What Do Spiritual Directors Actually Do?
It is not unusual, when some asks me what I do, for their next question to be What is a spiritual director? or What do spiritual directors 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. We do not really know 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 does 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 church. Other people seem to assume they can make their case to me and I will tell them what to do.
Spiritual directors are not substitutes for a minister or a church. I do not have the answers to many 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 the irony. I talk with people about a lot of things many of us do not see as particularly spiritual and I work hard not to be too directive.
The idea of 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 this direction was focused on particular questions while some developed into ongoing relationships.
There are now many people who are not ministers and have been trained and certified as spiritual directors.
What Makes Someone a Good Spiritual Director?
Each of us is a unique person, and each spiritual director has their own approach to what they do.
I believe the first essential element of good 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 space. It is not my responsibility to solve their problems or make them feel good. We share a space where we can be honest with each other and I listen to what they have to say.
Another essential part of being a good spiritual director is asking questions which are insightful.
As a recovering attorney, I needed to learn how not to cross examine people in my spiritual direction training.
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 good spiritual director is recognizing 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 places or days on the calendar are more spiritual than others.
A good spiritual director appreciates all of life is spiritual and nothing is excluded.
Finding Your Spiritual Director
There are many ways we can look for a spiritual director.
Some people look online while others ask their friends. There are associations like Spiritual Directors International which have directories of their members.
There are significant things for us to remember no matter how we carry out our search.
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 feel like before choosing to participate.
Many of us approach spiritual directors because we have questions we would like to address. In addition to finding a conversational connection, we need to be comfortable asking our questions.
I think it is important to understand what questions we have before we talk with any spiritual director. Clarifying what someone’s questions are is a helpful step when I talk with a potential client.
We are hoping to find someone who will help us explore the deepest truths of our lives.
What Do People Look For in Spiritual Directors?
Each of us has our own reasons for seeking a spiritual director. 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.
Many of us need to be reminded all of life is spiritual.
Spiritual direction is not about correcting us or telling us how to live. A spiritual director is not 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 the spiritual in our everyday lives.
Spiritual directors are not magicians. They help us recognize what we might have forgotten.
What would we like to talk about with a spiritual director today?
How could finding a good spiritual director 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 email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.