so subtle.
It’s a lesson I have learned the hard way. Being a proud member of the United Church of Christ (UCC), one of the open and affirming, progressive denominations of Christianity, I used to invite those who had been abused by other churches to be part of my wonderful denomination. Then, as I read stories of spiritual, emotional and sexual abuse of people by church leaders (from a variety of denominations) on a private exvangelical Facebook group, I noticed a high profile exvangelical, Dr. Crissy Stroop, chastising those of us doing this “come on over and be with us — we’re nice Christians” proselytizing. She has written a lot about how ex-Christians are not a mission field for progressive Christians.
Dr. Stroop writes, “the very act proselytizing entails objectification of the individuals targeted. The perception that others need conversion indicates that they are less than, that the one who knows “the Truth” has a right, essentially, to colonize those others.”i
It stung at first because so many people in my denomination are happy Christian refugees from evangelical churches. They might even be there because someone invited them.
But is it really ethical and kind for a progressive Christian — or even an atheist — to market our way of life to someone who is clearly hurting, confused, and in need of reflection time? No. If they want to hear about progressive Christianity — or atheism — they will ask.
Would I want to be approached by someone of another tradition and persuaded to join them if I left progressive Christianity? No.
Spiritual directors who are committed to doing no harm must rein in any instinct we have to push our clients in any way. Proselytizing is not appropriate. We who believe in a God as source of life must let that source of life do the transforming — along with the clear consent of the person asking for transformation. Spiritual directors are sometimes seen as the metaphorical midwife, helping the directee give birth to transformation which is the work of God. We can encourage, be in solidarity, wipe their forehead, pray for them and witness the event. But we don’t make the baby.
The church can be kind of like Noah’s ark. It IS a mess sometimes. It’s each person’s choice what they do with that reality. And, the church needs to own up to its mess and clean out the ark if it wants people to stop jumping ship.
Teresa Blythe is a full-time spiritual director and author of Spiritual Direction 101: The Basics of Spiritual Guidance. She has openings for spiritual direction via phone, Skype, Zoom or in person in downtown Phoenix, AZ. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at www.teresablythe.net.