What Is Spiritual Direction?

by MaryKate Morse, PhD

Spiritual direction is a relational process in which a trained spiritual guide listens to and companions someone who desires a deeper relationship with God. For Christians, this means becoming more like Jesus Christ. Richard Foster defines spiritual direction as “an interpersonal relationship in which we learn how to grow, live, and love in the spiritual life.”

The spiritual director is trained to listen, discern and sometimes ask questions. The task of the spiritual director is to diligently pay attention to the person’s story and the Spirit, and to encourage spiritual growth. Spiritual direction is not counseling, friendship, mentoring, teaching nor discipling. It is the commitment to discover what God is doing in a person’s life and to help that person come closer to Christ.

A Critical Need for Spiritual Mentoring

Kurtley Knight leading service at the Church of the Vine, Newberg, Oregon

Spiritual direction is especially critical for Christian leaders, lay and professional. Today the long-term health and success of spiritual leaders is not likely. Robert Elkington writes that “three pastors leave the ministry in North America every day and significant numbers experience ministry burnout due to inordinate ministry demands.” The usual methods of Christian education, discipleship and theological education for preparing people to lifelong faithfulness are not enough in our complex and disrupted world.

Seminaries and churches often focus on knowing the Bible, understanding theological fundamentals, and adhering to a particular social agenda and a certain lifestyle. However, Jesus and the early church prepared people quite differently from how it is being done now. The missing critical factor is spiritual mentoring from a wise and mature guide in a confidential setting over a period of time.

Historical Context

Throughout Scriptures and the history of the church the seeking of wisdom and input of a spiritually mature person was normal. In the fourth century John Cassian, the theologian, even developed guidelines for spiritual direction.

In the first centuries of the church, those gifted in discernment and listening to the Holy Spirit and guiding others were called “spiritual directors.”

From the first century church to today – though not always widely used by the institutional church – spiritual direction was a real thing. Usually it was reserved for persons in ministry, but other spiritually hungry individuals could also seek out spiritual guides.

In the first centuries of the church, those gifted in discernment and listening to the Holy Spirit and guiding others were called “spiritual directors.” Today, Christian spiritual directors are also called and specifically trained to be spiritual listening companions and guides for anyone who wants to become more like Christ. The church isn’t usually set up to provide confidential space for individual journeys, and many churches have a set worldview with a theological and social agenda.

Spiritual direction is a relational and incarnational journey rather than a theological one, but this does not dismiss the importance of theology. Having a theological and biblical understanding of one’s faith is fundamental. Spiritual direction does not replace the responsibility to have a biblical and theological foundation to one’s understanding of Jesus Christ.

A Spiritual Director’s Focus

Spiritual directors focus on a person’s relationship with God and the practices that nourish that relationship. It is normal during one’s spiritual development to want to reflect on one’s story and deepest spiritual desires. This is especially natural when a person experiences a crisis or disruption, and they feel confused or stuck.

A spiritual director is trained to put aside his or her own agenda and assumptions, distractions and thoughts in order to fully listen on several planes to you and the Spirit.

They want to process, to tell their story, and to have the input of someone who is listening to God on their behalf. Others have a yearning for more of Christ and the usual avenues are not helping them. Then some have a need for discernment about life direction, and they desire more support and guidance.

If you are one of those persons interested in finding a spiritual director, what might you expect? Primarily, a spiritual director isn’t there to “direct” you but to “companion” you, which is why many spiritual directors today refer to themselves as spiritual companions.

A spiritual director’s primary responsibility is to hold you in prayer and listen deeply with you. Not only do they listen as you share whatever is stirring in your heart, they listen on your behalf to the Holy Spirit. A spiritual director is trained to put aside his or her own agenda and assumptions, distractions and thoughts in order to fully listen on several planes to you and the Spirit.

Two people in deep conversation

The Process and Practice

An hour with a spiritual director has its own process. Before the time, the director would have prepared by sitting quietly with Christ so that she or he is ready to bring their full attention to you. You, the directee, would have prepared by reviewing your journals or thoughts and by praying to discern what you would like to bring into the listening sanctuary of the director’s space. The actual hour usually begins with centering prayer to prepare you both to listen without distractions.

The sanctuary space of spiritual direction invites you to bring your real self to someone who will accept what you bring as a holy opportunity to experience the love of God and to grow.

The responsibility for how the time is used is yours, the directee. The director, on the other hand, might ask questions, might refer to previous conversations or insights, or offer guidance to help with your spiritual development. However, their primary role is to give you the opportunity to tell your story without shame or fear. The sanctuary space of spiritual direction invites you to bring your real self to someone who will accept what you bring as a holy opportunity to experience the love of God and to grow. Everything is 100% confidential and sacred within the spiritual direction space. (However, if you are threatening suicide or are abusing in any way children or the elderly, the spiritual director is ethically and professionally required to inform the appropriate authorities.)

Spiritual direction can take many forms. Traditionally, it is done one on one, but there is also group spiritual direction. A trained group spiritual director might lead a specific type of group such as church planters or parents of small children. Group spiritual direction can also be simply a gathering of people who commit to listen and share even when they might not know each other.

Finding a Spiritual Director

There are three basic ways to find a spiritual director.

  1. Ask people you trust for suggestions

    With so many training centers and seminaries training spiritual directors, finding an evangelical spiritual director is not difficult. Today there are Christian spiritual directors almost everywhere. And spiritual direction no longer needs to be local. Most spiritual directors have in-person and virtual appointment times.

  2. Search online

    There are directories of spiritual directors such as Spiritual Directors International (multi-faith site, so pay attention to their credentials and how they describe their practice), the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, or the Evangelical Spiritual Directors Association. There are also many smaller centers such as the Companioning Center and Restoration Ministries. Individual directors often set up websites such as Becky Grisell, Tiffanie Wilson or Mike Larson.

    If you get a recommendation, do some research first. Usually your first meeting is to discern if this is a mutual calling and fit. Spiritual directors are professionals called to offer this service. Therefore, there is a fee, usually on a sliding scale or negotiable, but nevertheless, it is their ministry and they should be paid for their labor.

  3. Check theological schools near you

    At Portland Seminary, we’ve been training spiritual directors since 2004. Many other seminaries do as well and could recommend spiritual directors. Also, if you’re thinking perhaps God is calling you to prepare as a spiritual director, you can explore spiritual direction training programs.

    Now more than ever in our confusing times, spiritual direction is a necessary spiritual resource. The Holy Spirit is igniting interest in this holy and forgotten profession. Every spiritual leader should have a director, and every faithful soul who wants to become more like Christ would benefit from having a spiritual director.

MaryKate Morse is executive dean for Portland Seminary and lead mentor for the seminary’s Doctor of Ministry in Leadership and Spiritual Formation program.

Spiritual Direction Programs at Portland Seminary

If you're interested in formal spiritual direction training, check out Portland Seminary's degrees and certifications offered both online and in Portland, Oregon:

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