What Does a Spiritual Director Do?
It is not unusual, when anyone asks me about what I do, for their next question to be What is spiritual direction? or What does a spiritual director do?
Not many kids say they want to be a spiritual director when they grow up. Most of us have never heard of someone being a spiritual director and we do not understand what it means.
When I explain spiritual direction to people it tends to spark more questions in them. Some people want to know if I am a minister, or why someone would not just talk to a minister. There are people who see me as a resource they can use when they have questions about theology or religion. Other people seem to assume they can tell me about their problems and I will tell them what to do.
A spiritual director is not a substitute for a minister or a church. I do not have the answers to most theological questions, and have quite a few questions myself. It is rare I tell people what they should do.
One of my favorite things about the job title of spiritual director is its irony. I talk with people about a lot of things many of us do not see as spiritual and I work hard not to be particularly directive.
Spiritual direction has a long history. Traditionally, people would seek out a member of the clergy or a monk and tell them their stories. The director would suggest ways they could approach specific problems or issues. Some of these relationships were focused on particular questions, while some continued on an ongoing basis.
There are now many people who are not ministers who have been trained and certified as spiritual directors.
What Makes Someone Good at Spiritual Direction?
Each of us is a unique person, and each spiritual director has their own personal approach to what they do.
I believe the first essential element of spiritual direction is listening well.
For me, practicing spiritual direction is part of my path toward contemplative spirituality. I did not become interested in being a spiritual director until I began to practice listening to sacred stillness.
When I meet with someone for spiritual direction my role is creating and protecting our sacred time and space. It is not my responsibility to solve their problems or make them feel good. We share time and a space where we can be honest with each other. I listen to what they have to say.
Another essential part of my practice of spiritual direction is asking questions which are insightful.
As a recovering attorney, I needed to learn many things in my spiritual direction training. One of the first was how not to cross-examine people.
Now I try to ask questions which get underneath the way someone hears their own story. It helps me to appreciate I am listening to a person’s story for the first time. They may have grown tired of their own story or closed their eyes to significant parts of their lives.
I can hear their stories with fresh ears and recognize things they may have missed.
A third significant part of being a spiritual director is remembering all of life is spiritual.
We too often allow expectations or ideas about what is spiritual and what is not to blind us to spiritual life. Many of us assume certain days or particular kinds of places are more spiritual than others.
A good spiritual director appreciates all of life is spiritual and nothing is excluded.
Finding a Spiritual Director
There are many ways to look for spiritual direction.
Some people look online while others ask their friends. There are associations like Spiritual Directors International which have directories of their members.
No matter how we carry out our search, there are significant things for us to remember as we look.
We are not necessarily trying to find the best educated spiritual director or the one with the most qualifications. The practice of spiritual direction is, at its heart, a relationship. It is important for us to find a spiritual director we can trust and with whom we can be honest.
Spiritual direction is essentially an ongoing conversation. I believe it is important to experience what the conversation will be like for us before choosing whether, and how, to participate.
Many of us seek spiritual direction because we have questions we would like to answer. In addition to finding a conversational connection, we need to be comfortable asking our questions.
It is helpful for us to understand what questions we have before we talk with a spiritual director. Clarifying what someone’s questions are is a helpful step when I talk with someone about spiritual direction.
We are hoping to find someone who will help us recognize new things in parts of our lives.
Why Do People Want Spiritual Direction?
Each of us has our own reasons for seeking spiritual direction. Some of us want an opportunity to discover and explore the deepest truths of our lives. Other people find it helpful to have someone with whom to talk things through. When we hear something or read something we want to be able to work through it with another person.
Some of us want to find someone who will listen to us and ask insightful questions.
We may need to be reminded all of life is spiritual.
Spiritual direction is not about fixing or correcting us, or telling us how to live. A spiritual director is not necessarily like our friend who pokes holes in our arguments and shows us where we are wrong.
Many of us are seeking a spiritual director to be a companion and guide on our journey. Each of us has our own preferences and expectations. We are looking for a relationship which will help us explore spiritual life in our everyday lives.
What would we talk to a spiritual director about today?
How could spiritual direction be helpful to us this week?
[Image by Portland Seminary]
Greg Richardson is a spiritual director in Southern California. He is a recovering assistant district attorney and associate university professor, and is a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.